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Latin America Is Slipping Back Into Strongman Rule

Latin America Is Slipping Back Into Strongman Rule

Thursday, 1 July, 2021 - 05:00
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

For reasons of geography, culture and commerce, no region of the world matters more to the US than Latin America. But because the US has long been such a dominant presence there, the region receives comparatively little attention from Washington — until something goes seriously wrong.

That’s why so few Americans seem to have noticed an alarming trend: The long, slow erosion of Latin American democracy is threatening to become an autocratic avalanche.

Nicaragua is the most recent example. Since 2007, President Daniel Ortega has maneuvered to consolidate power and marginalize his opposition. During a political crisis in 2018, he reportedly relied on extralegal detentions, torture and killings to stymie his foes. Now, Ortega has thrown off the mask altogether, jailing virtually all of his prospective opponents in presidential elections this fall. History has come full circle in Nicaragua: The man who helped overthrow one tyranny in 1979 has now established another.

Two decades ago, Latin America seemed to have escaped its authoritarian past. In the 1970s and 1980s, democracies steadily displaced dictatorships. By 2000, Fidel Castro’s Cuba was the region’s lone island of autocracy. The moment didn’t last.

In retrospect, the election of Hugo Chavez as Venezuela’s president in 1999 had already started an ominous trend: Populists came to power through democratic procedures and then set about weakening the institutions that constrained them.

Illiberal leaders subsequently held power for lengthy periods in Ecuador and in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales’s increasing autocratic tenure was ended only by a military coup in 2019. Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has longed for the days of military rule. El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele brought armed soldiers and police into the nation’s legislative assembly to demonstrate “who’s in control of the situation.” In Mexico, critics of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador debate whether he is an aspiring authoritarian or is simply debasing the political system through his incompetence.

Regular elections still occur almost everywhere, but democratic backsliding has accelerated and political instability has spiked in countries large and small. Case in point: Peru is currently caught in a tense political standoff amid challenges to the legitimacy of a closely contested, ideologically polarized presidential election.

It’s easy to explain this regression as the result of internal factors: The façade of Latin American democracy was always more impressive than the foundation. Regular democratic elections concealed fragile democratic institutions and norms. Persistent poverty and inequality left the ground fertile for ambitious populists. Underdeveloped states with weak tax bases struggled to control surging criminal violence, which then made democracy lose its luster. Illiberal leaders mastered an “autocrats’ playbook” that entailed changing electoral rules, packing courts and otherwise co-opting or deforming the political infrastructure of a democratic state.

Things may soon get even worse: Covid-19 has set Latin American countries back years economically, exposed glaring failures of public health programs and social safety nets, and exacerbated the citizen insecurity that so often fuels political volatility. Longtime Latin America-watcher Cynthia Arnson of the Wilson Center wrote that the pandemic could affect the region’s democracies “in negative and potentially irreversible ways.”

Yet political shifts have always been linked to geopolitical shifts: It is no coincidence that Latin America became most democratic after the Cold War, when a democratic superpower reigned supreme. Since the early 2000s, the global balance of power has changed, and so has the region’s balance of political forces.

In the 2000s, Venezuelan oil wealth allowed Chavez to subsidize the Castro regime in Cuba and like-minded leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries. More recently, the re-emergence of autocratic great powers has had profound regional effects.

Countries that once would have had to seek financing from US-led international institutions — which generally take corruption and good governance seriously — can now get no-strings-attached loans and investment from China. After Rafael Correa repudiated part of Ecuador’s foreign debt in 2008, for instance, his government turned to China for billions of dollars of loans, repaid through privileged access to Ecuadoran oil. A wobbling regime in Venezuela can prop itself up by leaning on other autocracies: Russia helps the government evade international sanctions and dispatches mercenaries to serve as a praetorian guard for President Nicolas Maduro.

Meanwhile, Chinese surveillance technology has helped illiberal regimes track political opponents and keep tabs on their populations. Russia, and sometimes China, shields governments in Havana, Managua and Caracas from international censure of their human rights abuses; Ortega’s thugs have used Russian weapons to shoot unarmed protestors. And Bukele, Maduro and other illiberal leaders can use China as a counterweight to America: Press us too hard, they can say, and we’ll just cast our lot with Beijing.

It’s not an entirely hollow threat: When Mexico is excluded from the calculus, China is already the largest buyer of Latin America’s exports. As political scientists Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon wrote, autocratic leaders currently have more “exit options” — ways of slipping the constraints of the liberal international order — than they did before.

Regardless of what happens in Nicaragua or any other country, the crisis of democracy in the Western Hemisphere will persist, because it is being propelled by strong internal forces as well as changing geopolitical winds. Latin America’s post-Cold War moment is over, in no small part because America’s unipolar moment is over as well.


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