Election 2020

In Latin America, Democracy Itself Is at Stake

Trump had success focusing on the region’s authoritarians, but the next administration will need to get back to basics.

By , a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro holds a Venezuelan flag while speaking from a balcony at Miraflores Presidential Palace to announce his breaking off diplomatic ties with the United States in Caracas on Jan. 23, 2019.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro holds a Venezuelan flag while speaking from a balcony at Miraflores Presidential Palace to announce his breaking off diplomatic ties with the United States in Caracas on Jan. 23, 2019. Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s Latin America policy brought a welcome and necessary focus on parts of the region’s authoritarian club, particularly Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. As part of its so-called maximum pressure campaign, in the last few years, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has erected an immense architecture of individual and sectoral sanctions on these regimes and their corrupt ruling classes; the Justice Department has issued indictments of political leaders; and the State Department has rallied allies and provided a needed jolt of energy to fractured opposition movements. An impressive maritime dragnet has further curtailed the illicit activities of these regimes. However, while the United States focused on authoritarian consolidation in the hemisphere, attention on broader governance challenges has suffered—all while the region’s quality of governance has plummeted.

Both left and right populism have returned in Latin America’s largest countries—Mexico and Brazil—and the region’s voters have embraced power-grabbing strongman candidates with disdain for the press, democratic institutions, legislative oversight, and checks and balances. In the Northern Triangle of Central America, where weak and corrupt governments are the norm, political leaders have steered El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras decisively toward autocracy. These trends all augur ill for the quality of governance in much of Latin America.

Whoever wins the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election will need to renew the United States’ focus on anti-corruption initiatives, institutional reform, and consolidating democratic commitments first made in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. In order to aspire to the charter’s high-minded aspirations—it declared in Article 1 that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it”—the United States will need a less transactional, more committed approach to bring wayward countries back in line. Indeed, although the charter may be most relevant in the cases where its principles are most obviously lacking—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—the U.S. focus should expand to highlight the erosion of democracy regionwide.

The Trump administration’s Latin America policy brought a welcome and necessary focus on parts of the region’s authoritarian club, particularly Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. As part of its so-called maximum pressure campaign, in the last few years, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has erected an immense architecture of individual and sectoral sanctions on these regimes and their corrupt ruling classes; the Justice Department has issued indictments of political leaders; and the State Department has rallied allies and provided a needed jolt of energy to fractured opposition movements. An impressive maritime dragnet has further curtailed the illicit activities of these regimes. However, while the United States focused on authoritarian consolidation in the hemisphere, attention on broader governance challenges has suffered—all while the region’s quality of governance has plummeted.

Both left and right populism have returned in Latin America’s largest countries—Mexico and Brazil—and the region’s voters have embraced power-grabbing strongman candidates with disdain for the press, democratic institutions, legislative oversight, and checks and balances. In the Northern Triangle of Central America, where weak and corrupt governments are the norm, political leaders have steered El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras decisively toward autocracy. These trends all augur ill for the quality of governance in much of Latin America.

Whoever wins the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election will need to renew the United States’ focus on anti-corruption initiatives, institutional reform, and consolidating democratic commitments first made in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. In order to aspire to the charter’s high-minded aspirations—it declared in Article 1 that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it”—the United States will need a less transactional, more committed approach to bring wayward countries back in line. Indeed, although the charter may be most relevant in the cases where its principles are most obviously lacking—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—the U.S. focus should expand to highlight the erosion of democracy regionwide.

To be sure, the transactional approach had its upsides; given the United States’ leverage over smaller countries, it was often able to win out on single-issue matters. Witness the Trump administration’s prodding of Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries to establish so-called safe third country agreements in order to stem the flow of migrants to the United States. But that didn’t compensate for the fact that the approach often encouraged a highly circumscribed view of the region. With a range of important benchmarks effectively reduced to monthly migration figures and progress on squeezing the “Troika of Tyranny,” U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America has suffered from a paucity of political vision.

For a variety of reasons, it is in the United States’ national interest to see an integrated, prosperous, and deeply democratic Latin America. Foremost among them is that the region’s challenges tend to spill over into the United States. The region desperately needs to clean up the systemic corruption and the institutional rot that have festered unchecked for too long.

In turn, at stake in this election for much of Latin America is nothing short of the quality of democratic governance in the region. The Trump administration deserves credit for confronting the brutal dictatorships in Caracas, Havana, and Managua, as well as the great powers—such as China, Iran, and Russia—that provide them a critical lifeline. However, if in the next four years Washington cannot find a way to widen the aperture of engagement and reverse the deteriorating quality of governance in the region writ large, China, Iran, and Russia may find the door wide open to their influence anyway.

Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) and the Director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at CSIS. Twitter: @RyanBergPhD

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