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FOCAL Views: Chipping away at democratic institutions

As world opinion came to support the popular revolutions toppling authoritarian Arab regimes, besieged Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi did catch one break as a small group of sympathetic Latin America leaders turned a blind eye on his violent crackdown. Among the region’s four recipients of the ignominious Moammar Ghadafi International Human Rights Prize —Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega and Evo Morales— only the latter has come out against the violence in Tripoli.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was at first uncharacteristically quiet about his ally’s plight before openly supporting the Libyan government and offering his services as a mediator in the political crisis. For his part, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega came out for the embattled Libyan leader over several phone conversations, while Cuba’s Fidel Castro used the rhetorical prop of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion for oil control as an excuse to support Ghadafi.

Ghadafi’s Latin American allies are also, coincidentally, those accused of concentrating power in executive branches —if not in the same repressive manner. Even though the level of political frustration in Latin America pales compared with that in the Middle East, leaders in the region are not impervious to popular discontent: a nervous Chávez recently made some better-safe-than-sorry concessions to opposition students on a hunger strike, while Cuba took the opposite approach, cracking down on dissidents with 50 arrests in the lead-up to the one-year anniversary of jailed hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death on Feb. 23, 2010.

Despite the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter’s declaration that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it,” some of its 34 signatories have been chipping away at their democratic institutions. Leaders have encroached on the space of the judiciary, concentrated executive power and tinkered with the constitution to extend presidential term limits once elected.

In a 2009 referendum, Chávez cemented his grip on power when citizens voted to eliminate term limits for all public officials. More recently, his “enabling law” —rushed through the outgoing Venezuelan parliament after an opposition coalition won 52 per cent of the vote in the September 2010 legislative elections— has allowed him to rule by decree on a number of issues for 18 months, which the Organization of American States (OAS) has said contravenes the Charter.

In Nicaragua, a 2009 Supreme Court ruling overturned the previous ban on consecutive re-election. Ortega, who governed from 1985-1990, was re-elected in 2006 and without this decision, would not be eligible to run in the 2011 fall election. In a move that raised concern, several of the judges who ruled on this case as well as members of the national election council who accepted Ortega’s 2011 candidacy had their terms extended.

Ecuador, meanwhile, is planning a referendum of its own that could consolidate President Rafael Correa’s power at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. The May 7 vote’s proposals deal with issues from casinos to cockfighting to constitutional reform. While supporters say it will reinforce anti-corruption efforts, opposition groups assert it will give the president more power to appoint judges. Polarization in this country is cause for concern in light of the state of emergency declared during the September 2010 police protests. Three consecutive Ecuadorian presidents were ousted in the decade before Correa took power.

This lack of respect for institutions is not uniform throughout the region. For instance, there was a victory for the rule of law in Colombia when a proposed referendum on constitutional change to allow outgoing President Álvaro Uribe a third consecutive term was rejected by the courts in February 2010 and the decision was adhered to without any protests.

In its Americas strategy, Canada has emphasized the reinforcement of democratic governance as a central pillar of its regional policy. Citing its longstanding participation in the OAS and support for multilateralism, the strategy calls for “fostering accountable public institutions and the rule of law, and promoting human rights.” Canadian engagement on Colombia and Honduras contributed to this goal, but it appears more may be needed.

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