The U.S. has just instituted a new round of even more devastating economic sanctions as part of its ongoing campaign to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro from power. These sanctions, like past efforts, will not contribute to Venezuelan democracy. As explained in an earlier post, the roots of the Venezuelan crisis are complex. The international reaction to the Venezuelan case illustrates the extent to which the U.S. (and now Canada and Europe) fail to understand Latin America’s political struggles. Forcing a particular regime from power will not solve anything; it will not make Venezuela a more democratic or just society.
To many observers the Maduro regime has remained surprisingly resilient. His government withstood widespread opposition protests through the spring of 2019. It has survived the recognition by over 50 countries of opposition Juan Guaidó as the country’s rightful ruler, a move that severely challenged the regime’s legitimacy. The mainstream media’s excited anticipation of Maduro’s fall from power reached its height with Guaidó’s attempt to instigate a military uprising. The uprising failed, however, and opposition protests have petered out.
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 term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?
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.
Increasingly, right-leaning governments are replacing left regimes in Latin America or, if left governments continue to cling to power, they are adopting policies normally associated with the political right. There has been a shift back to some neoliberal policies that contributed to poverty and inequality in the past. Sympathetic observers placed great hope in the left regimes that came to power between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s—these regimes seemed to be on the right track since they reduced poverty substantially and made inroads into high levels of inequality. What went wrong?
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.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Mexican presidential election with a resounding majority of around 53 percent of votes cast—the highest since 1982 when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was still able to manipulate electoral outcomes. Mexican public expectations are high and the problems that the country’s new president must deal with are enormous. Making his task more difficult is that fact that AMLO has a heterogeneous support base with the various groups having different interests and priorities.
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.
Chile’s run-off presidential election, held on December 17, witnessed the victory of billionaire businessman, Sebastían Piñera over the left-wing candidate Alejandro Guillier. This will be Piñera’s second term in office; he served as president between 2010 and 2014. The victory was a substantial one, with Piñera winning 54.6 percent of the vote while Guiller, supported by outgoing left-centre President Michelle Bachelet, garnered 45.4 percent of the vote. Much of the press coverage of the election claims that the Chilean election is part of a general right-ward swing in Latin American politics. However, such an assessment papers over what is really going on—not just for Chile, but for other countries of the region as well.
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.