On Tuesday, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva summoned eleven South American heads of state to Brasilia.
The idea was to reboot South American regional integration efforts, which have fallen by the wayside over the past ten years. Lula floated some big ideas—from a regional energy market to coordinated action on climate change, and even the possibility of a regional currency.
But that’s not what made headlines. Instead, it was Lula’s effusive embrace of Venezuela’s autocratic president, Nicolás Maduro.
Addressing Maduro as “my companheiro (partner),” Lula cast him as the victim of “a narrative constructed against Venezuela of anti-democracy, of authoritarianism.”
“I think, based on everything we’ve talked about, that your narrative will be infinitely better than the narrative they have constructed against you,” Lula added.
Lula, never an outspoken Maduro critic, at least said he “defended the alternation of power in Venezuela” as recently as 2019. Not anymore.
Lula’s comments did not sit well with all his guests in Brasilia. The center-right president of Uruguay, Luis Lacalle Pou, and Chile’s leftist President, Gabriel Boric, both slammed his remarks.
But the condemnation was nowhere near universal. Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s leftist President, tweeted a video of Maduro arriving to Brasilia with the message, “we hope for a process of democratic recovery in Peru.”
The subtext was not subtle—for Petro and several other leftist elected leaders in the region, Peru’s Peruvian President Dina Boluarte, who has cozied up to right-wing factions in congress, is an anti-democratic usurper. Meanwhile, Maduro—a self-proclaimed leftist—is not.
Delivered at a forum ostensibly focused on regional integration, Lula’s and Petro’s comments underscore a trend driving Latin American countries apart: the disappearance of even a minimum consensus on what constitutes democracy.
Most leaders throughout the region—on both the left and the right—no longer agree on what counts as a democracy or a case of democratic breakdown. It all depends on where you stand politically.
For Latin America, that’s bad news. Not only does it put a stumbling block in the path of any plans for regional integration. It’s also derailing day-to-day diplomacy and pushing solutions to cross-border challenges further out of reach.
So Much for Ground Rules
It wasn’t always this bad. In 2001, the thirty-four member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) came together to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter: a binding document that spells out what democracy is (and isn’t) and sets up procedures to defend it.
Then, like today, the political map of Latin America was split between left and right. Not everyone agreed on the fine print. Hugo Chávez, then-president of Venezuela, wanted the language of the charter broadened from “representative democracy” to include the hazier concept of “participatory democracy.” Outvoted, he signed on anyway.
But there was still agreement on the basics. In the end, the signatories defined democracy as a system with “periodic and genuine elections” in which governments respected human rights, pluralism, and rule of law, among other core values.
The charter also established a procedure for responding to “an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order or an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime.” The point of that wordy definition was to make it easy to spot democratic breakdowns and quickly take action.
The minimum consensus was useful for defending democracy—sometimes. When military officers staged a short-lived coup against Chávez in 2002, over a dozen OAS member state governments immediately closed ranks against the ouster. Vicente Fox—Mexico’s center-right president, hardly a Chávez sympathizer—called a meeting of the OAS general assembly.
It wasn’t the only case when the shared definition of democratic breakdown came in handy. Center-right and right governments joined leftist counterparts in voting to condemn the 2009 military-backed ouster of Honduras’ leftist President, Manuel Zelaya, too.
But ever since, the minimum consensus has frayed. It doesn’t help that democratic breakdowns in the Americas increasingly take the form of slow-and-steady power grabs using quasi-constitutional tools, rather than outright coups. The ambiguity provides convenient cover for governments not to speak up—at least not against their ideological fellow travelers.
With only a few exceptions, leftist elected leaders who took office across the region in the 2000s failed to denounce the dismantling of democracy by Venezuela’s Chávez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. At the same time, moves by Álvaro Uribe and Juan Orlando Hernández to erode democracy in Colombia and Honduras, respectively, were met with shrugs from the right and center-right.
From 2017 to 2019, consensus on democracy at least partially revived. The center-left governments of Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez and Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno joined their right-wing and conservative counterparts—then in office across most of the region—in denouncing authoritarian crackdowns in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
But unity quickly disappeared. Today as Lula’s comments go to show, there is little agreement on what counts as democracy and democratic breakdown. With ground rules out the window, leaders like Lula are no longer just overlooking autocracy—they are becoming its apologists.
The Costs of Hyper-Politicized Diplomacy
Deep divisions over Venezuela will obstruct regional efforts to promote dialogue between Maduro and Venezuelan opposition, as I have written in the Journal of Democracy.
But that’s not all. Politicized diplomacy is taking a toll on the region’s ability to confront cross-border challenges—and even maintain working bilateral relations.
Brazil’s right-wing ex-president, Jair Bolsonaro, clashed with Argentina’s center-left Alberto Fernández and put diplomatic relations on ice, testing ties between South America’s two largest economies.
Earlier this year, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador hit the brakes on an anticipated handover of leadership of the Pacific Alliance—a regional integration mechanism—to Peru’s Dina Boluarte, who he accuses of being an “usurper.” López Obrador also recently said he would like to see Mexico’s commercial ties with Peru—which total $2.8 billion—frozen until Boluarte leaves office.
For now, diplomatic flareups might be limited by the fact that all but a handful of regional governments lean left. But with anti-incumbency sentiment likely to fuel a regional turn back to the right—which may well have kicked off with Chile’s May 7 constitutional council elections—diplomatic friction is likely to become the new normal.
In Brasilia, Lula chalked up the failure of regional integration to ideology. “We let ideology divide us and interrupt our efforts to integrate. We abandoned our channels of dialogue and our mechanisms of cooperation, and we all lost because of it.” He was more correct than he knew.