Things That Matter

Democracy In Latin America Is In Danger Of Disappearing And Many Blame The United States

For several years there has been a growing shift in democratic values across Latin America. From Brazil’s Bolsonaro to El Salvador’s Bukele, the region is seeing the rise of authoritarian leaders who pose a great risk to the already fragile democratic foundations.

Previously, the U.S. would attempt to influence the region and push for administrations and policies that it thought was in its best interest, however, the U.S. is losing its stature in the world and the pressure it tries to exert now just isn’t having the same effect. So, what’s next in Latin America’s strained relationship with democracy?

There are major warning signs of deterioration of democratic norms even in countries with strong democratic foundations.

One has to look no further than Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, for a prime example of the regions shift towards authoritarianism. The country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has long railed against the political establishment and taken several pointers out of former President Trump’s playbook when it comes to inciting nationalistic values, homophobia, racism, and corruption. Bolsonaro has even issued warnings that he might not accept the results of next year’s election if they aren’t tabulated with paper ballots, echoing Donald Trump and past Latin American leaders. 

Something similar is already playing out in Peru. The country recently elected socialist Pedro Castillo but the right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori has filed a flurry of legal challenges to stop Castillo from taking office. The vote was close: Castillo won by just 44,263 votes. But Fujimori is taking a play from Trump and insisting without any evidence that at least 200,000 Castillo votes were fraudulent.

Much like in the U.S., her supporters are rallying behind a ‘stop the steal’ campaign, which is particularly dangerous in a country with such fragile democratic institutions.

Nicaragua and El Salvador are also on the verge of sliding into authoritarianism.

Nicaragua has a long history of flirting with dictatorship and authoritarianism. Since 2007, President Daniel Ortega has worked to consolidate his power and weaken his opposition. He’s long been accused of everything from extralegal detentions, killings, and torture to secure his political future. Now, in the lead up to this fall’s elections, Ortega has taken the gloves off and has jailed virtually all of his prospective opponents, many of them facing treason charges.

Not far away in El Salvador, the charismatic young leader – President Nayib Bukele – has also been attempting to consolidate power following his landslide electoral victory. And to show just how powerful he is as president, he literally brought armed soldiers and police into the nation’s legislative assembly to demonstrate “who’s in control of the situation.”

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is another politician who many fear has an authoritarian streak. Though it’s still unclear if he’s attempting to consolidate power and seize total control of the political system or if he’s simply ruining the government through his total incompetence.

So, what’s causing this dangerous slide away from democracy?

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. But that moment didn’t last. And it’s quite easy to see why.

Although regular democratic elections continue to take place in nearly every country across Latin America, they simply help conceal fragile democratic institutions and norms. Persistent poverty and inequality have left the ground fertile for ambitious populists. Underdeveloped states with weak tax bases struggle to control surging criminal violence, which then make democracy look less appealing.

Things may soon get even worse as Covid-19 has set Latin American countries back years economically, exposed major failures of public health programs and social safety nets, and exacerbated the citizen insecurity that so often fuels political volatility.

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