Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy Hosts Former Panama Ambassador for Open Conversation on Western Democracy


The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy hosted the former U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feeley for a ‘Lunch & Learn’ event covering the “State of Democracy in the Western Hemisphere” on Thursday, Oct. 26. The event was co-sponsored by the Program in American Studies and Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies. 

Feeley, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Panama from 2015 to 2018, is the current executive director of the Center for Media Integrity of the Americas. He began the discussion by addressing how the U.S. has slowly shifted towards a passive and overconfident mindset in our ability to maintain democracy domestically and globally in recent decades. 

The former ambassador explained how the first global “win” for democracy came after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Following denuclearization conversations, President Bill Clinton called for the first Summit of the Americas 1994, in which 32 out of 33 countries in Latin America, excluding Cuba, sent a democratic representative—a fundamental shift from Latin America’s authoritarian regimes.  

“We doped ourselves up with commercialism rather than focusing on bedrock activities of American communities that make for our democracy,” Feeley said. 

Another question the ambassador answered was how the United States could regain “our center” and continue perpetuating our former goal of maintaining global democracy. According to Feeley, democracy is declining as the country’s wealth gap increases, especially following the pandemic.

For those wondering how Latin American countries can impose transparent democratic elections, Feeley answers that many of these newly democratic societies had no prior experience with democracy. Furthermore, many Latin American citizens unfamiliar with a new democratic system of governance will naturally look towards the previous—often authoritarian—regime for safety and familiarity if governments do not deliver the benefits of democracy. 

Feeley also believes that we have failed to maximize a mutually beneficial relationship with Latin America. Latin America has the potential to provide resources and benefits to the United States simply due to their geographical proximity to the United States. Yet, though the United States has provided over 3 billion dollars a year in terms of defense aid to the state of Israel which has 9 million people, a total of only 2 billion dollars has been given to Latin America, where over 600 million people reside south of the Rio Grande. Furthermore, Latin American countries are not threatened with state-on-state conflicts, as opposed to the Middle East. 

“That is the epitome of short sighted thinking—what it says is the United States looks at the world through a threat lens, as opposed to an opportunity lens,” Feeley said. “I think that’s where young people can get involved and focus on the Americas as a place for opportunity… there’s amazing…opportunities to be harvested in the region.” 

Feely concluded by evaluating democracy as an institution in America and differentiated how the United States promotes democracy internationally but does not implement democracy in other countries. He invited attendees to consider how democracy can therefore be best implemented, such as identifying who the voters are, documenting votes, limiting fraud, and imposing election observation to limit the “perversion of democracy” in newly democratic countries. 


According to Seth Ogilvie, the Assistant Director for Communications at The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, the organization looks forward to hosting future open dialogue events on democracy for the Vanderbilt community to engage with. 


Image Citation: Former U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feeley speaks to attendees after the Lunch and Learn event, titled ‘Slouching Towards Oblivion.’ taken by Alysa Suleiman 

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Alysa Suleiman, Contributor