What’s in a Gross Simplification of an Entire Region?

I finally got around to reading Francisco Toro’s “What’s in a Coup?” over at the Latitude blog at the NY Times. It starts off very promisingly, with Toro cutting to the chase of why defining whether the impeachment of Lugo was a “coup” or not is a trickier matter than it used to be:

Judging a change in government in Latin America used to be simple: either tanks were rolling down the street it was a coup and that was bad, or there’d been an election and it was democracy and that was good. No more. These days, the lines between a coup and a legitimate transfer of power are getting a lot blurrier.

First: that’s a catchy opening paragraph. And second: although it’s a bit glib/simplistic, it’s not entirely wrong, either. While the image of tanks literally lining the street wasn’t present in every coup (though it wasn’t absent in some, either), the military regimes that overthrew presidents throughout Central and South America from the 1950s to the 1970s were visibly that – military. Thus, in one quick paragraph, Toro manages to cut directly to the heart of the challenges in defining and understanding the impeachment/coup/”golpeachment” of Lugo. Overall, Toro’s entire discussion and analysis of the impeachment of Lugo and of the open-ended nature of “impeachment” and the process of “juicio político” (which, as Toro points out, can mean “political trial,” a clear-cut process, or “political judgement,” a more problematic process) is good. But then Toro writes this:

Had all this happened in Europe, where parliamentary democracy is established and seeing legislators vote the government out of office is routine, Lugo’s dismissal would hardly have raised an eyebrow. But it happened in Latin America, where democracy is understood as the delegation of authority to an all-powerful president.

This is, quite simply, a grossly inaccurate and highly problematic characterization of Latin American politics and governments. First of all, the European comparison here is really useless, unless (as Shawn pointed out) you want to create the jaundiced narrative of “this is what a ‘mature’ [read: “European/US”] democracy looks like, and this is what an ‘immature’ [read: “Latin American/African”] democracy looks like!” which, it should be patently clear, is a problematic framework (to put it mildly). Yet even getting beyond that, there’s a second major problem with this type of argument: it simplifies an incredibly complex region into a single model of democracy and constitutional rule.

To deal with all governments in Latin America, from Cuba to Peru, from Chile to Mexico, in such broad strokes should raise red flags immediately. But in particular, the notion that presidents in Latin America are “all-powerful” is absurd. Yes, certain presidents, like Hugo Chávez or, more recently, Rafael Correa, exercise a significant amount of power and control, though it is not like they never face challenges, be it electorally or institutionally. But for many countries, presidential power is far from a monopoly. Indeed, coming out of military dictatorships, many countries fundamentally redefined the nature and dynamics of the executive branch in an attempt to reduce its power and prevent future dictatorships. Perhaps the best example is Brazil, which wrote a new constitution in 1988 that created a presidential parliamentary system, in which Brazilians vote for a president, but the executive branch still has to use coalition politics in the legislature in order to pass laws. And Brazil is not alone; given the nature of Mexican politics and the recent rise of the PRD at the Congressional level, Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto is about to govern with no single party having a majority in Congress, meaning he, too, is going to have to rely on compromise and coalition-building if he wants to accomplish his political agenda going forward. Even other leaders, be it Uruguay’s José Mujica, Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, Peru’s Ollanta Humala, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, or even Bolivia’s Evo Morales (to say nothing of Central American or Caribbean politics) have been successful not because they are all-powerful presidents, but because they enjoyed a legislative branch with their parties or coalitions in a near-majority in their respective Congresses; likewise, while Chile’s Sebastián Piñera’s executive difficulties have stemmed in no small part from his own policies and popular opposition to many of his platforms, he has not been able to implement all of his policies not because he is a poor “all-powerful” president, but in part because he faces significant opposition in Chile’s Congress.

That’s not to say Toro’s editorial isn’t worth reading in its entirety – it is, and as I say above, he raises some good points and clearly and concisely states some of the challenges in trying to understand the nature of Lugo’s impeachment. But his portrayal of Latin American democracies not only implicitly sets up a problematic and jaundiced framework in which democracy in Latin America is inferior to European democracies; it also grossly oversimplifies the complexities of presidential power in the region and the varieties of democracies from one country to the next.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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