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Commentary

The Fragility of Democracy


Evo Morales will soon be President of Bolivia. Hugo Chávez has total control over the Venezuelan Congress and a candidate very much like him, Lieut. Col. Ollanta Humala (who also attempted a coup d'état some years ago) is rising rapidly in the polls for the Peruvian elections next April.

There have also been elections in Argentina, Honduras and Chile with, shall we say, more conventional results, and several others are being readied for 2006 in countries as important as Mexico and Brazil. Looking at this picture, a reader might think that democracy is well established in our region and that, despite some anxious moments, Latin America has become a bastion of democratic governments.

Viewed from close up, however, things look somewhat different. Evo Morales has reached power in Bolivia after his movement besieged the successive governments of that Andean country for two long years, blocking highways, seizing property, staging violent demonstrations and even threatening that "by reason or by force" it would take over Bolivia.

Chávez won his elections in Venezuela after the massive withdrawal of the opposition in an environment heavy with threats, accusations of fraud in the automated voting system and constant intimidation of the communications media.

From the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the extremist indigenous groups in Ecuador, the "picketeers" in Argentina and the Peruvian “ethno-Cacerists,”* the entire region is now under the constant pressure of groups, leaders and parties that, in effect, use democratic freedoms unscrupulously to impose their points of view on all citizens.

The tactic has been successful. Consolidated democracies, such as Venezuela's, have allowed political leaders to take power and destroy the basic elements upon which this system depends.

Regular elections alone are not sufficient to create a democratic government. Other conditions must also be present: a free press, a basic set of shared values, and a minimum degree of respect for political adversaries, the institutions and the laws.

When a political movement sees the existing institutions as a target to be destroyed and believes that its political opponents are enemies who must be crushed by any available means, elections become an implacable quest for power, much like the ones waged by the communists or the fascists, rather than a democratic contest.

It is true that Chávez and Morales have achieved their presidencies thanks to free elections. But it is also true that the majorities they achieved—circumstantial, as every majority is in a free regime—did not entitle them to change all the rules of the game and then impose a system that can perpetuate their hold on power.

That's what has happened in Venezuela, what most likely will happen in Bolivia, and what may happen in Peru in the next several months. Let us remember that legitimacy of origin does not grant legitimacy of power, especially when it comes to utterly crushing all possible contenders. Alternation is a principle that's also essential to a regime of liberal democracy.

Our democracies in Latin America are fragile and unstable. They are systems always ready to fall into the hands of extremists and demagogues; they are political constructions that cannot very well withstand social unrest or the conflicts that arise in all societies. Our citizens see the state not as an administrator of common affairs but as a kind of incarnation of providence; they want to be looked after, to receive constant handouts, or at least to hear radiant promises.

It is unfortunate that our electorates seem incapable of accurately assessing policy alternatives and are so easily swayed by the most primitive emotional appeals of political leaders out to conquer their quota of power. In our countries, lamentably, votes are won by haranguing against the rich and the oligarchy, by waving the flag of a superficial nationalism, shouting revolutionary slogans and stoking social resentments.

At this moment, it is impossible to know if any of these demagogic governments will be able to consolidate their dominions as Mussolini did in fascist Italy or if, worse yet, they will match Fidel Castro's tenure as Cuba's dictator for several decades. They don't lack an authoritarian vocation, that's for sure, but there are also factors that weigh against them.

The temptation of corruption and, above all, the impossibility of creating wealth through nationalistic and socialistic policies will make it difficult for these new authoritarian regimes to consolidate their power in Latin America. But the conclusion for now is unfortunately negative: our citizens seem to be intent on retaking the paths of the economic policies and forms of leadership that have led them to so much misery in the past.


*The "ethno-Cacerist" movement is named after the late Peruvian President Andrés Avelino Cáceres, a hero of Peru's 1879-1883 war against Chile. The movement advocates a return to Peru's ethnic pre-Columbian roots.


Carlos Sabino is an adjunct fellow with The Independent Institute, and a visiting professor and researcher at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín Foundation in Guatemala.

This article was written for The Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.