A Continent Divided: Political Polarization and the Future of Latin American Democracy

A Continent Divided: Political Polarization and the Future of Latin American Democracy

. 6 min read

Throughout the Cold War, Latin American politics were under the constant shadow of foreign intervention. With each intervention, the opposing political factions only became more resentful and fearful of the other. As the Cold War came to an end, so did the pretenses of dictatorships, with containment no longer available as a justification for the US to prop up military autocracies, and Soviet support no longer available for guerrilla groups. Democratization spread across the continent.

Latin American history since independence at the start of the 19th century has been cyclical, with a 200 year long pattern consisting of democracy, its eventual collapse, and a return to it. Yet with the end of the Cold War and the apparent victory of democracy and capitalism, it appeared that the cycle may have finally come to an end. It was the “end of history,” as political scientist Francis Fukuyama put it.

But history is far from over. The factors that have been bringing Latin American democracies down for over 200 years are alive and well. In the last four months, the fate of two Latin American democracies, Peru and Bolivia, were determined by the military. Nevertheless, at the same time, the last two decades have seen the rise of a powerful new center in Latin American politics. Latin American democracies must address the underlying fragility of their political cultures and its constant polarization before democratic stability can be achieved.

Latin American Democracy After the Cold War

In the early 2000s, leftist political movements dubbed the Pink Tide rose to power in countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia, among others. This tide eventually subsided into a wave of centrism that spread across many countries for almost a decade. As global commodity prices soared with the dramatic increase in Chinese demand, Latin American economies boomed, lifting huge numbers of people from poverty and further increasing public satisfaction with their governments. However, this period of centrism, buoyed by strong economic performance, was not to last.

As regional economic growth slowed, Latin American nations have increasingly seen instability and moves towards authoritarianism that result from loss of confidence in the establishment and traditional democratic institutions. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s recently elected president, has shown no interest in preserving the institutions created during Mexico’s transition to democracy only 19 years ago. Furthermore, he has been accused by Denise Drenner, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, of centralizing power and attempting to create a replica of the now defunct political machine of the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico as a one party state for over 70 years.

Four thousand miles south, Chile has seen violent political protests against income inequality and the government that are calling for the resignation of the Chilean government. In April a referendum will be held on the creation of a new constitution. Ecuador saw indigenous groups march on the capital following the removal of fuel subsidies, with the protests temporarily pushing the administration out of the capital while the exiled former president called for the overthrow of the president. Nicaragua has fallen to an authoritarian, the president of Brazil has repeatedly praised the former military dictatorship, and Argentina has elected Peronists once more. Many of the countries that joined the Pink Tide saw the erosion of their democracy over these past two decades with the consolidation of power by Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. This rise of political instability and move away from the center has largely split the continent in half.

Polarization of the Regional Response to the Venezuelan Crisis

Latin American democracies have split down the middle, and this division is most blatantly evident with the regional response to the Venezuela Crisis.

Venezuelan democracy is dead in all but name. Over 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country due to grave violations of human rights, including, but not limited to, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and a severe lack of food and medical supplies. Even so, criticism of the Maduro regime in Venezuela has not been universal.

Both left- and right-wing populists  have taken very little action, although with differing positions. Far-right populism, of which the most prominent member is Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, has not led action against Venezuela. While Bolsonaro made his opinion on Maduro’s regime perfectly clear in an interview with the Washington Post, stating that “the Venezuelan regime currently in place must be changed,” Brazil has not led any action towards this aim.

Meanwhile, the far left, Maduro’s political allies, have rejected even the application of pressure upon Venezuela and expressed varying degrees of support for the regime. Mexico under Obrador went to the Lima Group and called for no pressure to be put on the regime, while admitting a concern for the state of human rights in Venezuela. Bolivia under Evo Morales gave outright support for Maduro, stating, “Our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and our brother Nicolas Maduro, in these decisive hours in which the claws of imperialism seek again to mortally wound the democracy and self-determination of the peoples of South America.” No mention of human rights was made. The severity of the polarization facing Latin America is made painfully clear in that even a topic that should be unanimous–the denunciation of extensive human rights violations–has become a partisan issue.

The regional opposition to the Venezuelan regime has instead been led by the cohort of governments closer to the center of Latin American politics. Of these, Peru and Columbia have played leading roles. Peruvian foreign minister Néstor Popolizio stated in a news conference that “the regional impact of the crisis requires the region and the international community to play a more active role in supporting a prompt return to democracy.” The Columbian president’s opposition to the Venezuelan regime went further, with Duque presenting the UN with evidence of Venezuela’s support for terrorism and seeking international sanctions on the Maduro regime.

This powerful resistance from the center exists at the national level as well. Juan Guaido in Venezuela stood up as the head of the opposition and attempted to restore Venezuelan democracy. The president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, has managed to pull back on the repressive policies of his predecessor and has had him properly tried for his corruption. The center-right president in Peru has dismissed Congress to push through anti-corruption reform, scheduled new elections, and declined to run in them.  Macri is the first Argentinian president to peacefully transition power to a Peronist since 1928. Bolivians rejected the results of the recent, rigged, presidential elections, staged mass protests, and ultimately gained the support of the military and forced Evo Morales to resign, preventing further democratic backsliding.

Future of Latin American Democracy

If Latin American democracy is to survive, the political culture that is constantly tearing Latin American society apart at the seams must be addressed. Only then will the center hold. To address this political culture, the defining feature of Latin American society since the arrival of the Spanish must be addressed: inequality.

The economic and racial inequality within Latin America is among the highest in the world and has stayed at these levels since the beginning of the colonial era. This constant source of resentment and anger is directed at the political parties that are seen as corrupt. Eighty-five percent of people polled think that corruption is a significant problem and over half see it only getting worse. Voters care about equality, efficient administration, and, if they have any sort of property, its preservation. When the government fails to efficiently govern in the eyes of the populace, largely influenced by levels of economic growth, a massive loss of confidence in the government results.

In Brazil, this loss of confidence following the economic recession and a corruption scandal resulted in the support for democracy falling 22 percent in only one year, down to 32 percent. In Mexico, this loss of confidence resulted in Obrador’s rise to the presidency, a man who stated he does not believe in the concept of Mexican democracy and promised a “change in regime.” The foundation for democracy is trust, and this trust can only be formed if Latin American governments are able to address the crippling corruption that results in the capture of the government by special interests. Democracy and capitalism must be shown to be capable of initiating economic growth for all segments of society, thereby nullifying the predominant driver of populist sentiment.

At its core, political polarization is driven by the lack of a developed political culture able to deal with such turbulence amid times of economic hardship. As Latin American democracies have seen such radical declines in poverty and a significant strengthening of the center in recent decades, they must capitalize upon this, and make the reforms necessary to contain the cycle of resentment and reaction that has characterized Latin American politics in the past if they seek the continuation of democracy into the future.