Breaking the wave of authoritarianism in Latin America


We enter 2022 with a democracy facing dangerous decline around the world. The pandemic has accelerated democratic backsliding, as authoritarians emerge everywhere.

Latin America is no exception.

The past two years have seen authoritarian regimes regain lost ground in Bolivia, Argentina and elsewhere, while new autocracies are erected in El Salvador and Peru. Meanwhile, totalitarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua have become more entrenched than ever. This sad situation comes as many Latin American countries celebrate the bicentenary of their independence. Relatively young democracies, which have only just begun to gain a foothold in the 20th century, are today, in the 21st century, confronted with a wave of authoritarianism that is sweeping the region.

Respected democracy scholars have noted this troubling global trend, arguing that “the bad guys are winning.” Using foreign disinformation, non-state networks and extra-regional support, the “bad guys” are certainly winning in Latin America. The question is what the United States can do about the rise of authoritarianism in its neighborhood.

Emerging Authoritarians

2021 was considered an electoral super-cycle in Latin America, in which ten countries held general or local elections. The results have been mixed.

The most recent election in December saw Chile elect its first millennial president, Gabriel Boric, who not long ago was a student leader in a group called the Autonomous Left, who espoused a mix of Marxism and Gramscism while being linked to the Chilean Communist Party. . A month earlier, in November, Honduras elected the country’s first female president, Xiomara Castro, which would be cause for celebration except that she owes her political rise to her husband, the vilified former president Manuel Zelaya, close to the dictators in Venezuela and Cuba.

Foggy Bottom might maintain some optimism that these two new leftist leaders will have some deference to historical and institutional relations with the United States. Unfortunately, this is probably wishful thinking, as the regional trend is reversed, where Latin America’s new left-wing leaders maintain some deference to Washington at first, only to later pivot their foreign policy closer to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran.

This is currently happening in Peru, where the new president, Pedro Castillo, paid an unusual visit to the Chinese embassy in Lima shortly after his inauguration. This was followed by two of Castillo’s first foreign policy decisions as president: enforcing a deal with Russia to secure classified information about the Kremlin’s military-technical cooperation in Peru, and reversing twenty-five years of policy. Peruvian Foreign Minister in Western Sahara by restoring relations with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – a move that aligns Peru with Iran, Yemen and Syria.

This is not a good sign for the two most important elections in Latin America in 2022, in Colombia and Brazil.

On May 29, 2022, Colombians will go to the polls to elect their new president. At present, the crowded field of 23 candidates is led by Senator Gustavo Petro, a former member of the now defunct M-19 terrorist movement and admirer of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. In Brazil, twice-convicted felon and progressive former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva is leading the polls to oust incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. As Brazilians approach Election Day on October 2, 2022, it is worth remembering that Lula da Silva dragged Brazil into the biggest political corruption scandal in Latin American history, which ushered in the wave of authoritarianism. that he knows today.

Beyond Democracy

Latin America is no stranger to strongmen. The birth of democracy in the region two hundred years ago was accompanied by a wave of “caudillos” which dominated in the 19th century. Venezuelan José Antonio Páez, Argentinian Juan Manuel de Rosas and Mexican Santa Anna conjure up enduring images of men on horseback ruling vast swaths of the Hispanic-American hinterland. While it may still be appealing to some, this portrait of 19th century rulers is very different from what characterizes the 21st century caudillo in Latin America.

Instead of fighting for liberation from colonial domination, the neo-authoritarians of the 21st century in Latin America have submitted the sovereignty of their countries to external state actors: Russia, China and Iran. Nicolás Maduro from Venezuela and Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua may talk about US imperialism, while Bolivian Evo Morales will talk about 500 years of indigenous struggle. In practice, however, these Latin American neo-authoritarians have hijacked the democratic process to install 21st century dictatorships, or “democraduresas it is colloquially called in Spanish. And they have a separate authoritative playbook.

The process typically begins with a populist message, but then quickly turns to sweeping changes to the constitution and the consolidation of power within the executive, dismantling the checks and balances necessary for a healthy democracy to function. Then come typical authoritarian actions, such as political persecution, press silence, and massive government spending. Nayib Bukele of El Salvador is the latest elected leader in Central America to erect an autocracy, capturing the judiciary, controlling the legislature and criticizing anyone who stands in his way.

The reality is that most countries in Latin America have weak institutions and lack the rule of law, which means that the defense of democracy becomes more of a practice of passive acquiescence to authoritarian leaders for fear of ‘weakening democracy’. Meanwhile, in this century, the region’s neo-authoritarian leaders have all come to power through the ballot box, to quickly reform the democratic system by rewriting the constitution.

The subtle but important differences between representative democracy and participatory democracy are lost among many Latin American elites, resulting in the term being bastardized to simply mean majority rule. Where the ballot box is the main representation of democracy, ignoring the underlying freedoms and natural rights that must be protected for a democracy to work. For decades, most Latin American leaders have championed democracy, but trampled on the individual freedom of their citizens while tying themselves to the most authoritarian regimes in the world.

Winston Churchill said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Young democracies in Latin America, if they want to prevail, must start talking about the foundations of national sovereignty and individual freedom that are necessary for a democracy to evolve beyond election night.

Failure is not an option

The Biden administration therefore has its hands full in Latin America. The rising tide of authoritarianism is challenging the status quo across the region and driving Latin America away from the United States.

If the United States wants to help regional allies at this critical time, it must resolve differences on important topics, such as the fight against corruption or climate change, in order to establish broader geopolitical alliances that challenge in ways credible the new colonial powers of the region… Russia, China and Iran.

Doing so requires competing rather than berating Latin American nations for their economic ties with China or their military/energy deals with Russia. It demands that America be bolder when it stands up for shared values, culture, and history. The United States must prioritize the region and complement its current law enforcement-centric engagement with more multifaceted bilateral relationships that help our Latin American partners weather the pandemic, understand the geopolitical realities of competition between the great powers and to better prepare for a digital battle. against foreign disinformation. For the United States, the cost of failure in Latin America is high.

Joseph M. Humire is the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a Washington DC-based national security think tank. A longer version of this article appears in the American Foreign Policy Council’s Defense File Number 32.

Picture: Reuters.


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