Americas Watch as U.S. Democracy is Tested

On February 28th, 2017, Ash Center Non-resident Senior Fellow Peter Quilter testified before Congress on the state of the Western Hemisphere. Quilter warned that developments or attacks on U.S. democracy have a good chance of rippling through the Americas. This post is an excerpt from the testimony and shares Quilter’s thoughts on the state of Venezuela and what the U.S. should (or shouldn’t) do about it. Read the full testimony and watch the video online.


By Peter Quilter

There are many stories to tell about the Americas today and how U.S. policy options fit into those stories. Colombia has begun the difficult process of implementing its peace deal with the guerilla organization FARC, and has embarked on a separate peace deal with another, the ELN. The U.S. is significantly scaling up its assistance to Central America. The Venezuelan government is plumbing depths heretofore unseen, with the Venezuelan people bearing the consequences. Mexico is locked in a dance of political posturing with the Trump administration.

One narrative has the “pink tide” of leftist governments receding, largely in lock step with the fortunes of the Venezuelan government. Another sees voter behavior in the region more as a “throw the bums out” sentiment, reacting like voters anywhere to the paucity of solutions provided by those governments. The result of the Ecuadoran election, in play right now, will add a new data point to this analysis. To be sure, the region’s social and economic problems are legion, and at least two external factors figure prominently in the region’s immediate future. The countries of the Americas sell commodities and China’s rapacious demand for them is ebbing as the process of urbanizing that country winds down. Then there is the price of oil. Venezuela is probably the most famous country in the region feeling the sting of low oil prices, but it is not the only one. But it is unique in that low oil prices have starkly put the lie to the sustainability of the policy answers the Maduro government is selling to his people.

The future lies in strengthening the rule of law and undergirding the institutions that protect it. Historically, neither the left nor the right in Latin America has shown itself to be terribly concerned with that. In this recent cycle, the populist left has shown that it cares little about political checks and balances, about press and speech freedom, about corruption. And they are exiting, or being forced to exit, the stage. We used to talk about the 1990s as the decade of democratic consolidation in the Americas. Apparently, our expectations were dramatically off. Consolidation takes much more time than we thought, and it is not a linear process. If the emerging political forces — from the right or the left — fail to provide answers, they will be forced out as well. This is as it should be.

Below I have chosen several issues and countries to highlight in this statement. It is by no means comprehensive, and I hope we can widen the discussion in the context of the hearing itself.



Venezuela remains the ulcerating sore of the region, with astonishing suffering being visited on the Venezuelan people by the Maduro government. The latter is authoritarian, incompetent and morally bankrupt, seeming to delight in political repression. It is also willing to accept degrees of suffering for its people that make negotiations very difficult indeed. It clearly has dismantled democracy in Venezuela. The paradox is that we have stopped being horrified by this because far more severe and urgent social ills have befallen the Venezuelan people, including appalling levels of poverty, scarcity and even starvation. Venezuela has an 82% poverty rate after the largest oil bonanza in the history of Venezuela, and 93% of Venezuelans state that they cannot afford to buy food that they need with their salary.

To date, several negotiation initiatives with Maduro have gone nowhere, and in fact ended up providing time and space for Maduro to regroup. The social and political situation is so catastrophic that two scenarios appear likely. Neither is good.

The first is a drawn out soft-landing, where Venezuelans continue their downward spiral of suffering and economic despair. It is difficult to imagine, but unfortunately the situation in Venezuela could get much worse. Oil prices are likely to remain stable, providing just enough breathing room for the government to eke out its own survival at the expense of all else, while it claims it is limping toward presidential elections in April, 2018 that may or may not be held.

The second is a hard-landing for the Maduro government. This would be calamitous and would likely include significant bloodshed. The Venezuelan military would certainly be involved. It would severely impact Venezuela’s neighbors from a security perspective, and likely unleash a substantial refugee crisis. The international community has expended significant effort to ensure this does not happen, and Maduro and his cronies have used the latter to distract and survive.

What to do?

  • I believe that any durable solution to these woes will ultimately fall to the Venezuelans themselves. The international community must accompany that process, but Venezuelans must lead it.
  • It seems counterintuitive, but the Maduro government does care about its international reputation and standing. It is for this reason that Venezuela has dedicated so much blood and treasure ensuring the OAS does not formally impugn its government.
  • The international community must speak with one voice in condemning Maduro’s antidemocratic actions. Much diplomatic work needs to be done in the OAS to keep up that pressure. A sanction under the Democratic Charter is difficult but attainable.
  • There are 108 political prisoners languishing in Maduro’s jails. They must be a part of any negotiated solution.
  • It is similarly counterintuitive that Venezuelan’s would care about personal sanctions imposed by the US on individual members of the Maduro government. But they do. The Treasury Department’s sanctions on Venezuela’s vice president for drug trafficking was spot on. As long as they are well justified and transparently rolled out, those should continue.

What about the Trump administration?

There are things the U.S. should definitely NOT do, such as trying to openly attempt to hasten the demise of the Maduro government, or trying to rhetorically match Maduro’s bristly public rhetoric. Both of these are counter-productive.

A note of caution here: Perhaps most critical, the US should not try to solve this alone. Helping Venezuelans overcome their political and economic nightmare will require the kind of needle-threading skills our State Department considers its stock in trade. But judging by the confusion and abrasiveness that have characterized current dealings with Mexico, the U.S. should not be seen as leading any Venezuela effort. There is already evidence that the Mexico-U.S. spat is playing in Maduro’s favor, and he will exploit it as best he can. At the end of the day, the U.S. should be seen as advancing a policy that helps the Venezuelan people, rather than one that reacts to the increasingly unstable and reckless Venezuelan government.



Latin America has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. It is less poor and more middle class than it has ever been. And it is searching for integration, both with its neighbors and with the rest of the world. This is, ultimately, a good news story. Despite the complexities, baggage and sometimes missteps in our relationship with the region historically, the countries of the Americas look to us for so many things. They have modelled their constitutional systems on ours, and they use the U.S. as a barometer for social and political change for their own societies. This is no less true regarding the state of U.S. democracy. Whatever happens to our democracy, including to our institutions and certainly to our freedoms, will likely be reflected and even amplified in the region as a whole. We have all heard that when the U.S. catches a cold, the region catches something far worse. As U.S. democracy is tested, the Americas will be watching closely.


Read the full testimony and watch the video online.


Peter Quilter is is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Ash Center.  Most recently Quilter served as the Secretary for Administration and Finance at the Organization of American States.  Before assuming that post, he was the Democratic senior professional staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs with responsibility for the Western Hemisphere.


Filed under Democracy in Hard Places, Democracy Program

2 Responses to Americas Watch as U.S. Democracy is Tested

  1. Wolfgang Schaefer

    This is a great summary of the situation in Latin America and excellent analysis of the Maduro story. I wished to see similarly detailed analysis of other major Latin American countries.

  2. J. T. Wise

    An astute linking of the provocative posture the Trump administration has taken toward Mexico and its powerful ripple effect on other Latin American nations. Such a culturally complex continent–multi-indigenous, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French–deserves an equivalently sophisticated strategy from the United States. Not seeing it right now.

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