Lowered Expectations

The greatest threat to democracy in Latin America is Latin Americans themselves.


The military coup d’état in Honduras in late June that ousted President Manuel Zelaya sent shivers down Latin America’s collective spine. Remembering a dark past, when armed forces routinely ousted unpopular presidents, all the region’s leaders, from Cuba’s left-wing Raúl Castro to Colombia’s right-wing Álvaro Uribe, swiftly condemned the move. Everyone sided with the deposed Zelaya. Everyone, that is, except a large swath of Honduras’s population that, despite the military’s undemocratic move, were generally happy to see him go.

For America-watchers the world over, Hondurans’ approval of this coup should be more frightening than the military’s involvement, the media shutdown, or even the president’s ousting itself. In Honduras and across Latin America, support for undemocratic activity is pervasive — and rising. Although coups are uncommon, other, more subtle breaks with democracy are often greeted with applause. So, just decades after Latin America welcomed the democracy wave, public opinion — not autocratic government — is now the greatest threat to freedom in the region.

Latin Americans remain disturbingly ambivalent about democracy. Half of them say they would not mind a nondemocratic government if it solved economic problems, according to the latest Latinobarómetro poll. Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project finds a lack of support for the essential values on which democracy depends, such as the right to protest and the right to compete against the ruling government in elections. Perhaps Latin Americans cannot be blamed for their skepticism; democracy has brought rising crime and entrenched corruption, combined with stubbornly high poverty. The region’s people have little confidence in their public institutions or political parties; only 20 percent of them think democracy has helped decrease inequality.

Yet even if support for democracy at home is disappointing, help from overseas has been equally deficient. A broad consensus is emerging that, though the international community was right to condemn the Honduran coup, it was amiss in not speaking up when Zelaya overstepped Congress and the courts. In fact, the international community – and particularly the Organization of American States — has turned a blind eye as power-grabbing presidents across the region have moved to destroy democratic institutions. Only when the executive branch is threatened has the international community stepped in — and far too often, it has only been to condemn the move.

Without public backing at home and abroad, democracy has hence fallen victim to the deep-rooted tradition of caudillos, or strongmen, in the region. Just take Venezuela, where former coup-plotter Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 with the largest margin of victory in four decades. After drafting a new constitution to his favor, packing the courts with his supporters, and limiting journalistic freedom, he was reelected in 2006. In the past four years, the Bolivian, Colombian, Ecuadoran, and Venezuelan governments have amended — and at times entirely redrafted — constitutions to allow their current presidents to extend their time in office, and they have done so with popular support.

It’s worth investigating why Latin America’s authoritarian temperament is so hard to shake. In the meantime, we have enough evidence by now to conclude that democracy in the region will not be salvaged by the international community standing against governments and populations bent on disrupting it. In fact, there is a very real danger that foreign support for Zelaya in Honduras will make democracy seem like an idea imposed from abroad instead of borne of the people’s will.

For democracy to survive, Latin Americans must regain confidence in their public institutions and political parties, feel confident in the rule of law, and trust that positive change can come through democratic means. The solution may lay closer to classrooms and dining tables in the region than to the General Assembly of the Organization of American States. Until then, Latin Americans might be stuck with the undemocratic leaders they seem to want.

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