The 2021 NED Democracy Award: Honoring Central American Civil Society

Santiago Canton speaks at a NED award event National Endowment for Democracy / YouTube

External Engagement

On October 20, 2021, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) honored four civil society organizations with their 2021 Democracy Award. These included the Colectivo de Derechos Humanos Nicaragua Nunca Más, Contracorriente, the Myrna Mack Foundation, and the Transparency, Social Oversight, and Open Data Association (TRACODA). Santiago Canton, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, took part in the first panel for the event, “Democracy and Governance in Central America: Defending Civic Space and Independent Media for Democratic Accountability.”

Comments by Santiago Canton:

In 1959, Tad Szulc, who was a correspondent for the New York Times and covered Latin America, and Cuba in particular, wrote a book that was the Twilight of the Tyrant. The first line of that book was that the years of the dictatorships in Latin America is over… Five years later, Latin America was completely full of dictators. The wave between democracy and authoritarian governments in Latin America is not new. The one we are somewhat still living in is that third wave of democracy. I am very afraid that we are starting to live in a new authoritarian wave. When did this one start to go wrong. One thing to look at is leadership. If you compare the leadership, the first democratic president elected in this third wave was Guzmán in the Dominican Republic, but if you compare Alfonsín, Aylwin, Lagos, Sarney and Fernando Henrique Cardoso with today’s leaders you see a big difference. Those were leaders that had a very strong conviction on the rule of law, democracy and human rights. They really believed they were starting a new era of democracy and there was going to be democracy forever, and they fought for that. Today you don’t have that. You don’t find one leader in the region who has that conviction and that fire inside. The second [issue] is that democracy did not deliver on the issues that people really live on. They didn’t deliver on poverty, on food, on the basic things.

The crisis on democracy is because of our leaders; it’s because democracy did not deliver. The famous quote by a former US president in a campaign “are you better off than four years ago”; are you better off than 20 or 30 years ago? And the answer is no, they are not better off from the perspective of the people.

When did [the democratic crisis] start? If I have to pinpoint one moment, I would say it was in April 1992. That’s when Fujimori’s self-coup [occurred]… Since then what we are seeing today are the types of things that Fujimori did, which was to destroy democracy through means that look democratic. Chávez taking over the Supreme Court, Bukele taking over the Supreme Court, using the Congress as a rubber stamp institution without real discussion… Right now the same thing [that happened in Venezuela] is happening in El Salvador. We have to say El Salvador is no longer a democracy and we have to start to act right now, using the instrument that we have, which is the Inter-American Democratic Charter, created precisely because of what Fujimori did. The person who presented the Democratic Charter to the Permanent Council was the former secretary general of the UN, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar from Peru. He wanted to create a system to avoid what happened in Peru to happen in other countries. So we do have the instrument but we never use it in the way it has to be done. And we are not using it because the leadership in the region are looking themselves in the mirror and they do not want to touch it.

When was the time to act in Nicaragua? Now is too late. 2018 was too late. The time to act was when Daniel Ortega started to break the rule of law. When was that? When he pushed the Supreme Court with his own people to let him run again. So that was the time for the international community to act.

This is the time to act [in El Salvador]. They should use the Democratic Charter. The Democratic Charter has a system to scale up if the situation is getting worse and worse up until Article 20, which is the last one and the one to expel a country from the OAS. We don’t want that to happen. But they should start to push for the prior mechanisms the OAS has that are not being used right now.

We have to reinvent the wheel. If we continue to do the same as we have been doing for the last 20 or 30 years working on democracy, the situation is not going to change.

Full recording of the event available here:


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