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Latin America’s New Class of Dictators Have Hijacked Democracy

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Oct 20, 2015, 9:09 am
Law-abiding leaders must stop legitimizing regional dictators. (América XXI)
Law-abiding leaders must stop legitimizing regional dictators. (América XXI)

EspañolWith the complete restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, we have returned to a time when Latin American dictatorships are tolerated, even accepted, as long as they meet certain requirements.

These 21st-century dictators have grown stronger, and democratic leaders around the world rush to embrace them at those international summits they enjoy so much. No one so much as raises his voice to these new rulers. They receive no criticism whatsoever, not even indirectly.

Bolivia is the latest example of how Latin American dictatorships consolidate themselves. President Evo Morales aims to run for office again in 2019. If he wins, he will have been in power for two decades by the end of his fourth term.

Previously, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, and his Nicaraguan counterpart Daniel Ortega, achieved a similar victory, following in the footsteps of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

The Kirchners in Argentina almost made it. In Brazil, though far from being a dictatorship, President Dilma Rousseff and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva cling to power, as the well-documented corruption allegations mount against their Workers’ Party.

However, for the international community to accept a dictatorship nowadays, it must maintain a democratic facade. The recipe is simple: first, they win an election, observing the rules of the game. Once in office, however, they begin invading and controlling the other branches of government.

Through pressure, political benefits disguised as welfare programs, and changes to the electoral system, they pave the way to guaranteeing a win in the next elections. After they have managed to tame Congress, the ruling party can change the Constitution and rig the game to remain in power indefinitely.

Today, we are worse off than in previous decades in this regard. Between 1950 and 1980, the military dominated Latin American dictatorships. Many of these rulers were anti-communists, or embraced developmentalism, but they always promised to “restore democracy.”

These dictatorships recognized the need for democracy, so they allowed free elections and gave way for democratic presidents to step in, such as Raúl Alfonsín (Argentina), Belaúnde Terry (Peru), Vinicio Cerezo (Guatemala), Jose Sarney (Brazil), and Patricio Alwyn (Chile).

This is not the case anymore. Morales, Maduro, Correa, and Ortega present themselves as democratic rulers, but they are impossible to defeat in elections. They control everything: from the election authority to the press, the judiciary, and the army. They follow the example of their beloved Castro brothers, building their own totalitarian jail of a country to oppress their people.

What’s more concerning, however, is how the rest of Latin America reacts to this. Democratic presidents throughout the region not only tolerate the situation, they back these dictators during hard times, hug them and express solidarity, and help to consolidate their power.

Even the United States and countries across Europe, which supposedly uphold the values of liberal democracy, openly support these dictators. For US and European leaders, it seems as though what’s unacceptable for their countries is just fine for ours, revealing some of that patronizing racism left over from colonial times.

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Sadly, this course is a difficult one to reverse. Our civic movements and democratic parties remain defenseless against these regimes that ignore the rule of law and separation of powers.

This new wave of totalitarianism also poses a risk to those nations that still respect basic rules of political coexistence, which are fortunately still the majority in Latin America. Democratic leaders should draw a clear line that separates them from autocratic regimes in the region.

Otherwise, we risk normalizing forms of government we thought we’d left behind long ago.

Translated by Adam Dubove.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324