President Obama will join his 34 regional counterparts in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend for the Sixth Summit of the Americas. The theme of this year’s meeting is "Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity."
A more appropriate theme would be, "Whatever happened to the Inter-American Democratic Charter?"
That landmark document, signed a decade ago by all the governments of the hemisphere (excluding Cuba), in Lima, Peru, states, "The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy, and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it."
But the rise to power of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and a passel of other leftist populists has turned that commitment on its head, as they have systematically gutted their country’s democratic institutions and trampled on nearly every article enshrined in the Charter with nary a peep of protest from other governments in the region.
Indeed, the region’s fading commitment to defending democracy has even dominated headlines leading up to the Summit. The ringleader in this case has been Ecuadorean rabble-rouser Rafael Correa, who in high dudgeon has declaimed that he is boycotting this year’s summit because thoroughly undemocratic Cuba was not invited.
Castro’s Cuba, which would not recognize a democratic principle if one walked up and slapped him in the face, has never been invited to a summit because conforming to the most elementary standards of democratic governance is a prerequisite to attend.
Predictably, Hugo Chávez was the first to rush to Correa’s defense, saying that although he would attend the summit (health permitting), "This will be the last so-called Summit of the Americas without Cuba. The next one wouldn’t occur," and that a "good number of us" will advocate Cuba’s inclusion at the next such gathering.
He added that he had discussed the issue with leaders from Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Brazil.
It wasn’t long before Argentina and Brazil also weighed in, toeing the same line. "This has to be the last summit in which Cuba does not participate," said Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman in an appearance with his Brazilian counterpart Antonio Patriota.
You know a regional commitment to promoting and defending democracy is in trouble when otherwise mature countries like Argentina and Brazil are lining up in support of Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit of the Americas.
But the issue also goes beyond the incongruence of a Stalinist regime participating in a meeting of popularly elected governments. As noted, a deafening regional silence has accompanied populist encroachments on democratic norms and institutions over the past few years, whether they have occurred in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, or Nicaragua.
It may be true that there are limits to the appeal of the Chávez model throughout the region, but according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World (2012) report, Chávez’s "quasi-authoritarian populism still stands as a threat to the region’s political stability."
President Obama has an opportunity when he travels to Colombia on Saturday to make clear that the Charter is not just another regional declaration to be signed and forgotten. Instead, it stands as the crowning achievement of the region’s history of perseverance and grit — at great human cost — to move past its authoritarian past and establish democratic governance as the hemispheric norm.
The president must unabashedly reassert the abiding relevance of the Inter-American Democratic Charter as one that transcends ideology and fuzzy notions of Latin "solidarity" and remains the foundation for any lasting regional peace and prosperity.