Shadow Government

True democracy doesn’t need any modifiers

Juan Forero’s article, "Latin America’s New Authoritarians," in the Washington Post on Monday is in many ways an excellent piece. It sheds light on the kinds of authoritarian regimes that have come into being in the region over the last decade or so. But in his reporting and in some of the experts he quotes, ...


Juan Forero’s article, "Latin America’s New Authoritarians," in the Washington Post on Monday is in many ways an excellent piece. It sheds light on the kinds of authoritarian regimes that have come into being in the region over the last decade or so. But in his reporting and in some of the experts he quotes, there is a use of language that shies away from calling these regimes exactly what they are: undemocratic, dictatorial, and arguably, tyrannical. In several places in the article these new regimes are contrasted with the former Latin American dictatorships (presumably of Pinochet, the Argentine junta, and others), leaving readers to draw the inference that the new forms are worrying but not as bad as the old forms. It is as though there is a form of authoritarianism that is obviously bad and must be dealt with, and then a new form that should cause us concern, but is not yet the threat or the evil that the old form was.

As an academic and former official at USAID in charge of programs that supported democrats around the world, I find this kind of talk and the implications it leaves troubling. We cannot support democracy and the brave people who seek our help if we quibble about who is and who is not "really" a dictator. While both diplomats and political scientists have to be subtle and use nuance sometimes, fundamentally we should be clear in terms of the objectives our interests compel us to work towards. So even to suggest that Hugo Chavez is somehow better than Pinochet is missing the point — and risks giving aid and comfort to him and causing despair for his democratic opposition.

As a congressional staffer in the late 1990s when Chavez was coming to power, I agreed with a number of congressmen and staff who noted that the general attitude in the U.S. government was unrealistic when it came to who Chavez was and what he intended. We were right.

We are now in the 13th year of "Bolivarian democracy" in the form of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan regime. Over the years, a few more have joined him (with his aid) in Latin America by creating their own modified "democracies." Correa’s Ecuador, Morales’s Bolivia, and Ortega’s Nicaragua all count as non-democratic states in my view if we are trying to be honest about the essence of democracy. (We dodged a bullet with Lugo’s Paraguay and Humala’s Peru since they have proved to be too weak — or smart — to go full-on Chavez.) It is worth noting that this is not a region-bound phenomenon; witness Putin’s "controlled democracy." Nor is it time-bound. Robespierre’s French republic was not a democratic state as I understand the term when the guillotine was the state symbol and when more liberty caps than powdered wigs adorned the heads plopping into the basket. Dictators have been putting adjectives in front of their use of the term democracy to dress up their authoritarian regimes for a long time. Thank you Jean-Jacque Rousseau, among others.

But we should be clear: Such regimes as Chavez’s are an offense to the idea of democracy (constitutional republicanism, if you will) and mushy linguistic constructs and semantics are an offense to the English language — or any other language in which it is written that a regime is an "authoritarian democracy," a "people’s democracy" or a "revolutionary democracy." If you have to modify it, it isn’t really a democracy. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, the citizens simply do not live under democracy. They are not living in a constitutional republic. Yes, there are constitutions, yes, there are regular elections according to codified rules (most of the time). But much intervenes that is intimidating, repressive, and sometimes violent, so much so that the meaning of democracy is voided.

Here is a listing of the sins against democracy that occur in each of these states (as is the case in Russia, it is worth noting):

Intimidation of voters by using technology to nullify the secret ballot and to tie a person’s vote to her employment.

Intimidation of the press by blackmail, repressive regulation, forced bankruptcy, and unfair prosecution.

Intimidation of business people by forcing them to serve the state’s interests or lose their enterprises, thus putting the economic well-being of many citizens solely in the hands of the regime.

Manipulation of electoral law and use of the state’s purse to provide the regime with a compliant legislature.

And finally, what might well be the worst tactic of all, intimidation of judges and the judicial branch. Democracy is not simply about people being allowed to vote, which is why I earlier referred to constitutional republicanism. It is about individuals being treated as citizens who live under law, not the rule of men. For that to occur, the law must be inviolate and the judges must be free to make impartial rulings without having to prefer the regime’s interests. When the judges are intimidated into compliance, or simply removed and replaced with party hacks, the safeguard of democracy is gone, and I would argue, so is democracy in all but name.

Those oppressed by the forgoing means number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. So what if in some cases they aren’t poor? They are citizens, and they deserve all the rights provided in a democracy.

Just because there are currently few or no desaparecidos or violent suppressions in South America does not mean there is no dictatorship à la Pinochet or the Argentine junta. Just because Chavez or Morales have killed fewer people when suppressing protests than the authoritarians of the 70’s and 80’s did does not mean they are not running a dictatorship. Just because Ortega has not assassinated opposition figures or declared martial law does not mean he has not just as effectively silenced his opposition. He gets no laurels for having forced them to withdraw from politics — or to Miami.

As a political scientist, I can appreciate the need to be as descriptive as possible and to define terms with granularity. As one who was formerly responsible for supporting U.S. diplomacy as a development official, I can appreciate that sometimes nuanced language in formal settings is appropriate. But U.S. policymakers (and the Europeans and a growing number of other countries) don’t have the luxury of being academic about their work if they expect to clearly articulate that our interests include a world with more real democracies and prospering free peoples. Mr. Feroro is right to point out that the U.S. and the Brazilians, to name two, could do more regarding the new authoritarians. But no one who purports to promote democracy and to support democrats around the world should kid himself: If policy is founded on a muddled view of what democracy is and isn’t, then democracy and democrats around the world will suffer. Let us settle at the outset that democracy means real freedom, not pretended freedom, and craft our policy that way.

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