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Authoritarianism advances in Latin America

As it appears from the year that ends, Latin American democracy will once again experience a dangerous year in 2022.

As it appears from the year that ends

Colaboración Confidencial

Mauricio Sáenz*

22 de diciembre 2021


The defense against authoritarianism, the fight against corruption and respect for human rights were the three pillars US President Joe Biden had in mind when he held the Summit for Democracy last week, with representatives from 110 governments accompanied by journalists, business leaders and activists from various fields.

The meeting proved to be an insufficient and belated event, but above all strange. Indeed, the guest list included a few disreputable figures while it left out others who considered themselves to be worthy of being there. All of which gave the impression that it was really a summit of Washington’s strategic interests. Therefore, when it ended without concrete commitments, the event only demonstrated that the concept of democracy itself is becoming more and more diluted every day and that even the United States, once its universal beacon, must fight to defend it in its own territory.

The latter has a particularly crucial significance in Latin America, which also closed a year marked by democratic backsliding both in governments and in popular preferences for politicians who are disdainful of the system.

As in everything, there are different grades of disrespect. At the top are, besides Cuba of course, its allies Nicaragua and Venezuela, whose presidents crossed the limits and confirmed themselves as dictators. In effect, Daniel Ortega had no problem apprehending his opposing candidates to win, on November 7, his fourth consecutive term and open the possibility of completing 18 uninterrupted years in power. Nicolas Maduro renewed his majority on the 21st of the same month, in regional elections plagued with irregularities, as so many times since he took over from Hugo Chávez.

Others have not taken the step but show themselves very prone to do so. At the other political extreme, Salvadoran Nayib Bukele, who sarcastically recognizes himself as “the coolest dictator in the world,” seems ready for anything. This year he continued on the path where he began, at the beginning of his term, by taking over Congress with armed soldiers. He maintains high popularity thanks, among other things, to a powerful communication network that panders to him while he corners critical media. And he ordered judges he has in his pocket to annul, in September, the constitutional rule that prohibited consecutive reelection, which would allow the “millennial” president to make his way to perpetuate himself in power.

On the same corner is Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro who had no qualms to throw his fanatics against legislators and judges to avoid going to trial for the deaths caused by his inaction during the pandemic. In addition, a couple of months ago he confirmed that he would not be willing to respect his defeat in the next elections. An attitude that portends the worst, given the President’s nostalgia for the military dictatorship of the 1970s.

Others begin to show autocratic overtones, although in more tentative or veiled ways. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador convened a consultation to prosecute his predecessors for corruption, as if the Judiciary functioned by referendum. The move didn’t go well because less than 40% voted, but he confirmed his propensity to resort to opinion blows. That, coupled with his constant attacks on the critical media; the central importance of the Army in his Government and his lunges against the National Electoral Institute, constitute a disturbing cocktail.

For his part, the Bolivian Luis Arce takes advantage of the malleability of a judicial system prone to following the Executive’s directives to keep deputy Jeanine Anez in prison, who assumed the Presidency as the last constitutional option after the turbulent departure from power of Evo Morales. Anez’s role in the episode was controversial, but the characteristic of her indefinite detention gives a hint of legal revenge, worthier of a dictator than of a democratic president.

In Colombia, Ivan Duque has concentrated influences in his head that threaten the separation of powers, while he represses social protest with excessive force. Gradually, and as if “almost unwittingly,” he has surrounded himself with officials close to him in institutions such as the Attorney’s General Office, Prosecutor’s Office, Office of the Ombudsperson and the Comptroller’s Office. Meanwhile, he does not spare disqualifying criticism against the Judiciary, such as when a judge ordered house arrest for his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe. Lately, he had to reject an article of the anticorruption bill that muzzled the press, proposed by his own party, after the scandal it unleashed.

Peruvians are not spared either, because their President Pedro Castillo is already proclaiming the need to convene a Constituent Assembly, the classic measure to stay in power. Something that also the new President of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, also intends to do, who finished her triumphant speech with an “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Victory Forever), an emblematic phrase of the Cuban Revolution, not exactly an example of representative democracy.

In Chile far-rightist candidate Jose Antonio Kast lost to left-wing student leader like Gabriel Boricn, 56 to 44% on Sunday December 19th. Kast had stated in a debate that “Pinochet would have voted for me,” appealing to those who supported the (1973-1990) dictatorship. He proposed opening a ditch to prevent the passage of migrants and a firm hand in the conflict with the Mapuche indigenous people. After Boric takes office in March 2022 will come the conclusions of the Constituent Assembly that the 35-year-old president-elect supported.

On the other hand, Colombia will have presidential elections in May. There Gustavo Petro, a leftist candidate, worries many due to his history as Mayor of Bogota, when he responded to legal actions against him by summoning his followers to the Plaza de Bolivar, in open defiance of institutions. Petro has repeatedly toyed with the idea of convening a constituent assembly “if congress does not make the necessary reforms,” although he has also given conflicting assurances that he will not take that step.

What is behind it?

With that background, there is no doubt that 2022 will be marked by an authoritarian tide. Behind this antidemocratic expansion there are multiple causes and multiple circumstances.

One of them comes from the United States, self-defined as the global promoter of democracy, but today perforated by the determination of many Republican leaders to not recognize the 2020 elections and to restore Donald Trump in power, at all costs. This sad spectacle only means one thing: nowadays, to remain in power, anything goes, and the enemies are not corruption, inequality, or authoritarianism, but democracy itself. In this scenario, the leaders of the opposition, the independent press, non-governmental organizations and, finally, the system of checks and balances are only obstacles that must be eliminated by any means.

But neither Trump is unpopular, nor are many of his occasional Latin American “pupils” from both political extremes. None of these authoritarian characters could reach power without the absence of a deep popular disillusionment with a democracy that throughout all these years has failed to fulfill its promises.

As the political scientist Andrés Malamud, professor at the University of Lisbon, told CONNECTAS, in Latin America, “democracy is menaced from two flanks: the populist utopia and the technocratic dystopia. The populist utopia has little traction: although they praise Chavez, no one wants to be Venezuela. And the technocratic dystopia is difficult to implement: to be China you must have its technological development and its social discipline. Thus, a third menace to democracy appears: its own failure to provide wellbeing.” A democracy, in effect, associated with distrust of political parties and an exclusive capitalism that leaves a vast majority of the population out of any hint of progress. A system tainted by corrupt officials whose actions subtract many percentage points from the economic performance of their countries. And a citizenry terrified of the insecurity that threatens on any corner.

In addition, that disillusion was fueled by the pandemic, which exposed the ugly face of Latin American governments. The world’s major health disaster in the last hundred years meant an enormous economic setback for the subcontinent. Likewise, it brought to the fore the ineffectiveness of public health systems and social safety nets. What is worse, it showed that corruption does not even respect people’s lives, as in the issue of differential access to vaccines.

That sum of disasters provides the perfect setting for authoritarian politicians, who offer to leave behind democratic processes, usually slow at best, and solve problems through magic formulas.

That type of rulers applies procedures that seem to be taken out of a manual, as Kevin Casas-Zamora, president of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), likes to say. They reach power through legitimate elections that they win with a messianic discourse and once consolidated in their chair, they capitalize their popularity to present a re-founding that allows them, of course, to remain in power long “enough” to finish their task. After their first reelection, they have no difficulty to grab the other branches of power to perpetuate their model by themselves or by proxy.

A bigger game

Let’s not forget that authoritarianism in the subcontinent is nothing new, since it has accompanied these republics practically since independence. However, towards the end of the century, Latin America seemed to have left those caudillo traditions behind and only Cuba remained under an openly undemocratic regime. Since 1999 this new trend began to form, launched by Hugo Chavez and followed at the time by presidents such as Rafael Correa in Ecuador or Evo Morales in Bolivia, who managed to get reelected several times by manipulating the institutions.

But there is a factor that makes this new wave more disturbing: the presence of new actors driven by their own agendas. It is no accident that this trend reappeared in time with the resurgence of China and Russia. Indeed, the coming to power of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Xi jinping in Beijing called into question the unipolar hegemony proclaimed by the United States at the end of the Cold War.

Amid a certain indifference from various White House residents, these leaders have spent the past years honing a growing presence in the former’s own hemisphere. Beijing and Moscow, alongside their legitimate businesses with several governments, are today partly responsible for the survival of the Latin American leaders least committed to democracy. Of course, they don’t ask uncomfortable questions about human rights or democratic freedoms when it comes to sharing their benefits.

China, which can only cultivate in 13% of its territory, has the urgent need of assuring food for 1.38 billion inhabitants. That makes that country a huge export market, but also a threat. In the last two decades, Beijing irrigated Latin America with direct investments in infrastructure and energy, as well as with soft loans that, in the case of Venezuela, have kept the Government of Nicolas Maduro afloat. Bilateral trade has also grown, to the point that Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Cuba have China as their most important export market. That country also seeks to play an important role in the implementation of 5G technology in Latin America.

On the other hand, for several countries in the region, China became the largest supplier of vaccines against coronavirus. Brazil, for example, applied the Chinese brand Coronavac to about 70% of those used so far. And on the other hand, several governments, such as those of Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, have already signed letters of intent to participate in the “New Silk Road,” a strategic plan for infrastructure and trade proclaimed in 2013 by Xi with the sight on achieving a global presence for that country.

Putin, for his part, has a more political than economical approach. As he has made clear since he took power in 2020, the Russian president seeks to recover the weight of the former Soviet Union. This resurgence, charged with hatred against the condescension of the United States after the end of the Cold War, had of course a warm reception among the governments of the Latin America left, particularly the main members of ALBA, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. They were no longer united with Moscow by ideological positions, but certainly by the animosity towards Washington.

As professor Vladimir Roubinski argues in an interview with the Nueva Sociedad magazine, Russian planes and ships began to appear in the hemisphere since 2008, after Washington’s support of Georgia against the Russian invasion of that country. That explains why Putin considers that the unacceptable influence that the United States seeks to exercise in its former territories allows him, reciprocally, to make a presence in its “backyard.” According to such an approach, if the United States has an active influence in Ukraine, Russia has every right to reject sanctions against Daniel Ortega or to arm Nicolas Maduro, always in the name of non-interference in the internal affairs of the countries.

Behind all this is an assertive policy of rejection of Western values. In a column in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant, Russian Foreign Minister Serguei Lavrov rejected the recrimination received at the G-7 Summit in Geneva in June, summarizing the Kremlim’s position: “There is more than one civilization in the world (…), Russia, China and other powers have their own ancient history, their own traditions, their own values, their own way of life (…) it is time to abandon the position of moral superiority.”

China is equally assertive. That is why it responded to Biden’s meeting last week with a “white paper” and with its own summit to demonstrate that “its democracy” provides its population with a well-being unreachable by the one that the United States defends, although it does not follow the same procedures. In the volume, it affirms that “there is no fixed model of democracy.”

These justifications do not make us forget realities such as social repression and the murder of opponents and journalists in Moscow, or the genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Because behind its rhetoric, Russia and China oppose democracy with authoritarian, and one-party rule, something that rhymes very well with the aspirations of Latin American strongmen but must say something to truly democratic rulers.

As an editorial writer for El País, from Madrid, recently stated, in this kind of new cold war, capitalist and communist governments do not confront each other, but rather democratic and authoritarian ones. Even though Latin American countries do not appear in the priorities of this global competition, everything that happens in this field will affect the region in 2022.

Every week, the Latin American journalism platform CONNECTAS, publishes analysis on current events in the Americas. If you are interested in reading more information like this, you can enter this link.

*Member of the editorial board of CONNECTAS.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times



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