Washington vs Latin American democracy

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
29 November 2005

Vicente Fox’s imprudence and Hugo Chávez’s impertinence are the detritus, the fools’ fire, that distracts attention from the fractures that are running through a continent – the American continent – which continues to seek formulas to solve ancestral problems and combat despair. It’s a search that comprehends the role of the United States: an exhausted superpower devoid, for the moment at least, of intelligent ideas or proposals.

Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:

Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

America’s protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS” (July 2005)

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The fight between Fox and Chávez – in the wake of George W Bush’s visit to Latin America for the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina – was a regression to the time of the banana republics. The Mexican president was accused of following US orders, although his retaliatory offensive against Chávez is also likely to have had an electoral element. In advance of the polls due in July 2006, Fox and his party (Accion Nacional) are bent on equating the Mexican candidate of the left, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, with Chávez, in order thus to disqualify him in the eyes of part of the Mexican electorate.

The Venezuelan president replied by raising the intensity of his voice and his adjectives because that is his style and because he, too, is campaigning: he wants to convert himself into the leader of the continent’s dispossessed masses and the voice of a rebellion against the hemispheric power.

Bush’s bad example

The greater part of Latin America lives under the scourges of poverty, unemployment, insecurity, environmental degradation and the violation of rights. Latin America is experimenting with solutions in which, with the exception of Cuba, electoral democracy is accepted, but the place of participative democracy is under debate; in which the market economy is taken as given, but the regulatory role of the state is up for discussion; in which the inevitability of globalisation is recognised, but there is disagreement about the form that it should take. Faced with this most complex process, Washington has been left with no proposals.

George Bush’s speech in Brasilia on 6 November showed how disconcerted the US is with regard to the region. In the capital of Latin America’s giant, Bush launched a message that was empty of content and which paid no heed to history or to the moment that this uneasy region is passing through. Bush installed himself at the lectern like a teacher who, to educate his pupils, shows them a map with two colours and asks them to choose between the “good guys” (the US) and the “bad guys” (Chávez and Castro). The cold-war schematisation is wrapped around an absurd demand because this is a time in which shades of grey predominate.

Also in openDemocracy on Latin American politics in the autumn of George W Bush:

Hilary Wainwright, “ No end: the crisis of Brazil’s Workers’ Party” (September 2005)

Isabel Hilton, “Álvaro Uribe’s gift: Colombia’s mafia goes legit” (October 2005)

Celia Szusterman, “Argentina: the state we’re in” (October 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, “The Summit of the Americas’ free-trade farewell” (November 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “One hour with George W Bush” (November 2005)

Sergio Ramirez, “Nicaragua’s hijacked democracy” (November 2005)

The speech was also full of arrogance and guile because Bush ignored those Latin Americans who were expecting a mea culpa from the superpower. In his speech, Bush rejected military dictatorships but forgot the central role that the United States played in installing and supporting them in this region. If the US president forgot, the memories are still alive here. The victims of repression, along with those who remember the era of dictatorships, responded to this lack of self-criticism and self-awareness to join street demonstrations in Argentina and Brazil alongside those who reject globalisation. Bush also praised the market economy and free trade, omitting the fact that since the 1980s Latin America has followed, with enthusiasm or resignation, the structural reforms proposed and imposed by the World Bank and the IMF. With a few exceptions, the results of these decades of orthodoxy have been negative. The most sustained growth has been in poverty and insecurity. 43% of Latin Americans live on less than €1.5 a day and there is a massive exodus toward the industrialised economies.

The turn to democracy

There has, however, been one important change in the method of looking for solutions. Until relatively recently coups d’etat were abundant in Latin America; now governments change peacefully at the ballot box. In Honduras on Sunday 27 November, with the victory of opposition candidate Manuel Zelaya, there began a year in which regional balances may change since a dozen countries are due to elect their president: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela. The candidates are figures in a mural in which can be seen populists of the right and the left, social democrats, communists, former guerrillas, Christian democrats, pro-US neo-liberals, demagogues and the corrupt.

Although it’s impossible to anticipate who will win, it is certain that the experiments in participatory democracy, in the form of engagement with globalisation and in the role of the state in the economy will intensify. The process is made inevitable by the pressure in this part of the continent from those whose patience is exhausted and by the way that the inconsistencies of the US encourage a growth in support for the political extremes. It is a paradox of the current situation that United States policy in the region finds itself restricted by an electoral democracy that is producing an increase in the number and significance of governments seeking to distance themselves from Washington in order to “nationalise globalisation” (the expression is that of the Mexican economist Carlos Tello Macias).

It’s novel that Washington is increasingly limited by electoral democracy. In 1973, the big power orchestrated a military coup against the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, who had been democratically elected. Now it has to accept that elections can produce leftwing governments which will experiment with diverse forms of democratic participation, dig the ideas of a regulatory state out of the cupboard and openly challenge Washington’s free-trade proposals.

Years of revision of the models followed by Latin America in recent decades are coming, involving a restructuring of the institutional architecture and a civic mobilisation which will affect how politics is done in the western hemisphere. It will be a difficult and promising stage in which many glances will be directed at other regions that, like Europe, are in constant renovation. At the same time, Bush’s visit to the southern cone in November 2005 served to confirm that, at least for now, the big power is sclerotic and incapable of understanding the concerns and excitements that are shaking Latin America.


This article was translated from Spanish by Isabel Hilton


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