Latin America’s history of coups, protests, guerrilla movements, and violent oscillations between democratic and authoritarian regimes appeared to culminate in the 1980s with dramatic and remarkably enduring transitions to democracy. In the hope of reinforcing the unprecedented wave of democratization, and preventing backsliding into crisis and authoritarian rule, the Organization of American States (OAS), adopted a resolution in 1991 (General Assembly Resolution #1080) that made democracy a condition of membership in the region’s principal multilateral institution.
Throughout the 1990s, however, subtler threats to democracy began to emerge. Elected leaders like Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Jorge Serrano in Guatemala, or Carlos Menem in Argentina, acted in ways that seemed to violate basic constitutional and democratic principles, such as the separation of powers and due process, and in some cases the deterioration of democracy made it impossible to hold free and fair elections. In response to events in Peru in 2000, in particular, the members of the OAS created the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC, see OAS, 2001) in the hope of establishing a consensus around what it means to be a democracy in the Western Hemisphere.
Yet the Democratic Charter neither drew a clear line between democratic and non-democratic regimes (failing to enunciate explicitly what would count as a “unconstitutional interruption or alteration of the democratic order”), nor created effective mechanisms of enforcement within the OAS. In a meeting held at UBC in 2002, a group of experts from across the hemisphere proposed two initiatives: first, the formation of a high-level group of leaders who would become “Friends of the Charter” to promote the more proactive and preventative use of the Charter as an instrument of diplomacy and, second, to create a research network to monitor and report on the state of democracy both for academic purposes-research and publications-and to encourage evidence-based policy-making.
On behalf of the newly-launched Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), Max Cameron and Mark Warren initiated discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) to determine whether the policy-makers in Canada and the OAS support the development of research network for democracy monitoring. This resulted in a “Fast Talk” consultation and a final report that supports the idea of democracy reporting outside the OAS, conducted by independent experts and civil society organizations, based as much as possible within the Latin American region. The mechanism would be organized by the CSDI at UBC, which would assume responsibility for convening an initial meeting of experts and a pilot project on the Andean sub-region.
Given the fraught political environment in the Western Hemisphere today, especially the tensions between the United States and Venezuela, and the polarization created by the region’s tilt toward the left, this project strongly emphasizes: (1) academic neutrality (all research will aim at peer-reviewed publications in top journals and university presses); (2) an arms-length relationship with government and the OAS; no funding from sources that implicate the project in bilateral disputes; (3) a strong dedication to generating research from the region with UBC’s role as convener and quality-control guarantor and (4) a willingness to examine the broader dimensions of democratization, including participation and inclusion, rather than an exclusive institutional focus.
Initial funding was received from the Martha Piper Fund at UBC and the Glyn Berry Program in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in the Government of Canada to convene the first meeting of experts, in Lima in December 2007, to: (1) bring together scholars from across the hemisphere working in distinct areas of democratization research to discuss key concepts, measures, and indicators of diverse dimensions of democracy; (2) compare and evaluate data and methodologies that have been developed to measure, monitor, and assess the state of democracy in diverse regions; and (3) outline a conceptual and analytical framework for a pilot project on the Andean sub-region.