WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

14 Jun 2022 | Commentary

Carolina Jiménez Sandoval: “One of the Main Victims of the ‘Authoritarian Virus’ is Judicial Independence”

Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of WOLA, says that the recent Summit of the Americas failed to include a deep reflection or debate on how to curb authoritarianism. In this conversation, she reviews the features of these authoritarian models, such as the use of democratic tools to stay in power, the lack of separation of powers, and their patriarchal and anti-rights agendas.

Traditional analyses, based on Cold War paradigms, have become outdated in the face of these hybrid models, says Jiménez, who stresses the need to think of new forms of participation, representation and empowerment of citizens and civil society to counteract this path that power is taking across the continent.

What are your takeaways from the IX Summit of the Americas?

Carolina Jiménez (CJ): It is not a Summit for which there is much to celebrate. For me, what it leaves, among other things, is the absence of a serious debate on democracy. Due to disagreements over certain decisions made by the host country, it ended up being a summit that showed much more disagreements than agreements in the region. It was evident not only the antagonism between some Latin American leaders and the United States, but also the lack of clarity when it comes to Washington’s priorities.

Summits do not necessarily lead to agreements that transform hemispheric policy, but they should at least be spaces to find some more common ground. This summit was rather a reflection of a reality that is not new, but which is deepening – that this hemisphere is unfortunately moving towards the emergence, and in some cases, establishment, of authoritarian leaderships.  There was  no serious debate on how to combat this advance and return to promoting democratic practices.

It seems no coincidence that this summit closed just as in the United States a congressional committee began its public hearings on the attack by Donald Trump loyalists on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021 to press for the re-election of the former president. Are we talking about a continent-wide regression?

CJ: We are no longer talking about democratic setbacks, we are talking about the advance and consolidation of authoritarianism, which are two different frames of reference. When we talk about democratic setbacks we are talking about a strong presence of democracy with some setbacks and threats. But there are countries in this region or entire sub-regions, such as Central America, where there are already very consolidated authoritarianisms or authoritarian leaders that are advancing at a very fast pace. In addition, the United States, a country whose foreign policy was centered for many years on the promotion of democracy, is a country that today has a great democratic deficit. The United States is struggling for its own democracy to survive. Donald Trump’s administration managed, in a very short time, to attack and threaten fundamental institutions, to the point that it came to the events of January 6. What happened that day in Washington did not prevent a democratic transition from taking place, but it showed the power of extremist and anti-democratic forces, which continue to be living forces in the United States and continue to advance the threat of authoritarianism.

What are we talking about when we talk about democracy and to what extent can the United States promote democracies?

CJ: In its simplest concept, democracy is the form of government that collects and responds to the demands of a society while protecting the rights of all people, including minorities. It is the form of government where the leader is subject to the rules of the game agreed upon with the population and ultimately his or her mandate depends on the will of the citizens and not the other way around. As several analysts have said, democracy is going through an epistemological crisis where confidence in the very nature of the system has been called into question. Democracy goes far beyond the concrete action of voting or electing representatives. It is a political system that not only grants civil and political freedoms and rights to the population, but must also provide social justice, equality and economic prosperity.

The advance of authoritarianism is no longer just a Latin American issue, it is a hemispheric issue and must be addressed as such. If the United States is a country that is fighting for the survival of its own democracy, it is logical that it has more challenges when it comes to promoting democracy in other places. No country in Latin America wants to have a January 6.

That said, unlike the Trump administration, the Biden presidency has expressed that the defense of democracy is a fundamental part of its foreign policy and in that sense has called on governments such as Bukele’s in El Salvador to account for their anti-democratic practices and has denounced the criminalization of justice advocates in Guatemala, just to give two examples. We continue to believe that, despite its great domestic challenges, the United States has a positive role to play in the fight against authoritarianism both in its domestic policy and in its relationship with Latin America.

Unlike the old dictators, the new authoritarians are making use of democratic tools to accumulate power, what changed?

CJ: The authoritarianisms of this century are different from the dictatorships of the last century. We need to analyze things again in order to understand these new contexts. Pinochet did not have Twitter, Videla did not trade bitcoins and Ríos Montt did not know the concept of post-truth. Many of the authoritarian leaders in our region reached their leadership positions through democratic elections. Often what happens is that once they have come to power via democratic processes, they become entrenched through electoral frauds or other practices, but their arrival is not through coups d’état. Elections are a fundamental pillar of democracy, but they are not in themselves the only pillar. These new authoritarians maintain themselves in power using other  democratic forms.

That is the lens we need to use for the discussion about the use of Twitter by Trump and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. There are those who believe that Trump should have Twitter because it is a matter of freedom of expression, which is a pillar of democracy. But Bukele uses Twitter, for example, to attack human rights defenders, journalists, to misinform. Those of us who believe in human rights know that freedom of expression has certain limits, but this is not the case in all national jurisdictions. The use of the same mechanisms of democracy to build authoritarian leadership is very bad news.

Is the left-right, revolution-anticommunism paradigm that for so long served to label Latin American governments outdated?

CJ: That vision of the 70s and 80s in the context of the Cold War with which some analysts and even politicians in the region continue to live is not useful to understand what is happening today. A very graphic example is the inauguration of Daniel Ortega’s third consecutive term in office in Nicaragua. There was a general condemnation by the international community because the elections were false, lacking the basic principles of a free and independent process. Who was present at his inauguration? Very few. Yet, we must remember that Juan Orlando Hernández (former president) of Honduras was there. No one can say that there is ideological affinity between those two. Of the few visits Ortega has received in Nicaragua in recent months, one is that of the Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, and no one can say that there is ideological affinity between the two either. Although after some criticism, the Guatemalan Foreign Minister had to clarify that he was making the visit as part of a regional tour, it is striking that his meetings included high-ranking officials sanctioned by the U.S. government. The old paradigm no longer serves for this moment because there are leaders that call themselves of the left and of the right that are profoundly anti-democratic. There are alliances that have nothing to do with ideological affinities. What exists now are authoritarian leaderships that seek to stifle democratic practices in their countries.

If the ideological paradigm no longer defines them, what does? Their messianic narrative, their populism, their assault on national treasuries?

CJ: These leaders present themselves to their societies as the only ones who can save their nations. They have in common that they launch projects and promises that are unattainable. They are also characterized by the fact that they always seek to break with the political systems of the past. This is repeated a lot – from Bukele to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico –in their political projects: They claim they are the only ones with whom people can identify for a change, they are the ones who are capable of breaking with the past and the only ones capable of improving the lives of their citizens. That is their narrative. Those populist lines are very common among most of them. But we must also understand the differences: not all of them have the same oratory skills, not all of them use social networks in the same way, not all of them relate to social movements in the same way. We are facing new complex and hybrid ways of authoritarianism. That is why I believe that the previous frameworks are not so useful.

What does the emergence of these hybrid models of authoritarianism say about democracy?

CJ: I believe that democracy as such is in crisis. Populism arises and is accepted because democracy does not fulfill its role, which was not only to grant civil and political liberties and rights to the population, but also social justice, equality and economic prosperity. It must be recognized that in many of our countries that promise was not fulfilled and there is disenchantment with the unfulfilled promise. People are also tired of the very nature of democracy and its possibilities as a form of government and are no longer so convinced that they need it to find a way out of their needs. Is it not then understandable that if a leader emerges who promises to fulfill that promise, people are, at the end of the day, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt or to embrace them completely? Disenchantment with these leaderships take time; that is why we see that, after several years of governing, leaders like López Obrador and Bukele maintain high levels of popularity. We need new frameworks not only to understand the current context, but also to promote new forms of democracy. We also need to acknowledge that people and civil society have other forms of expression or representation.  The crisis of political parties and the rise of populism show that the promise of democracy, as we understood it in the twentieth century, was not fulfilled, which is why we are living this epistemological crisis.

Let’s talk about democratic institutions. January 6, 2021 in the United States tells us about the leader’s disregard for the separation of powers. In some parts of Latin America that separation is completely blurred. Is absolute control of the state something that these leaders are inevitably leading us to?

CJ: One of the main victims of the “virus of authoritarianism” is judicial independence. In the system of checks and balances of a democracy, the judiciary is the last redoubt when the power of the executive is overwhelming. Once these authoritarian leaders manage to control the congress, probably through free elections, the judiciary is absolutely necessary as the last counterweight. We see this clearly with Trump and the nomination of conservative justices to  the U.S. Supreme Court. Ortega began his assault on the judiciary at least in 2010. In Guatemala, they have not elected Supreme Court justices for two years and the Attorney General has no autonomy. Bukele made the Salvadoran judicial system collapse in a matter of months; he changed the Court, changed the prosecutor, and reconfigured the system to suit himself. Jair Bolsonaro’s attacks against Brazil’s judicial system are fully documented. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez began the process of co-opting the judiciary and the government of Nicolás Maduro ended any trace of independence of the justice system. These authoritarian leaders know that co-opting the judiciary and eliminating its independence is very necessary to perpetuate themselves in power.

Are there any other common features?

CJ: The closure of civic space and the use of the media to demonize those who criticize them.

Nicaragua passed very restrictive laws and has closed hundreds of NGOs. Venezuela has had very restrictive laws in the past, but now it is also threatening a new law on international cooperation that would put many NGOs out of business. Trump, who could not easily change laws at will, made an enemy of the press. López Obrador is another leader who frequently criticizes the independent press, in a country that also has the highest rate of murdered journalists in the region without unfortunately the president showing much empathy. Closing spaces to the press and NGOs is common to this type of leadership.

I also see, and this is less talked about and it worries me a lot, that authoritarianism is conservative and patriarchal. Alongside these leaders there are conservative forces that instrumentalize politics to advance their agendas. Authoritarianism is patriarchal and anti-rights. What you see is that, in countries where this type of leadership emerges and takes hold, sexual and reproductive rights, the rights of LGBTI people, among others, are directly attacked. The idea of toxic masculinity is used and promoted as a source  of power. Again, look at the countries in Central America, where access to sexual and reproductive rights is more restricted. In Venezuela, after more than two decades of a so-called “socialist revolution” there has been no progress in LGTBI rights unlike other countries in South America. The groups that privately and for years have promoted this agenda find great allies in these leaders.