Signs of democratic demise in Latin America


This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction , an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system.

What is happening with global democracy? Recent reports from the Economist and Freedom House reinforce a drumbeat coming from commentators across the globe: Democracy as a global phenomenon — simultaneously an ideal and a set of formal and informal rules reigning in many countries worldwide — is under threat. Observers of Latin America echo the alarm, pointing especially to recent events in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Honduras. What should we make of it all?

By temperament and training, political scientists are rightly wary of forecasting the future, as Jennifer Victor recently noted. Nonetheless, in the interest of stimulating debate, I’m going on the record with a grim prediction, a hypothesis that time will test: We have entered a period in which democracy will recede and authoritarianism will grow over many years — at least in Latin America, the region about which I’m most confident in making predictions. In other words, I’m arguing that we have entered what nerds of my ilk call the “third reverse wave of democratization” in this region.

Democracy’s retrenchment will happen in disguise. The new authoritarianism in Latin America looks different from the military regimes, personalist despotism, or caudillismo (strongman rule) that characterized the region at various periods in the past. Authoritarian rulers now rely on the trappings of democracy — most importantly, multi-candidate, civilian elections — for legitimacy. Growing numbers of elections in the coming years, however, will be neither free nor fair.

In the mid-2000s, political scientists viewed Latin America through rosier glasses. It became common to remark that “electoral democracy” had become “consolidated” in the region, meaning that it was unlikely to break down. In retrospect, it looks like we were half-right. The “electoral” part was consolidated. Even Venezuela’s current strongman, Nicolás Maduro, still prizes elections. It’s just the “democracy” part that wasn’t as stable as we’d thought.

On what basis do I make these claims?

One of the most fruitful insights from political science in the past several decades has been the recognition that democracy and authoritarianism move in waves. When one country democratizes, its neighbors may feel democratic winds blowing too. When a coup strikes, leaders across the border should become a bit more anxious about their own jobs.

In a highly influential book, Samuel Huntington identified three waves of global democratization. The first two — from the early 1800s to the mid-1920s, and the mid-1940s to early ’60s — were followed by “reverse waves,” when the number of democracies fell precipitously worldwide. The “third wave” began in the 1970s, continuing at least into the early 2000s. Almost all of Latin America transitioned to democracy, as did many countries of Africa, Southern Europe, and the former Soviet bloc.

The Trump administration is indifferent to global democracy

Where are we today? It seems the third wave of democratization has ended. Academics and think tanks have created many indexes measuring democracy annually around the world. Despite their differences, these indexes coincide in telling us that the number of democracies worldwide — as in Latin America — has not grown substantially in the past decade. But are we in stasis? Or is global democracy trending downward?

Identifying a historical trend when one is in the middle of it is hard. The risk of mistaking noise for signal is high. How do we know whether a year-on-year decline in the number of democracies is a momentary blip or the harbinger of rough times to come?

Rather than focus on short-term changes in quantitative indicators, we’re on safer ground assessing structural conditions. Scholars still ponder the causes of the third wave of democratization. In Latin America, though, at least three pillars supported third-wave regimes.

First, elite political culture increasingly valued democracy, recognizing the need for mutual toleration and self-restraint in pursuing power — traits Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify as the most important norms for elite behavior in democracy. Second, beginning in the Carter administration, the US became increasingly vocal and unambiguous in supporting democracy. Third, regional international institutions such as the Organization of American States (OAS) also came to advocate democracy in more forceful terms.

These three pillars together stabilized democracy: for instance, thwarting an attempted coup in Paraguay in 1996. In many other cases, the strength of these pillars may have been most evident in the absence of attempted military interventions.*

Today, these pillars are crumbling. As traditional party systems have fallen in many countries, the new class of politicians demonstrates support for elections, but not necessarily free and fair ones; self-restraint is also often missing. The Trump administration is indifferent to global democracy. Perhaps most significant, though, is the crippling of the OAS’s democracy promotion efforts.

Honduras’s November 2017 presidential election is the proverbial dead canary. Days before the election, the Economist published recordings of an apparent training for poll workers from the incumbent party on how to stuff ballot boxes. Post-election, allegations of massive electoral fraud led to weeks of protests, met with police brutality. In December 2017, the OAS took the unusual step of calling for new elections.

But to no avail. No further international condemnation ensued. Despite the OAS’s investigation and recommendation, the US recognized the results, as did Mexico. On January 27 of this year, President Juan Orlando Hernández was installed for a second term. Widespread protests continue, and a limited United Nations exploratory mission has visited Honduras to provide “technical assistance” for dialogue. Nonetheless, it looks likely that Hernández will be able to keep his presidential sash until 2022.

Honduras demonstrates the lack of international will in 2018 even to give lip service to the need for free and fair elections. International commitment to democracy has been partial and contingent for years. The Obama administration merits criticism for a tepid response to Honduras’s 2009 military coup. Nonetheless, rhetorical support for democracy was a centerpiece of US foreign policy in Latin America until the Trump administration.

What happens when elections are stolen without consequences? How do neighboring would-be election thieves respond? We will see.

*The reverse wave may extend beyond Latin America. I’m limiting my prediction to the region of my greatest academic expertise.

Amy Erica Smith is an assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University. Her research focuses on democratic citizenship, political socialization, and representation.

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