“The Handshake Summit” and the breakdown of the Americas’ democratic rights regime

By Jean Daudelin

In Panama this week, Raul Castro and Barack Obama will meet and shake hands. Their symbolic encounter will add a superfluous nail on the rotting coffin of the Cold War. This pointless gesture will likely be the climax of the Seventh Summit of the Americas. Sound and perhaps even fury won’t be lacking, but real action, on anything, is most unlikely.

Since 1994, the “Summit Process” has progressively lost its relevance. Originally, it embodied regional efforts around two big endeavours: the economic integration of the Western Hemisphere, and the consolidation of the democracies that were emerging from decades of military rule. By the turn of the century, a lack of will in Washington along with Argentina and Brazil’s opposition to free trade had combined to kill the Free Trade Area of the Americas. All economic issues were pushed off the Summit Process agenda. This week’s meeting in Panama now buries the political and human rights component of the project. By next week, nothing of substance should be left.

Signs of the time, the main reasons for such a development have little to do with United States. The rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela implied the emergence of a left-wing authoritarian model led by a charismatic and ambitious leader keen on using his country’s massive oil wealth to promote himself and his “model” in the region. Chavez’ template directly challenged the liberal consensus embodied in the OAS Democracy Charter, the only really significant achievement of the Summit Process. “Substantive” and “popular” democracy now mattered more than electoral technicalities or “abstract” press freedom, and Chavez Venezuela showed the way, with the systematic and sometimes violent harassment of the opposition and increasingly strict constraints on independent media.

This should not have doomed the regime. Indeed, its moment of glory had precisely taken place in Venezuela where, in 2002, a military coup against Chavez had been roundly condemned by the region’s governments. In the face of hesitations from Canada and the United States and invoking the Charter, Brazil under Fernando Henrique Cardoso took the lead as the whole region made it clear to the conspirators that no recognition would be forthcoming, which helped cut their wings and bring Chavez back. A few months later, however, Cardoso was out and Lula and his Workers’ Party in, with a much more flexible attitude towards challenges to liberal democracy, as long as they came from the Left. Strong stands were taken against conservative coups or quasi-coups—in Paraguay and Honduras—but nothing was heard about democratic rights violations in Cuba or Venezuela.

The Panama Summit closes the loop as Cuba is re-admitted, with US acquiescence, into the big Inter-American family, in spite of its utter lack of democratic credentials. Venezuela, where the repression of non-violent political opposition has long been bad and is now getting worse, similarly won’t see its human rights record questioned by fellow Latin American governments. In fact, it will present itself as a victim of US destabilization attempts, a line of argument broadly accepted in the region. The freezing of the US-based assets of seven (!) Venezuelan officials has already been roundly condemned by the various groupings of Latin American governments. The colossal ineptitude of the US move is undeniable. Not only was the manoeuver hopeless in the face of a regime whose survival is at stake, but the freezing of foreign officials’ assets can only be legally justified when their government represents a threat to the national security of the United States, an argument that is beyond preposterous. The move’s manipulation by the Maduro government, in the last few weeks and now, no doubt, during the Summit, was also utterly predicable. Yet, the willingness of the region’s heads of state to play along is as lamentable as their reluctance to question his record.

In that context, paradoxically, the Canadian government finds itself in a comfortable position. Having signed free trade agreements with all the functional economies of the region and with the ability, on its own, to straighten relations with Colombia and Mexico by liberalizing its visa policy, it has very little at stake at the Summit. Canada has never cut off relations with Cuba and as a result, doesn’t have to “undo” counterproductive policies and in the same movement legitimate the Cubans’ return to the Inter-American family, as Obama will be doing. At the same time, it can also legitimately criticize both Cuba and Venezuela for their rights record and thus stand as the sole principled defender of the Inter-American democratic Charter. This is unlikely to have much impact in the region, but it may flatter the Harper government and also many Canadians’ sense of principled duty. Cheap thrill, but thrill nonetheless.

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