Policy Analysis No. 201

Washington’s Dubious Crusade for Hemispheric Democracy

Executive Summary

Numerous U.S. commentators and policymakers have shown enthusiasm for promoting democracy in the Western Hemisphere—even as the justification for doing so has lost any national security rationale. Unfortunately, Washington’s record of exporting democracy to the region has been dismal, and the renewed U.S. commitment to do so may prove similarly difficult to satisfy in the 1990s.

Washington’s endorsement of a fortified Organization of American States as a vehicle for undertaking that mission hardly guarantees that U.S. goals will be met. Instead, a stronger OAS may pull the United States into an assortment of domestic conflicts impervious to solutions imposed from without.

Recent interruptions in the constitutional order of Haiti, Peru, and Guatemala, and bloody coup attempts in Venezuela, indicate that democracy has not securely taken root in many of the region’s countries. And the democracy- promotion mission can cause far more harm than good. For example, embargoes imposed by the OAS and the United Nations on Haiti have worsened the harsh living conditions of the vast majority of Haitians. Regional peacekeeping operations run the risk of turning into open-ended military missions. The OAS, either impressed by democratic formalism or realizing the limits of its influence, may embrace as “democratic” leaders who are in fact authoritarian. Washington may also use the veil of promoting democracy to conceal items on its agenda that run contrary to the wishes of Latin American nations.

The most effective ways for the United States to encourage civil society and prosperity in Latin America are to open U.S. markets to the region’s goods and to serve as an attractive example of limited constitutional government.

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Ian Vsquez is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute.