With the third wave of democracy, which began in the 1970s, most countries instituted presidential term limits stipulating limits on the number of times presidents could be re-elected. Since then, an increasing number of countries have abandoned these limits, leading many observers to identify yet another piece of evidence that authoritarianism is on the rise. This phenomenon has been especially evident in Latin America where term limits have been a long-standing feature of constitutions; from the nineteenth century, reformers have sought to limit the hold on power of personalistic caudillo leaders. The link between authoritarian leadership and the removal of term limits was highlighted recently when President Trump was reported to have applauded Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of that country’s two-term presidential limit, remarking that “its great. . .[that] he was able to do that.” The obvious conclusion is that countries should strive to maintain or re-institute term limits in order to restrict unscrupulous authoritarian and increasingly populist leaders.
Venezuela is facing a catastrophic economic, political and social crisis: there is widespread hunger, inflation is at 1,000,000 percent, and millions have fled the country. By all accounts, the country is now ruled by an oligarchy of criminals. Most Venezuelans want the regime of Nicolás Maduro gone. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has proclaimed himself acting interim president; thus far, he has been recognized as such by the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Australia, Israel, and the European parliament. China and Russia, Venezuela’s first and second most important creditors, remain staunch Maduro supporters. Other countries, with less questionable motivations, have also failed to get onto the Guaidó bandwagon: Mexico and Uruguay have urged a negotiated solution—an offer that Guaidó has flatly turned down.
The pink tide in Latin America, which saw a slew of left leaders elected throughout the region during the first decade of the century, has pretty much come to an end.
Right wing presidents have been elected in Chile (2010 and 2017) and Argentina (2015). In Brazil, the political right gained executive power with the impeachment of left president Dilma Rousseff. This development was followed by the election of right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, as president in 2018. While a left president was recently re-elected in Ecuador, policies are becoming increasingly business friendly. The main outlier is Mexico, which recently elected left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). That government is already facing rising business opposition.
The Caravan of Central Americans making its way toward the U.S. border has led to the amassing of some 5000 U.S. troops along that border. This mass migration is driven by a confluence of factors that have a long-standing history in the region: most notably widespread poverty and violence. Central American countries, more than any other countries of the region, are, in the words of the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, “at war with the past.” They have a history of repressive dictatorships, extreme concentrations of wealth, and poverty. Part of that history, however, has involved the involvement of the United States in ways that have exacerbated the very problems that are causing the current massive out-migration.
When Latin America made the transition to electoral democracy in the mid-1980s, the process was hailed as marking the end to the region’s fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. Recent, events, especially in Brazil, tell a different story. Between 2006 and 2011, it seemed possible that the program of a moderate social democratic program could be reconciled with a neoliberal global orientation: Brazil dramatically reduced poverty, public spending was kept in check, while big businesses expanded both exports and investments abroad. Now we see a sharp turn to the political right in Brazil and the inevitability of policies that will contribute to social deterioration. With 99 percent of the votes in, right populist presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, leads with 46 percent of the vote. He is expected to win the second round of voting on October 28.
Right wing populism, widely seen as a threat to liberal democracy, has been on the rise in the United States and Europe over the last decade. Latin America has a long history of both left and right populist movements, leaders, and governments. It also has had its share of programmatic political parties and leaders committed to social change and substantive democratization. Yet the region’s illiberal democratic features remain stubbornly persistent. There are lessons to be learned from the Latin American experience. Unfortunately, these lessons do not provide much reason for optimism.
While some observers, both journalistic and academic, maintain that Latin American politics is either moving to the political right or becoming less polarized, the clearest trend is rising political turmoil with a final destination that is far from clear. Political polarization continues to be an integral part of the Latin American political scene.
In the wake of its most recent economic crisis, Argentina has just signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The agreement will reinforce the austerity measures introduced by centre/right president, Mauricio Macri, since 2015. Most observers blame Argentine populism for the country’s current economic debacle and urge strict austerity, institutional reform, and an end to corruption as the solution. However, such measures are not likely to solve much because they do not address the root cause of populism. Understanding the enormous reliance of populism is key since the most pessimistic of observers suggest that the current Argentine crisis may be the harbinger of worsening economic and (political) troubles in the region and beyond.
Inequality is not good for democracy and it is, as is widely known, on the rise everywhere. While wealth has always been instrumental in shaping political outcomes in electoral democracies, the concentrated wealth that has arisen with economic globalization has produced ever-more brazen forms of authoritarian behaviours on the part of political elites as they respond to the interests of their powerful economic allies. While details differ from country to country, there is an important common denominator: the role of economic power in giving greater leverage to political claims. In the worst cases, the economically powerful buy politicians, the media, and troublesome individuals. In all cases, the alliance between political leaders and economic elites has coincided with a notable distancing between political leaders and their publics.
On Sunday, February 4th Ecuador held a popular consultation (consulta popular) on seven questions; five of which were binding while the remaining two are to guide the government in developing future policies. There are strongly opposed opinions on the meaning of this public consultation and on its consequences for Ecuadorian politics and for the political left. The case provides us with insights into the Latin American political dilemma.
In a country of modern office towers, luxury condos, gated communities, and stylish outdoor cafes, 41 million people live in extreme poverty. In one major city, the extremely poor cover fifty city blocks, either living on the streets or in makeshift dwellings, without electricity, sanitation, or clean water. They suffer from the diseases of poverty, particularly intestinal parasites. This underclass is ignored, if they are not scorned, by the country’s middle and upper classes. This not a country in Latin America; it is the United States and the fifty blocks of desperately poor are in Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world.
Democracy, in its liberal democratic manifestation of free and fair elections, the guarantee of civil liberties, and the protection of minorities is under threat in many parts of the world. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is only the most obvious manifestation of the fragility of liberal democracy. There are reports that human rights violations, corruption, racism, and discrimination persist across Europe. A recent report by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe raises concerns about the damage caused to democracies by new populist movements and parties given their predisposition to undermine human rights and the protection of minorities. Most Latin American countries, which were under authoritarian rule from the 1960s until the early to mid-1980s, have particularly fragile democracies. Once again, the Latin American experience offers some important insights into the world-wide erosion of democratic practices.
When charges against former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff resulted in her removal from office, protests throughout the country led many within the mainstream media to speculate that widespread public intolerance of corrupt behaviour would usher in a new public morality. Surely, such a demonstration of public anger against corruption would alert the country’s politicians to the fact that appropriation of the public treasury for personal gain would no longer be tolerated. Unhappily, this was naïve thinking as recent events so clearly demonstrate.
In Mexico, earthquakes and politics are closely intertwined. The country’s 1985 earthquake (centred in Mexico City with a magnitude of 8.1) left 10,000 dead and 30,000 injured. It proved to be a defining political moment in the country’s politics. The failure of the government of President Miguel Hurtado to respond to the devastation, including his refusal of outside assistance, prompted widespread grassroots social mobilization. Spontaneously, thousands of assistance groups organized themselves to come to the aid of earthquake victims. A great many of these newly formed civil society organizations, and their opposition to the government, has been fueled by its callousness in the face of the earthquake tragedy, and has formed the bases of a new political front (the National Democratic Front) that challenged the ruling party (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, PRI) in the 1988 presidential election. It is widely believed that the PRI presidential candidate lost that election although the party managed to hang onto power. Faced with clear evidence of impending defeat, the government closed down the country’s computerized voting system, rejigged the vote tally, and declared victory. But Mexico’s transition to electoral democracy had begun. The use of electoral fraud gradually diminished as it became important to convince the country’s new NAFTA partners that Mexico was a worthy trade partner. By 1997, the ruling party had lost control of Congress and by 2000 the presidency.
Venezuela’s increasing slide into brutal authoritarianism has continued unabated. The country’s recently elected constituent assembly, boycotted by the opposition, has now taken over the powers of the country’s opposition-controlled Congress. With an estimated 124 deaths in opposition protests, international pressure against the regime has intensified. Much of that pressure has come from the U.S. In addition to U.S. imposed sanctions on some two dozen former and current Venezuelan officials, President Trump has declared that he will not rule out “a military option.” The Trump government is also contemplating the banning of oil shipments, a measure that would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan economy. All of this has supposedly come about in an effort to support the cause of Venezuelan democracy. Trump has characterized the country’s opposition anti-government protesters as engaging in a struggle ”for democracy, freedom, and rule of law,” and has declared that their just demands “continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator” (a reference to current President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro). The pot, I fear, is calling the kettle.
From January 2017, Venezuela’s political crisis, involving a sharp deterioration in social conditions, large-scale street protests, government repression, and human rights violations, has steadily worsened. With the election of a Constituent Assembly on July 30, the country has become increasingly isolated internationally. The European Union, most Latin American Countries, and the United States have all condemned this election, widely seen as a power grab on the part of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. Sanctions against Venezuela are under serious consideration, and the U.S. has threatened military intervention. This increasingly intense international pressure will not produce a lasting resolution of Venezuela’s predicament; indeed, it will probably not produce any resolution at all.
On May 28, the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) and the Indigenous Council of Government (CIG), selected María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, an indigenous women from the Nahua community of the state of Jalisco, to run as their presidential candidate in the 2018 election. As she readily admits, she has no chance of winning. In fact, just obtaining the opportunity to run for the presidency will be a struggle since electoral law requires that an independent candidate obtain some 850,000 signatures across 17 of the country’s 32 states.
The mainstream media has characterized Emmanuel Macron’s victory in yesterday’s French election as a resounding defeat of right wing authoritarian populism. Macron, heading up a new political party called En Marche! (Forward!), won 65 percent of the popular vote against right wing populist Marine Le Pen’s 34 percent. Despite the rise of populist authoritarian movements in an increasing number of countries, global elites continue to laud the unquestionable benefits of free trade and other features of the neoliberal policy prescription.
With the French public about to vote in a run-off election for the country’s next president, commentators in the mainstream media are cautiously optimistic that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron will defeat Marine Le Pen’s right populist National Front. Thus, Europe will be saved not only from another movement to exist the EU but also from a racist inward thinking regime that represents a threat to liberal democracy, tolerance, and prosperity. Mainstream media has focussed largely on the National Front’s anti-Semitic and fascist past and on the party’s intolerance towards immigrants. This perspective underestimates the depth and nature of popular disillusionment. The reality is that the very emergence of populist authoritarianism is a symptom of the breakdown of the representative capabilities of liberal democracy. Regardless of who wins the French election, both liberal democracy and the global order will continue to be in trouble.
A number of commentators in the mainstream media have recently lamented that authoritarian populism has been on the rise in Europe and in the United States, while apparently declining in Latin America—a region with a long history of this phenomenon. According to this perspective, while emotionally charged appeals to popular base emotions have now become predominant in the North, Latin Americans have sensibly turned to the political right, electing right-leaning political leaders with solid pro market credentials. There are some basic misunderstandings in this observation. While there are some startling commonalities in the origins of most populisms, there are also some very important differences in their recent manifestations.