Democracy As a Lie

Democratic institutions in Latin America were capable of resurrecting from the ashes of military dictatorships only where these institutions had flourished before. But where they had been historically weak, or had hardly existed, they were hard to reinvent. Español.

Sergio Ramírez
25 June 2015

A protest in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2012. Flickr. Some rights reserved.In Latin America, after the long military dictatorships of the 20th century and the putting aside of the ideological polarizations which resulted in armed conflicts in several countries, the recovery or the setting up of the rule of law appeared to be the goal to reach, so as to safeguard a future where democracy and development could progress together.

It could well be said that the ambition at the turn of the century was to make political reality respond to the letter of the constitutions, an adjustment which had not been done since the independence days. No more, no less: to go back to the 19th century so as to be able to enjoy a 21st century based on the recovery of the body of ideas which founded Latin American liberal republics.

Our democracies began to function through the return to the fundamental right to choose, but the effectiveness of the institutions as safeguards against the dreaded comeback of the perverse concentration of power and single-person discretion over and above the law remained to be tested. This had been the persistent reality in Latin America since the 19th century which ended the dream enshrined in our glorious constitutions and the rule of law – something that our successive autocratic rulers always considered a childish nonsense.

It was soon discovered, before the 20th century ended, that democratic institutions were capable of resurrecting from the ashes of military dictatorships only where these institutions had flourished before, as in Uruguay or Chile. But where they had been historically weak, or had hardly existed, they were hard to reinvent, as in most Central American countries.

In other countries, such as Venezuela, it was the exhaustion of the democratic system, debunked by corruption, which opened the way to new proposals which eventually came to prove their dramatic failure. Nor was populism, cloaked in revolutionary pomp, something new in Latin America: it was a well known phenomenon since the times of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in Colombia.

We also learned, or rather remembered, what history taught us: namely, that populist democracy is only a pseudonym of authoritarianism, even a previous step to plain dictatorship. Here the boundaries are very subtle. If there is an absolute concentration of power and the curtailment of the freedom of expression, if citizens are fearful before power, if corruption corrodes authority, then we are on the threshold of dictatorship. It is only a small step from there to bloody repression. And populism is simply the cellophane sheet wrapping that poisoned gift.

Another item which added to the scene at the turn of the century, not at all surprisingly, is expanding today like a wildfire: corruption. Corruption is very much a feature of the recovered democracy, an apparently integral part of it in many ways, for it is encouraged by institutional weakness - including the lack of transparency and control over the greed of many who rise to power. As soon as an elected government took office, those who entered public employment seemed ready, from day one, to start stealing. The ball goes on, as can be witnessed with the Petrobras case in Brazil.

Corruption scandals keep recurring and voters appear to suffer from an incurable yearning for rulers who have been tried and convicted of embezzlement and illicit enrichment. Such is the case, for instance, of Guatemala’s ex-president Alfonso Portillo, who was welcomed by a cheering crowd at the airport after serving a sentence in the US for money laundering, a crime he himself confessed.

The outlook only worsens with the steadfast incidence of organized crime, which encourages corruption at all levels, such as in Mexico, where drug cartels seek to undermine the rule of law and are making significant progress. They are catching judges, prosecutors, police officers, and ministers in their nets in several other countries too, where the disproportionate weight of drug money can collapse the institutional framework. This is a many-headed hydra that grows one hundred heads as soon as you cut one down: a hydra that is capable of mass murder, incineration, dismemberment, and beheading, with a lot to teach in matters of cruelty to the gunmen of ISIS.

But for now, we should ensure that the State exists, and render it visible. The State is only real when it controls a territory. If not, it tends to get substituted: in the city districts, by criminal juvenile gangs, as in San Salvador (El Salvador) or San Pedro Sula (Honduras); in the municipalities and the rural areas, by the drug lords themselves who act as if they were the State - but on the margins of it, imposing their own law. This is a concerted anarchy, an appearance of order, but an order forced upon the population by fear and terror. If drug gangs are building schools, hospitals, and drinking water systems it is because the State has failed to carry out its essential duties. In order to recover its internal sovereignty, however, it must function first as a truly democratic State.

What has come to be called “the political class” must see, as the Spanish saying goes, beyond their noses. They must make long-term plans without bringing in any ideological stances. A country’s strategic development includes not only investments, economic growth and the quality and span of social programs, but also another, not merely repressive public security model.

Public security entails creating active links with the community. Drug dealers are not from Mars: they are born and grow up in poor communities, they keep emotional bonds with their own kin, and they know how to use populism to their ends. Here is the challenge. The State must connect with these communities. Head-masked special task forces will keep on failing to prevent and control crime as long as the State does not think first about integration, social transformation and the elimination of chronic poverty.


This article was first published by Lalíneadefuego, Ecuador.

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