An early warning system for Latin American coups?

The Organization of American States proposes setting up an alert mechanism to avert future coups in the region, but the idea is fraught with challenges.

Luis Galdamez
Members and delegates of the Organization of American States (OAS) participate at the closing ceremony of the OAS' 41st General Assembly in San Salvador June 7, 2011. The meeting was themed "Security in the Americas," and marks the return of Honduras following its suspension in 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya was toppled in a coup.

Among the proposals at the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly meeting this week in El Salvador was for an "early warning system" related to potential coups and disruptions of democracy. Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador made proposals for such a alert system, while Chile appeared to back a similar approach.

Sounds like a great idea. It would certainly have been better to prevent the coup in Honduras than to try to deal with the consequences after it occurred. Unfortunately, the details and implementation of such a proposal are harder than they first appear.

Here are some of the questions facing such a system:

  • How early should a warning be made?
  • What information (public or private) is the basis for the warning?
  • What is the threshold for a warning? Do rumors matter?
  • How does the OAS prevent presidents from abusing the warning system to attack or degrade their political opposition?
  • What sorts of actions (other than strongly worded statements) can the OAS take once a warning is given?

Let me give a few examples from the past few years in Latin America that show how difficult this would be:

This discussion should start with Honduras, as some countries claim an early alert system could have helped in that situation. At the OAS meeting this week, Honduran Vice President María Antonieta Guillén said that an alert system should warn when presidents of countries deviate from constitutions and attempt to grab additional power. In spite of the controversial nature of her comments as they relate to Honduras, it's true that the Inter-American Democratic Charter was designed in part to avoid a Fujimori-style power grab as occurred in 1992. Yet, such an alert would be heavily disputed and politicized.

How does the OAS distinguish between a standard internal dispute among branches of government and an actual disruption of democracy? Additionally, does discussion of a presidential power grab deserve an alert because it potentially leads to a coup from the political opposition as occurred in Honduras? Look back over the weeks prior to the coup and ask at what point would an early warning alert about Honduras have been appropriate? What could have been done differently by the OAS prior to the coup?

Ecuador's September 30 "coup attempt" last year started as a police protest. Does every police protest get a warning? Was there something specific about this one that should have forced a warning? Could the OAS have acted any more quickly than they did?

In Paraguay, there have been several military coup rumors over the past two years, none of which panned out. Should those have been alerts?

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has warned of various opposition coup plots over the years. Even though the 2002 coup was a very real event, most of Mr. Chavez's recent accusations have been an attempt to smear the political opposition rather than a real threat. Would an OAS alert system need to take those seriously?

In Guatemala, there are multiple analysts warning about the potential for a "narco-state," the systemic undermining of democratic institutions by organized crime. Even members of the Guatemalan government are warning about the threat to their democracy. It's not a threat that will overthrow the government in the next week or two, but it is a serious concern. Does it rise to alert level?

Hopefully the examples above show some of the difficulties in implementing an alert system. It's a system that will sometimes make mistakes, sometimes miss a threat, and often be politically controversial. I'm not sure the OAS has the political will to pull it off, being that it is a risk-averse organization that generally avoids controversy.

Yet, it's a system that I think should be implemented. The controversy is worth weathering if it can prevent a new disruption in democracy in this hemisphere.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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