The Wave against Liberal Democracy in Latin America

By Armando Chaguaceda

HAVANA TIMES – In her latest book (Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, Doubleday, 2020), Anne Applebaum draws attention to the global spread of an authoritarian ethos. With an assembly that brings together the centuries-old political technology of the Leninist party and the newest tendencies to social polarization, fake news and extremist identity politics.

The revival spans both ends of the political spectrum. Eastern Europe and the United States suffer from the nativism of the populist far right. The Latin nations – of Europe and America – are also the privileged setting of their left-wing opponent. Both coincide in the rejection of political pluralism and the multiculturalism of open societies, in their liberal and progressive versions. Reflecting, on this side of the Atlantic, on what threatens us, is a relevant and urgent task.

How are we going, Latin America?

Latin America is a veritable melting pot of identities, processes, and socio-economic and political structures, where you can apply any simplification. Four decades after the deployment of democratic transitions, our region has accumulated progress, stagnation and, more recently, setbacks. The grey areas, confusing and problematic predominate.

On the continent, the regional recovery of democracies did not come hand in hand with the construction of robust and inclusive welfare states: rather it coincided with the expansion of neoliberal adjustment policies, developed in a more devastating way than in other regions of Europe and Asia.

The middle class grew in several countries, but without disappearing intolerable bands of poverty and inequality. Notable inequalities were maintained in the social and economic fields, which in some cases – classes, regions, nations – widened. But the status and mechanisms for exercising citizenship were also rescued. The fight for human rights became a powerful regional movement, which brought together diverse activists with common agendas in diverse contexts.

Despite the formal validity of a majority framework of democratic order and formal validity of the rule of law, the region today is a kaleidoscope of types of regimes and openness to civic participation, advocacy, and mobilization. In countries such as Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay we find cases of high democratic regime, combined with adequate levels of state capacity.

Brazil is a nation where a democratic political system coexists -with high fragmentation and counterweight of powers- with a right-wing populist government, with variable levels of capacity and state influence, coinciding with a broad civic space and composed of numerous actors from civil society.

Mexico represents a case of a populist left government, where intermediate levels of openness of the political regime – affected by macro-criminality networks- are combined with variable levels of state capacity and a growing but still limited social mobilization.

Central America -and other Caribbean countries and the Andean zone- have fragile democracies, with institutions of low capacity to face health emergencies and formally open civic spaces but with systematic and variable violations of citizens’ rights.

On the other hand, Nicaragua and Venezuela have a hybrid type of regime, combined with variable levels of state capacity (high in the repressive way, low in the provisional way) and social mobilization, within a repressive environment of space and civic rights. In Cuba we have the only regional case of a closed autocratic regime with high state capacity and low levels of social mobilization. Haiti represents a Failed State, with almost no state capacity with moderate levels of openness and social mobilization.

While during the shift to the left (1998-2018) the region experienced an increase in public spending and an improvement in the living conditions of millions of people in several countries of the region, the subsequent end of the commodities boom, the resulting economic recession and the adjustment and debt policies adopted by various governments contributed to the current situation of economic stagnation and social anger.

This discontent, added to the growing deterioration of a democratic institutionalism that does not seem to effectively channel the multiple citizens demands, and seems to be at the origin of the popular mobilizations that took place in several countries during 2019 and 2020.

The situation with the COVID19 pandemic has worsened the processes of impoverishment, autocratization and state inability to respond effectively and legitimately to demands and fulfill citizen rights.

In 2021, the situation worsened. The latest report from Freedom House shows that, in addition to mark the fifteenth consecutive year of decline of global freedom and that countries with democratic setbacks are more than those showing improvements, covid-19 and state responses to the pandemic worsened the situation. Even in countries with democratic systems and liberal leaders concerns were reduced for freedoms in terms of fighting the virus.

The authoritarian offensive: bad ideas, worst practices

But it is not only a question of diminishing returns of the economic, social and political structures: there are also mutations, not exactly improving democracy, in the attitudes of certain sectors of the citizenship and regional elites.

In Latin America, political support for liberal democracy has been declining systematically over the last decade. While ten years ago, approximately 2 out of every 3 Latin American citizens argued that “democracy is the best system of government beyond its problems,” in 2018 that proportion fell to 48%.

The lowest level since the beginning of the century, the main reason of two confluent phenomena. First position, an authoritarian political culture, which beyond the conjunctures, shows permanent disaffection with the democratic model. A second position expresses the rejection with the functioning of the existing democracies, not a break with the regime as such.

If we analyze the evolution of citizen discontent (dissatisfaction with democracy), we see that political support for democracy is an attitude subject to the reality (procedural and performance) of these regimes in our unequal Latin American societies.

The field of the production and dissemination of ideas, images and information reveals such illiberal progress. In Latin America – and other parts of the West – universities and cultural institutions are increasingly populated by a type of left-wing hegemony, in its multiple tribes, accompanied by an amorphous and passive center, which leaves it to the fundamentalist segments to impose lexicon and agenda.

Certain traits – obsessive anti-Americanism, dogmatic egalitarianism, ideological overrepresentation and illiberal propensity – delineate, in the Latin American sphere, the identity and projection of much of this intellectual field.

For its part, in the region there is a conservative socio-political sector whose ideas are overrepresented in private centers, religious groups, media conglomerates and some public entities of right-wing governments. But the political, media, and social-civil networks of Latin American conservatives — whether Trumpists, Bolsonaroists, Uribistas, and other like-minded people — do not show an intellectual muscle that is in tune with their enemy twins on the left.

At the present time, those who seem to enjoy greater regional articulation, a strengthened presence in public opinion, and even financial and intellectual support from the US and Europe are the anti-liberals of the left.

While the promoters of illiberal ideas – their representatives and agendas in the scientific, academic and cultural worlds – seem to grow successfully, those who oppose them find themselves disintegrated, fragmented, isolated and, in many cases, without institutional support. But most importantly, they lack common strategies, deprived of symbols and discourses, scarce of collective articulation. The academic and cultural world suffers from having spaces co-opted by defenders of the authoritarian model, either by militant conviction or because they reproduce the bases of a common sense to interpret reality.

In the current dispute, capitalism has a controversial role, because the Cold War pitted two different political and economic models against each other. But today, Leninism 2.0 adopted capitalism as an economic structure and uses its power in favor of the anti-liberal and authoritarian program. In the Latin American region, cases such as Daniel Ortega or Nayib Bukele, despite being in the antipodes, combine a model of governance where authoritarian personalism, combined with loyal political groups, is able to coexist with the business elites of a market economy. Both Nicolas Maduro and Jair Bolsonaro have big businessmen among their allies, although only the latter openly assumes their defense of the market economy

To top it all off, China and Russia have begun to expand into economic, political, educational, scientific, and cultural institutions in the region, to also advance public opinion in the countries in a broader sense. Through the growing influence of these global autocracies, Latin American anti-liberal individuals and groups find models and allies that coincide with them in the hierarchical and authoritarian vision for society. At the same time, this new partnership provides them with more resources, legitimacy and access to the global environment.

A challenge that confronts us

Global scenarios and processes of democratic autocratization, polarization, and disaffection have accelerated in recent times. In each continent there are tyrants determined to eliminate domestic dissent and perpetuate themselves in power. In addition, they have learned that in these times they need to extend their influence, to integrate actively into international organizations, dyeing their tyranny with some emancipatory discourse or religious and play geopolitically on the side of Russia or China.

In Latin America we have passed moments of euphoria over the supposed end of ideologies to stages in which old dogmatic modalities of those —based on predominance unrestricted of total principles and goals— they aspire to capture and homogeneously reduce the complexity of various subjects and social demands. The resulting scenario does not look very encouraging: today the dispute seems to boil down to choosing between types of capitalist models: liberal technocratic versus state authoritarian.

On the basis of this framework, it is possible to conclude that the most politically relevant contradiction – due to its impact on public life – within Latin American societies, political classes and academies is the one that currently takes sides in the face of two opposing ways of conceiving power, respectively based on the recognition or denial of popular sovereignty and human rights: democracy versus autocracy.

The distinction between democratic left and right, defined by their respective value systems and public policy priorities, can be processed in a contingent but reasonable manner in the diverse institutions and formalities of our imperfect democracies.

But with radicals on the left and right advancing everywhere, in the absence of effective forms of collective sanction, the scenarios of the coming years do not bode well for Latin American democracies, unless citizens act decisively and early in defense of democracy by neutralizing extremism. The need to defend democracy, while seeking the greatest possible inclusion, development and justice, is an unfinished business – threatened with reproach – throughout the region.


*Armando Chaguaceda is a Cuban-Mexican scholar, specializing in the study and process of democratization in Latin America and Russia. He has a Master’s in political science from la Universidad de la Habana and a Doctorate in History and Regional Studies from la Universidad Veracruzana. His Op Eds have appeared in Letras Libres, New York Times, El Mundo and La Razón, among other media.

Read more by Armando Chaguaceda here on Havana Times.

One thought on “The Wave against Liberal Democracy in Latin America

  • Venezuela is a kleptocracy a failed state with a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis.
    And has the worlds worst hyperinflation.
    There is a special category for it.

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