On 22 April 1996, President Juan Carlos Wasmosy of Paraguay asked the army commander, General Lino César Oviedo, to resign. The general’s refusal to comply with the presidential order precipitated a constitutional crisis that threatened to interrupt Paraguay’s fragile democratic transition. It also threatened to bring to an end a remarkable record of democratic governance in the Western Hemisphere, one that has been characterized by a strong collective defense of democracy by the nations of the region through the Organization of American States (OAS).
With the exception of Cuba, all of the countries of the Western Hemisphere are governed by leaders who came to power through more or less fair and transparent elections. Never before have so many countries in the Americas been as close to living up to the republican and democratic ideals promulgated in the early decades of the nineteenth century by the architects of Latin American independence, who were intent on breaking with the monarchical past. Nor has the region experienced such a long period without severe and prolonged democratic breakdowns. The only successful coup d’état to take place in the hemisphere since the dawn of the current era of democratic governance in the 1980s was a 1991 coup in Haiti that was followed by the restoration of constitutional president Jean-Bertrand Aristide through the actions of a U.S.-led multinational force.
This does not mean that democracy has been fully consolidated in the [End Page 43] Americas or that democratic governance in the hemisphere has not encountered serious challenges. Although some countries in the region have long traditions of democratic rule, others are experimenting with it for the first time. In many countries, the basic institutions of democracy, including the holding of fair and transparent elections, are fragile. In others, the lack of effective judicial systems and conformity to the rule of law leaves citizens vulnerable to corruption and the abuse of power. Many nations are experiencing the disillusionment with party politics that has become a worldwide trend as weak and ineffective parties tarnish the image of legislatures and executives. In addition to the coup in Haiti, democratic rule has been suspended recently in Peru and Guatemala, and threats of military insubordination have been voiced in Venezuela.
Yet most people in the region see democracy as a far better alternative than a return to the corrupt and ineffective authoritarian regimes of the past. For the first time in history, the problems of societies are being addressed within democratic frameworks. Two Latin American heads of state—Brazil’s Fernando Collor de Mello and Venezuela’s Carlos Andrés Pérez—have been impeached for corruption and replaced by constitutionally designated successors. In the past, comparable allegations would have encouraged military coups.
Nor is the promotion and defense of democracy strictly an internal matter. In this new era of democratic governance, the nations of the hemisphere have affirmed their collective commitment to the preservation of democratic institutions. Although democratic values have been enshrined in documents of the inter-American system dating back to the early twentieth century, the defense of democracy in the region has in the past taken a back seat to other considerations. 1 A turning point came in June 1991 when the member nations of the OAS met in Santiago, Chile, to sign a “Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System,” which declared their “firm political commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and representative democracy, as indispensable conditions for the stability, peace, and development of the region.”
The Santiago Commitment was followed by the adoption of Resolution 1080 on representative democracy, which instructs the OAS secretary-general to “call for the immediate convocation of a meeting of the Permanent Council in the event of any occurrences giving rise to the sudden or irregular interruption of the democratic political institutional process or of the legitimate exercise of power by the democratically elected government of any of the Organization’s member states.” The Council members are to examine the situation and decide whether to convene a meeting of foreign ministers or a special session of...