In the wake of Wednesday’s storming of the US Capitol by the Proud Boys and other rightwing mobs and militia, shocked international observers and some U.S. politicians began referring to the country as a “banana republic”.
The Western hemisphere actually designed a process to collectively defend against threats to democracy like this one: the Inter-American Democratic Charter. This Charter could be invoked now to warn about the dangerous precedent set by an elected president refusing to accept the results of an electoral defeat.
Signed in Lima, Peru by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and 33 other members of the Organization of American States on September 11, 2001 – the same day the World Trade Towers were attacked in New York – the Democratic Charter was the product of abuses by the Albert Fujimori government in Peru, starting with his dissolution of Congress in 1992 and ending with his unconstitutional run for a third term in 2000.
After his ouster, Peruvians proposed the Democratic Charter to respond not only to classic threats against sitting elected leaders, such as military coups, but also threats to democracy from elected leaders, such as refusing to recognize the separation of powers or refusing to accept term limits or election results.
The Democratic Charter spells out essential elements of representative democracy, including the separation of powers and independence of branches, human rights, elections, rule of law and transparency. If one of those elements is violated, the Charter lays out a roadmap for the hemisphere to help a country restore the democratic order.
The Democratic Charter was first used in reaction to the short-lived coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002, when the OAS foreign ministers condemned the alteration of the constitutional regime and sent the Secretary General on a fact-finding mission to help restore democracy. Article 17 says that a country at risk can itself request assistance, as the Nicaraguan president did in 2005 when the Congress was attempting to impeach him in a political contest. Article 20 says that any member state or the Secretary General can call a meeting of the Permanent Council ambassadors if they see a potential threat in a member country to the essential elements mentioned above.
The Permanent Council then assesses the situation and decides by majority vote if an alteration has taken place and what action to take – such as diplomatic efforts to facilitate dialogue or mediation or, if the situation remains unresolved, a special meeting of the General Assembly of foreign ministers. The General Assembly can decide to continue diplomatic initiatives, but it can also suspend a country from membership with a two-thirds vote.
Since the November 3 election, President Trump has engaged in elements of a 'self-coup' (auto-golpe) similar to what we have seen in Latin America when a president rejects the authority of other constitutional bodies in an attempt to bolster his own power. Although Trump did not try to close Congress, as Alberto Fujimori did in Peru, and he does not have the support of the military in asserting his authoritarian impulses, he turned to the levers he thought he could control to extend his mandate: he enlisted the support of some members of Congress to reject the electoral college votes, pressured state election officials and state legislatures to overturn the results of their own state elections, and incited mob violence to interrupt the certification of his opponent’s electoral victory.
The shocking violent vandalism of the U.S. Capitol was controlled and Joe Biden’s election was certified. Trump has declared he will allow a transition. Thus, many would say, it is just two more weeks, let’s just ride it out. But the damage is much deeper and longer-term. Trump has destroyed the confidence of millions of Americans in the electoral process and in the very legitimacy and authority of government. If his actions go unpunished, the U.S. Congress and government would be setting a dangerous precedent for future leaders to ride rough-shod over any challenges to their authority.
Invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter may be symbolic, but it reflects a commitment the United States made with the rest of this hemisphere. Since its signing, the U.S. has played the paternalistic role of the democratic “big brother”, ready to step in to show others how democracy is done. But the United States is not exceptional – these events have made only too visible the basic fact that democracy is fragile and demands constant vigilance and principled commitment. A debate and resolution with the OAS to recognize the United States' vulnerabilities could motivate Americans to courageously address the underlying inequities and structural deficiencies that weaken rather than make U.S. democracy more resilient.
(Jennifer McCoy and Henry (Chip) Carey are professors of political science at Georgia State University in Atlanta who have extensive experience of working in Latin America.)