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Threats to Democracy: Zimbabwe and Venezuela As Case Studies of International Response

February 19, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

1. What We Know:

International intervention to protect democracy in countries facing internal threats has become an accepted practice over the past decade. Nonetheless, not all interventions are equally effective, particularly when they are uncoordinated or driven by ambitions other than the express desire to preserve democratic governance. Zimbabwe and Venezuela provide instructive case studies of international response to democratic crises.


The March 2002 election crisis in Zimbabwe was embedded in a larger effort by ZANU-PF, the country’s ruling party, to subvert the potential for democratic change. Although the election days themselves were largely peaceful, the main methods of election tampering took place in the months and weeks before the vote. These included moves by the government to instigate state violence, erode basic freedoms, undermine civil society institutions, and attempt to dismantle the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party. MDC supporters and members were brutalized and intimidated by war veterans and youth militias that undertook beatings, torture and murder. Voter rolls were manipulated and eligibility rules changed in advance of the election. The government refused to accredit 12,000 trained domestic monitors and observers and made international observation very difficult. In addition, the military made clear that it would step in to ensure President Robert Mugabe’s victory if he were to lose.

The regional response was driven by a number of political and strategic calculations. South Africa and other members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the relevant regional organization, feared that an MDC victory would promote a major military response engineered by ZANU-PF that would produce increased refugee flows and cause a further chill in investment interest in the region. In that sense, legitimizing the election to maintain stability became a strategic imperative. South Africa and other SADC nations may also have been reluctant to see the MDC gain power because of the precedent it would set for a labor-based political movement displacing a liberation movement, and the possible domino effect this could have in the region. In addition, regional leaders did not want to be perceived as doing the West’s bidding in Zimbabwe. The response, therefore, was minimal.

The SADC Council of Ministers declared the election to be free and fair. The SADC parliamentary forum, meanwhile, said that the election did not meet agreed regional standards for free and fair elections, but this was largely dismissed because the Council of Ministers carried greater official weight. The Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), which largely deferred to SADC as the main regional entity involved in the situation, called the poll a “transparent, credible, free and fair election.” South Africa and Nigeria, acting for the Commonwealth, initiated a mediation process aimed at bringing ZANU-PF and the MDC together to negotiate a solution to the post-election stand-off. The Zimbabwean government, however, sent instructions for its delegation to walk away from the talks in protest of the MDC’s legal suit against the government for election fraud. In response, instead of pressuring the government to return to the table, the mediators attempted to get the MDC to drop its lawsuit, which it refused to do. As a result, the mediation process collapsed and was not resuscitated.

The broader international community was much more vocal in its condemnation of the elections than were the regional bodies. Mugabe accused the international community of being motivated by colonialism, racism, and a desire to protect white farmers from land-redistribution efforts by his government. The expropriation of assets in Zimbabwe did heighten Western concerns because of its negative implications for outside investment interest in southern Africa as a whole. In that sense, the election crisis in Zimbabwe was given more international attention than other recent flawed elections in Africa. The international community’s response, however, was driven principally by standards which are used globally for judging elections; and the West focused its criticism on the technical aspects of the election itself and on the violations of basic human rights. Overall, the West did not expect Africa to cave on the issues of principle surrounding the election, and Africa, in turn, didn’t expect the West to be so strident in its condemnation of the election result.

Western attention to the crisis has dropped off with time. The Commonwealth agreed to a one-year suspension of Zimbabwe, which is coming due now, but after a year, its efforts have remained mired in fundamental divisions between South Africa, Nigeria and others on the one hand, and Britain, Australia and New Zealand on the other. The European Union imposed a set of targeted sanctions which now reach about 80 top leaders of ZANU-PF, but after a year they are also deeply divided over how to proceed, with countries pursuing their own bilateral moves. The United States imposed a travel ban on a large number of ZANU-PF officials, and has been promising since March 2002 to impose an asset freeze, but this second effort is hung up in an extended inter-agency process, and there has not been enough high-level interest in the Zimbabwe crisis after the initial U.S. bravado. In general, the West has not backed its original high-volume critique with enough sustained action or diplomacy, severely undermining its credibility and alienating southern Africa.


Concern both within and outside Venezuela with respect to President Hugo Chavez and his administration has been growing fairly steadily since Chavez was elected by popular vote in 1998 and then re-elected in 2000, due primarily to concerns about his methods of governing. The international community did not become involved, however, until a coup ousted Chavez briefly in April 2002. The beginning hours of the coup were obscured by false information emanating from Venezuela that Chavez had stepped down voluntarily. Nonetheless, the international community responded quickly and relatively cohesively due to the well developed regional bodies in Latin America.

The first response came from the RIO Group, which happened to be meeting at the Ministerial level at the time of the coup. It put forward condemnation of the alteration of the constitutional democratic order in Venezuela and asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to invoke Article 20 of the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter. (By Article 20, the OAS convenes a special session of its Permanent Council to assess a developing situation, to decide on action, and to use good offices or other mechanisms to correct the problem in question). The OAS Permanent Council subsequently put forward a declaration which condemned the alteration of the constitutional democratic order, but also mentioned a need for the restoration of “full democracy” in Venezuela, which was directed at the Chavez government. These same kinds of formulations appeared in the entire package of five resolutions put out by the OAS about Venezuela since the beginning of the crisis in April 2002. This reflects the fine line that the organization has tried to walk between categorically condemning the unconstitutional alteration of democracy and simultaneously recognizing that there may be democratic governance problems on the side of the government itself.

Both the Chavez government and the opposition called for further international involvement to mitigate the continuing crisis in Venezuela. On November 8, 2002 the two sides agreed to the establishment of a roundtable for negotiation and agreement, of which the Secretary General of the OAS will act as facilitator. The roundtable process produced an agreement between the sides against violence in December, which is a first step, but the situation in Venezuela is still volatile. A “group of friends” made up of leading nations was established recently to help the Secretary General in his facilitation efforts.

In general, the international community almost exclusively opted for concerted action on Venezuela through the OAS. The fact that the Inter-American Democratic Charter has been the basis for this is extremely important. The charter specifies action for times of crisis, but it also outlines what a democracy should look like, which is important in trying to deal with the complexities of Venezuela. Despite some of the conflicting signals coming from the United States after the April coup attempt, the member states of the OAS ultimately joined together in unified condemnation of the undemocratic and unconstitutional alteration of order in Venezuela.

The stakes for the OAS are very high. Venezuela is the first test of how the Inter-American Democratic Charter can be applied to a concrete case. In addition, the Secretary General of the OAS himself is intimately involved in trying to mitigate the crisis as facilitator of the roundtable. If he fails, the OAS fails, and consequently, the hemisphere fails, therefore much is riding on the process.

2. What Are the Next Steps; What Should Be Done and by Whom?:

In the Zimbabwe case, the West and Africa are in a standoff of sorts. This has only widened the divisions within the West, which have now translated into a complete lack of forward movement. As a result, the international community is missing its chance to take advantage of a fermentation within ZANU-PF, which is starting to look at how it can move beyond the Mugabe era. The West should clarify its position on Zimbabwe and reengage with Africa – particularly with South Africa and SADC – on the issue.

Continued international cohesiveness and pressure will also be crucial for Venezuela. The new group of friends will bring some more muscle to the negotiation process, which will be helpful. Ultimately, however, a solution to the crisis is a question of political will in Venezuela. Both sides must strengthen their resolve to broker an effective settlement, and should be pressured to that end.

Venezuela will be a precedent-setting case on the continent. There are currently multiple political, economic, and social crisis situations developing in the Americas. What happens in Venezuela and particularly how the OAS and the international community handle it has implications for their effectiveness in future crises. Many sectors of Latin American societies are paying close attention to the situation in Venezuela. The international community must be careful not to send a signal that political and economic destabilization are effective means of causing political change in the continent’s democracies.

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