Democracy in Latin America

In Latin America, democracy is a bit of a mixed bag. There are cases of stability and prosperity found in many countries as well as stints in others. For example in Venezuela, when Chavez first took office and began paying off the debt that Perez had accumulated the country showed signs of a prosperous and democratic future. But then by consolidating his ruling party and isolating his political opponents, Chavez made it clear that a new form of governance had been born. This is one of the more typical cases found where no single country can have sustained democracy for a prolonged period like many of its counterparts in Europe or North America. The question then becomes, what are the causes of such destabilization and what barriers impede development of democracy.

One of the most important aspects to consider when determining what makes democracy so inconsistent in Latin America is the fact that populism has a firm hold in many nations. There is a long tradition of populists leaders in Latin America, emerging first in Brazil in the 1930’s with the Getúlio Vargas administration, and in Argentina in the 1940s with the rule of Juan Domingo Perón. While many of these populist leaders put a focus on improving social conditions and granting the lower classes better social benefits, they undermined democratic institutions. Many leaders such as Hugo Chavez, overload their congress with members closely linked to them, making it easy for the leader to carry out their will. In addition to this, populist leaders restrict many basic freedoms, such as citizens right to freely congregate and protest as well as putting limitations on freedom of speech. So while populism did indeed help the people, it at the same time built up barriers to democracy that made it hard for the people to truly have sustained democracy. As we have seen in more recent years, the government that followed Chavez, led by his vice-president Maduro, has had to bear the burden of many of the barriers Chavez built. Two months into Maduro’s term, there was a group of students that massed together and protested basic shortages of goods, personal insecurity, and inflation. Ironically, the people who came to lead these protests, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Machado, were removed from the political arena by Chavez in years earlier. This point just goes back to Chavez’s desperation to make sure there was no opposition to him. Clearly these are barriers that the Venezuelan people are still dealing with today.

There are more aspects than merely social barriers. Consider Perez’s Venezuela as an example of how the economy can in fact deter the process of democracy. We see that because of the oil wealth in the country, the leading parties the AD and COPEI sought to control the oil money. For the 40-year period in which these parties ruled over the country the corruption stemming from the economic profit is egregious.  So while Perez used the oil money to raise the minimum wage, create new steel industries, and expand social benefits, this money was in turn digging the political parties deeper and deeper into the seats they were holding. During this time the parties dedication to maintaining their seats is what creates a barrier to the furthering and better of democracy, as the politicians are only bettering themselves, not the people they should represent.

The next part of the economic barriers to democracy is the most obvious one. The fact that many Latin American nations were once under the rule of European nations has left a serious mark on the former colonies. Neocolonialism is what today proves challenging to the colonized. These systems imposed by the colonizers were solely dependent upon money from the monarchy back home, so when the foreign investment halts, so does any kind development. Respectively, when the European nations packed up and left South America they were in turn leaving the nations with no kind of framework that would be able to prosper without their mother-nation. This dependency impedes the democratic process as the Latin American nations were trying to base a system off of a system that is not sustainable on its own. The main export of colonialism consisted of agricultural products, so the notion here being that the larger countries shaped the industry of these smaller nations by ensuring that the land was not properly distributed. In turn, this equated to the unequal distribution of wealth and fragmented the classes. The colonizer worked alongside the ruling classes in the region, using authoritarian means to exclude large segments of the population from participating in political and economic control of their communities. Remnants of this system are still seen today in Brazil, where even with a huge population of Brazilians of African descent, the ruling elite in the country are more European. The ruling class is primarily white men, who resemble Europeans, and the disparity between the rulers and their constituents is huge as the elite are not representative of the rest of the nation.

At the end of the day, there are many obstacles to the consolidation and improvement of democracy throughout Latin America. From economic barriers going back to the colonial era, such as the social and political issues conjoined with governmental corruption and improper use of authority, or the isolation of classes and unequal representation of the population. As we can see, there are many barriers that inhibit a sustained democratic element from taking hold in the region. Many of the countries are able to get over the hurdle better than others, while for some it takes a bit longer and a bit more international help. It is not something that has one answer fits all, each person country has to figure out how best to improve democratic conditions and develop the country.

Andrew is a current junior at Bard College in New York, in the Global and International Studies program. While not on campus this semester, he is a research intern for the World Policy Institute in NYC, conducting a project on Latin American and U.S. foreign relations. Andrew has a focus in Latin American politics and society, the global economy, as well as intelligence/risk.