Democracy in Latin America

Jorge Domínguez is a professor of political science at Harvard University. A Cuban-American, he has been one of the most respected commentators on Latin America over the past four decades. In an interview last month with the Chilean newspaper, La Segunda, he spoke of his optimism for democracy in Latin America, despite the fears of many in the midst of the rise of populist authoritarianism in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, and the recent street protests in Venezuela.

Interestingly enough, Prof Domínguez considers not the current political unrest in Venezuela or the erosion of democratic norms and human rights in that country, but the increasing power of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador as “the greatest democratic failure in South America.”

The case of Ecuador though has obvious parallels with Venezuela, particularly with regard to the rejection of political elites and the traditional political system and the emergence of populist authoritarianism under the guise of attempting to transfer political power to the people.

In Venezuela, this process can be traced back to the early 1990s, when economic problems and popular disgust with corruption led to the attempted coup by Hugo Chávez in 1992. The collapse of the second presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez, whose impeachment in 1993 heralded a total loss of confidence in the two main parties, Democratic Action and Copei, which had governed the country since the end of military rule in 1958, opened the way for the eventual election of Mr Chávez in 1999 and the Bolivarian Revolution and all that has followed since.

In Ecuador, President Correa, who holds a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois, has pursued, since his election in November 2006 and assumption of office in January 2007, an increasingly radical path. In the ten years preceding his election, the previous three elected presidents had been ousted either by the Congress or street protests. Dr Correa, a political outsider elected as a result of massive popular discontent and disenchantment with the established political parties, many of which had been ‘personalist’ parties, found himself assuming the presidency with not a single ally in the Congress, as his party had not fielded any parliamentary candidates.

Building on the people’s rejection of the country’s political elites, however, President Correa’s subsequent strategy, influenced heavily by the example of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, was to move quickly to delegitimize Congress, convene a constituent assembly of the people to replace Congress, deprive the traditional political elites of power and rewrite the constitution, thereby subordinating the new national assembly and other institutions of governance to presidential authority. Despite resistance from the opposition-led Congress, the new constitution, which also allowed Dr Correa to stand for re-election, was approved by 64% of voters in a referendum in September 2008.

Now, Ecuadorians are faced with the result of having rejected the ‘personalist’ politics of the past with a new cult of ‘personalism’ embodied by the increasing authoritarianism of President Correa. Prof Domínguez attributes this to the failure of the country’s political parties and the non-functioning of the mechanisms for democratic succession going back to the decade of political instability beginning in 1997. All this leads to his conclusion that this is “the greatest democratic failure in South America.”

Nevertheless, in spite of these examples and the ongoing challenges to democratic governance faced in Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua, Prof Domínguez bases his optimism for democracy in Latin America on the strengthening of democracy in the region’s two most populated countries, Brazil and Mexico, as well as in other states like Chile and Uruguay, where the consolidation of democracy since the late 1980s has seen the transfer of presidential power, via the ballot box, not only from one person to another but also from one party to another, without any radical adjustment of the accepted rules of the game. This, for him, is the key to assessing the health of democracy in the region.

The replacement of authoritarian or ineffectual presidents by leaders who undermine or destroy institutions fundamental to the functioning of democracy is a recipe for disaster. It takes time however to build democratic institutions and to build a national consensus on how the political and economic life of a country should be pursued. In this respect, governments and opposition parties alike have to play a responsible role in facilitating the national discussion and in understanding the wishes of the people, otherwise they risk being deemed irrelevant and rejected. In the face of evidence to the contrary, Prof Domínguez is still confident that sufficient examples exist in Latin America for there to be optimism that the democratic gains of the last 30 years will not be rolled back. Can we profess similar confidence in Guyana?

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