In Other Words

Deconstructing Dictators

Letras Libres (Letters of Freedom), February 2002, Mexico City The massive protests in Argentina stemming from the failure of neoliberal economic policies are but the latest sign of a growing discontent with democracy in Latin America. In a 2001 survey conducted by the Chilean organization Latinobarómetro, only 58 percent of Argentines polled agreed that "democracy ...

Letras Libres (Letters of Freedom), February 2002, Mexico City

The massive protests in Argentina stemming from the failure of neoliberal economic policies are but the latest sign of a growing discontent with democracy in Latin America. In a 2001 survey conducted by the Chilean organization Latinobarómetro, only 58 percent of Argentines polled agreed that "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government," down from 76 percent in 1995. The ongoing turmoil in Argentina has likely placed additional downward pressure on such numbers. The trend is similar throughout the region, with only Peru and Honduras showing increased faith in democracy in recent years.

The February 2002 issue of the Mexican political and cultural monthly magazine Letras Libres devotes several articles to the dangers and challenges facing democracy in Latin America. All the authors unequivocally (and perhaps predictably) defend the democratic process. Unfortunately, most of them do so simply by pointing out that the alternative — dictatorship — is far worse, thus avoiding any honest criticisms of the region’s democratic regimes.

It is little coincidence that one of the articles about Latin democracy’s travails is authored by a novelist (Chile’s Carlos Franz), while another is about a novelist (Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa). As Mexican historian and Letras Libres editor Enrique Krauze argues in his perceptive essay about Vargas Llosa, "To be a writer in Latin American has always implied the imperative of a political conscience." The region’s best contemporary example of a writer with a clear sense of political mission is surely Vargas Llosa himself: A former presidential candidate in Peru and long-time champion of democratic and liberal causes, he is the man so many Latin American leftist intellectuals love to hate.

In "History of Parricides," Krauze recalls Vargas Llosa’s days campaigning for the presidency of Peru against Alberto Fujimori in the late 1980s and interprets the writer’s life and work as an ongoing revolt against "the father," be it the real one of his childhood or the symbolic father of all Latin Americans, the all-powerful dictator. Vargas Llosa’s latest work, The Feast of the Goat, a masterful fictionalized account of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, belongs alongside Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch as one of the greatest Latin American novels dealing with dictators. Krauze deems Vargas Llosa’s treatment of the dictator superior — in moral as well as literary terms — to that of García Márquez, who is fascinated by the "erotica of power" and thus succumbs, like so many others, to dictatorial seduction. Vargas Llosa, by contrast, is more interested in judging and criticizing power and opposes it by passionately defending the freedom of the individual.

The prize-winning novelist Carlos Franz also assails the figure of the dictator in his essay, "Against the Heroes." He argues that Latin America’s recurring nostalgia for a strong leader is a "sentimental trap": Distrust of democracy and of individual responsibility produces an irrational desire for a leader, a hero who can make all the difficult decisions. While Franz’s diagnosis is eloquent and convincing, his remedy is not. He maintains it is better to do away with strongmen and instead embrace a government of "simple, opaque, honest administrators," a regime of bureaucrats not tempted by the vision thing. In other words, Franz seems to believe it is impossible to be a strong political leader without evolving into a dictator as well. And while Latin American history may have confirmed Franz’s case on many occasions, accepting this trend as an unbending rule for the present and future amounts to little more than historical determinism — and a fatalistic variant, at that.

Finally, Harvard University political scientist (and Foreign Policy contributing editor) Jorge Domínguez posits that a strong leader is not a prerequisite for a strong economy. In "Five Fallacies About Democracy in Latin America," Domínguez emphasizes that Chile had higher rates of economic growth during the democratic regimes of the 1990s than under the 15-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973–88), who is often credited with saving Chile’s economy through market-oriented economic reforms. It is true, as Domínguez argues, that open economies and democracy are not necessarily at odds. However, they can be inimical to one another when free market neoliberalism is applied savagely and indiscriminately — as it was during the presidency of Argentina’s Carlos Menem in the 1990s.

Over the last two decades, Latin American democracies have survived the scourges of hyperinflation, terrorism, guerrilla movements, drug trafficking, corruption, unemployment, and poverty. However, this endurance does not prove that Latin democracies are strong. To the contrary, they are even more fragile than before, because the dislocations wrought by economic change have not been accompanied by lasting reforms in the region’s legal, political, and regulatory systems. Lack of faith in democratic institutions has too often reawakened Latin America’s fascination with dictators. When these institutions are perceived as governing for the privileged few and ignoring social and economic injustices, the allure of a populist and powerful leader becomes almost irresistible. In this light, the phenomenon of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela may be less a remnant of Latin America’s past than an ominous sign of the region’s future.

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