In an interview with Prodavinci, a media platform for in-depth analysis, WOLA’s President Carolina Jiménez Sandoval and Venezuelan journalist and writer Hugo Prieto dive deep into the implications of democratic regression in Latin America for human rights and social justice, and the challenges it poses for relations with the United States, a country currently facing its own challenges to democracy. This article was translated and republished with permission. Read the original article in Spanish here.
Hugo Prieto (HP): For much of the 20th century, the hopes placed on Latin America, as an alternative to the most selfish capitalism and societies immersed in greed, attracted the attention and curiosity of the academic centers of the United States and Europe. But the dream that a better world is possible turned into a nightmare. Democracy, as a system of government, failed and disappointed a population thirsty for well-being.
Behind each attempt, the most disturbing and terrifying of which took place in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, there was a boomerang effect that brought back new shamans, sorcerers’ apprentices, messiahs, fantasizer and other trappings for political leaders, spontaneous or not, who transited, in a circular fashion, from repressive, even murderous dictatorships to precarious democracies. In this round trip, we run like hamsters in their circles.
The leftist dictatorships of the 21st century – Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – coexist with populist leaders who dismantle democracies in their countries, the most eloquent being a young president, elected in a country wounded by a civil war that exhibits the dubious privilege of having built the largest prison in the Western Hemisphere in a small wedge of Central America: El Salvador. Peru sinks in racism, Chile in bewilderment and Colombia discovers that nobody, once in power, says what they really think.
I talked to Carolina Jiménez (CJ) about liberal democracy, that dream of individual freedom, to which institutional limits are imposed, but which we Latin Americans truncate without major qualms.
HP: I would not know if the state of democracy in Latin America is in a terminal phase or if it is suffering from a chronic illness. What would you say?
CJ: I believe that Latin America is no exception to the democratic regression that the world is experiencing. If you look at the analyses of organizations (Freedom House and The Economist index, for example) that, for a long time, have been measuring the democratic quality in different countries, you find that the region shows a very significant decline. There is no doubt that this is a very clear setback. We have a region that is experiencing the third largest human mobility crisis in the world, but also desperate people fleeing their countries, where autocracies or very consolidated authoritarians rule: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba. Other nations are experiencing a very accelerated regression of democracy (El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico). The United States, the flagship promoter of democracy, is also experiencing a setback and since 2016, does not qualify as a full democracy. I believe there is a deep wound, in what we believed was a democratic promise. A promise that was not fulfilled.
HP: Latin America has always been seen as a laboratory for economic trials or forms of government. But I believe that democratic regression is more typical of this latitude than of any other. What would be the reason for this beginning?
Latin America has indeed been the place where certain authoritarianisms have originated, but it is also where resistance to these forms of government has been experienced. I think there are two things that can explain why. Our republican history is more recent than that of other continents. We can think of the figures of the caudillos and of a modeling of political leaderships that were replicated as the way of doing politics. But beyond historical factors, I believe that, in countries with recent democracies, the expectation was that welfare and acceptable standards of living would be achieved in these countries. Much was expected of what some have called “delivery-democracy” and with it would come certain national products: access to housing, health, education and civic freedoms. Years later we realize that democracy, in many countries of the region, failed. Inequality deepened and countries like Haiti were unable to overcome very high poverty rates. So, what we have is a situation in which democracy failed to provide its citizens with welfare. The second thing I believe, and this is more applicable to this century, is that democracy in the region is experiencing an epistemological crisis. That is to say, unlike the autocracies of the past, those of the present use the tools of democracy to reach power. To perpetuate themselves in power. That is why citizens are losing faith in democracy and are beginning to believe in authoritarian leaders who direct their political actions.
HP: I would point, perhaps, to other causes. One of them is that the citizens of Latin America do not really believe that democracy, as a political project, will lead them to well-being. As a society, we have always been wedded to populism. Academic centers have also pointed out that: Latin America is the paradise of populism. In general, in many ways, populism is the opposite of democracy. I would say that this failure is deeply rooted.
CJ: Certainly, populism has marked certain political stages in Latin America. But at the same time, I believe that although this idea has been reinforced in this century, it has also been questioned. This is the century of protests, for example. If Latin Americans were satisfied with populism, I don’t think we would have seen the waves of protest that have taken place in several countries. I also believe that there is a new generation that has a different political activation, whose demands for rights have diverse expressions. Among young people there is a lot of apathy towards the political system as we know it. But the malaise does not make young people apolitical. Quite the contrary. Young people today have other tools to express their discontent, their needs and demands, without necessarily waiting for a populist leader. Their interests are different from those that mobilized previous generations: the environmental crisis, gender equity, but also social justice. They want welfare, they want to have a decent job. While populism has been a reality of our political history as a region, I also believe that this same system is being questioned by a new generation.
HP: Protests have been repressed throughout the region. In Cuba people are sentenced to long terms in prison for demanding freedom. In Venezuela, in 2017, protests ended in a bloodbath, as well as in Nicaragua and Chile. I don’t think it makes much sense to go out on the streets to be immolated or massacred.
CJ: One thing is the act of going out to protest and another is the repression with which protests are responded to. The former shows that the people are not accepting these populisms as given. Venezuela and Nicaragua are very tangible examples. In Venezuela three huge waves of protests (2014, 2017, 2019) have taken place in just five years. This shows that there has been a very important process of resistance. Then you move from protest to other types of resistance. 2018 was probably one of the most traumatic periods in Nicaragua’s history (355 deaths, according to IACHR figures). There have not been similar protests since then, but there has been a sophistication of resistance in Nicaragua. You have alliances that power tries to break in every possible way. It divides them, imprisons them, banishes them but they keep at it, with different levels of organization in Costa Rica, for example (NGOs, opposition deputies, former Sandinistas). This shows that societies do not remain silent, accepting authoritarianism. Now, certainly, the responses of the States are brutally repressive. If you add to that the fact that Cuba and Venezuela are facing a complex humanitarian emergency, you have societies facing great difficulties in articulating themselves politically. Resistance continues in the most precarious conditions.
HP: From democracies to dictatorships. This has been the historical cycle in Latin America. Although the authoritarianism of the 21st century is different from that of the 20th century, they are still dictatorships. Currently, they are more consolidated and strengthened. Perhaps, in this circular movement, we are experiencing a sophistication of the worst we have lived through.
CJ: I share this concern. I do not know if it is a circle, because these new forms of authoritarianism, effectively, have come to sophisticate the way in which they come to power and stay in power. They are breaking old patterns. But it is true, I have said it before: Pinochet did not have Twitter, Ríos Montt did not trade in Bitcoin, Videla did not have morning briefings (“AMLO’s “mañaneras”) or “Aló Presidente.” We are facing authoritarian governments in the age of disinformation. Some of them, incredibly well equipped to use disinformation to their advantage and they do it in a very efficient way. That changes the rules of the game that we knew when it comes to understanding how to defend a democracy. Unfortunately, at this point, we know who is winning that pro- or anti-democracy fight. What we have seen is that in the same way that authoritarians are installed, they are also uninstalled. In this phase of authoritarianism, it is up to civil society to fight with other strategies, because those in power are clearly using different practices. There is no doubt that we are facing a situation of great asymmetry. We do not have armies, police and espionage networks. But we have seen examples, where authoritarianism has been able to move, when it was unthinkable that there was going to be a change and it happened.
HP: Which ones?
CJ: I find it incredible how Alberto Fujimori ended up in jail, tried in his own country for crimes against humanity. What happened in the dictatorships in the south of the continent or in those places where a transition from authoritarianism to democracy has been achieved? This is what we have to learn from the new tools used by authoritarians to stay in power.
HP: It is true, these authoritarians have been deactivated, but these countries have ended up in permanent political crises: Peru is a labyrinth, Chile a matter of distrust and doubt, Argentina, sunk in its gap traced by General Juan Domingo Perón. Authoritarians are deactivated, we fall into political crises and end up with new authoritarians. We go round and round, like a dog chasing its own tail.
CJ: In all the countries you mentioned, progress has been made by consolidating institutional democracies: division of powers, broader civil and political rights, more solid electoral bodies, etc., etc., etc. But economic, social and cultural rights in these countries were relegated to the background. If there is a common characteristic in these countries, it is that they have an enormous inequality gap. If you look at the crisis in Peru, it seems to be a reaction of the poorest regions, inhabited by indigenous peoples, against the center of Lima. And something similar is happening in Chile, where the protests against the Piñera government had a lot to do with the issue of inequality. There is no acceptable index of equality on any scale in these countries. Because of this gap, the countries end up being breeding grounds for an outsider-type leader to arrive as the new messiah. If this enormous inequality persists, we will probably see authoritarianism again and again in the region.
HP: I believe that the thesis according to which all Latin America’s problems are due to “U.S. imperialism” has been exhausted. That saying has been exhausted. Perhaps we are at a moment in which we have to look at ourselves. We are going to discover our own conditions, very harmful and contrary to democracy.
CJ: That outdated, old, anachronistic rhetoric of blaming “the empire” for all our ills may not mean anything to you or me. But in a way that is unbelievable to us, it continues to be used by various leaders in the region, by political parties and by political followers. When you go into the official newspapers of Nicaragua or Venezuela, even El Salvador, at least in Bukele’s speeches, you find that this vision is still present in authoritarian political narratives. It is still a source of narrative power and justification for all evils. I do believe that in certain sectors of the Latin American citizenry an anti-American sentiment persists, because they are followers of these political currents. But it is obvious that, for a long time now, we have needed to look at ourselves, recognize ourselves and take charge of our own history, have we not? And that does not mean isolating ourselves. With the United States we have to seek more symmetrical relations -economic and commercial- in order to have a different development.
HP: The main authoritarians are Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, countries governed by leftist parties and organizations. This trite, anachronistic, old discourse is the daily bread of the left. The social bases where this discourse obtains political revenue are the left-wing voters. So, I believe that the left has a great and enormous responsibility in the destiny of Latin America. Basically, it was the Cuban revolution that promised us something else.
CJ: That political reference of analysis, left and right, has also been fading out in the region. Yes, we can say that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are countries governed by leftist autocrats, but one wonders if those ideas were lost a long time ago. Certainly, there are ideological alliances and one questions t alliances based on those ideologies. It is no secret that Juan Orlando Hernández, the former president of Honduras (currently imprisoned for drug trafficking in a U.S. jail), if we use these classifications, is a right-wing, conservative character, and his main ally in Central America was always Daniel Ortega, Bukele we see with the son of the couple that currently governs Honduras. The alliances that one sees today seem to deactivate those criteria. If there is a photo that will go down in history, it is that of Pedro Castillo and Jair Bolsonaro and surely, there will be no people with ideologies as different as those two characters. López Obrador, once in power, had a very fruitful relationship with Trump, to the point that he was one of the last Latin American leaders to recognize Biden’s victory. This does not detract from the resounding condemnation of these authoritarians that call themselves leftist, among other things, because they are openly and clearly anti-democratic.
HP: Social and economic rights are traditional banners of the left. And it is precisely in the countries where the left is in power that the greatest setbacks in these rights have been registered. Something as elementary as the right of association is in doubt in Venezuela. So, I am not very clear that these categories have faded out. The left has not made an analysis, a reflection, of their trajectory, of the role they have played in government functions.
CJ: I agree with the need to make visible the anti-democratic and repressive nature of regimes such as those in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. And now we are adding authoritarian regimes such as those in Guatemala and El Salvador. But putting this in a historical context, if you go back to the 1970s and take a picture of the dictators of that time, you will see that there were right-wing dictators, the typical military men who came to power through coups d’état. If you go forward 50 years later and take a similar picture of power, you will find that the authoritarians of this present moment are the heirs of socialist revolutions (Cuba and Nicaragua) to overthrow dictatorships and in the case of Venezuela, we have Chavismo Madurismo that came to power to make a popular revolution, and we already know how that ended. So, in this historical perspective, what you see is a region that has suffered from both types of authoritarianism, all of them repressive, and which are also nourished by very savage corruption processes. That is what I see in the historical context. Now, I agree with you when you say that the left has not made an analysis and this lack of reflection is worrying.