Contextualizing “Electoral Authoritarianism” in Latin America

I’m a bit late to this (I’ve been spending the past two weeks moving from one home to another), but the Washington Post recently ran a lengthy post on what it described as “Latin America’s new authoritarians,” with a focus falling heavily on Hugo Chávez, though it also includes Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega in the group of “new authoritarians.” Right off the bat, the tenor is pretty clear:

More than two decades after Latin America’s last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.

Both Jay Ulfelder and Greg Weeks do a great job of pointing out some of the complexities that the Washington Post overlooks in this narrative. Ulfelder rightly comments that “this is not a ‘new kind of authoritarian leader,'” and while he takes a more comparative, political-scientist approach, I’d add some more historical contextualization. He is, of course, correct – this is nothing new. Indeed, if one looks at South America in the 1930s and 1940s, one sees a wave of leaders swept into power through democratic elections and then consolidating their hold on power, most notably in the figures of Juan Perón, who was elected in 1946 and ruled until 1955 in Argentina, and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, who was elected in 1930, formed the “Estado Novo” dictatorship in 1937, and remained in power until 1945 (he also was re-elected in 1950 and served as president until committing suicide in 1954). These leaders were certainly dealing with different contexts – in particular, Vargas was attempting to create a more centralized nation-state after the federative First Republic of 1889-1930 – but the fact remains that they display an historical precedent for what the Post‘s article describes as “new.”

Both Ulfelder and Weeks do a great job of also pointing out that the narrative of the article endows entirely too much power/agency in the supposedly “new authoritarians” by focusing on their alleged “charisma” while disregarding the not-insignificant social groups that either support or oppose such leaders. Greg in particular does a great job of adding context, pointing out that the opposition to these “new authoritarians” is often weak and disorganized, has its own history of undermining democracy, or both, meaning that ultimately, there is no “truly democratic end-game” on the part of the “new authoritarians” or their opposition. As Greg contextualizes it:

[C]onsolidation of power is not solely a matter of using the machinery of the state, but also is tied to the failures of the opposition. In the countries most commonly cited–Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador–the right is in shambles, deeply discredited for past failed policies. In small countries with weak institutions like Honduras and Paraguay, the right refused even to wait for the next presidential election.

I agree with both of these critiques. From a historical perspective, I’d add that the Post once again glosses over or ignores very complex historical processes that led to the popularity and support for these leaders (to say nothing of equating Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia with “Latin America,” a characterization I’m sure Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, etc. etc. etc. would at least challenge). And as Greg says, it’s not like we don’t have very-very recent evidence of the right undermining democratic processes.

Additionally, the actions and policies of these leaders are not happening in a vacuum; rather, as Greg alludes to, these men are dealing with a long line of social and economic inequalities and are often working to undo the equally-undemocratic histories of right-wing governments from the mid-nineteenth century onward up to the late-20th century.  At the most general level (and there are very real problems with and caveats to the most general level), to presume that there’s some new history of authoritarianism in a region that has enjoyed a long history of widespread popular democracy is, to put it concisely, bunk. That is not to say that these “new authoritarians” are taking the right path; but to treat them as a unified bloc is to again fall back on a narrative in which the “left” is out of control and undermining democratic processes, a highly-problematic narrative the Post has advocated before. One can certainly make an argument that some governments are consolidating power in the hands of the executive and judge whether or not that is worthwhile. But to presume a similarity and to equate Chávez, Morales, Correa, and Ortega without any understanding of the current or historical political and social contingencies that differentiate the individual countries and leaders leads to the kind of flawed reasoning that gives the leaders far more agency and power than they have without considering the ways in which societies and people themselves play a direct role in shaping the politics and histories of their countries.

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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.
This entry was posted in Democracy in the Americas, Latin America, Latin American History, Latin American Politics, The "Left" in Latin America, The "Right" in Latin America. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Contextualizing “Electoral Authoritarianism” in Latin America

  1. JoseAngel says:

    I have to disagree with your statement that “these men are dealing with a long line of social and economic inequalities and are often working to undo the equally-undemocratic histories of right-wing governments from the mid-nineteenth century onward up to the late-20th century”

    It is incorrect to say that most governments in Latin America from the mid-nineteenth century onward to late 20th century were right wing. In fact, if you study case by case you will find a long history of nationalizations, disrespect for private-property and collectivism. In Mexico, Lazaro Cardenas and many other presidents nationalized all kinds of companies in the oil, gas, telecomunications, electricity, steel, television, radio, food and even clothing industries. Same happened in Argentina with Peron, same in Venezuela, in Chile with Salvador, in Peru. The whole region has suffered thousands of nationalizations, the whole region has been a huge laboratory of collectivist ideals.

    Chavez, Cristina Kirchner, Evo Morales, Correa, Ortega, they are nothing but a result of a long tradition of self-destructive populism that has made Latin America poor and miserable.

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