Democracy on the brink? US has familiar echo for Latin Americans.
Why We Wrote This
For many in the U.S., the past few weeks have been a reality check on the idea of American exceptionalism. Watching from abroad, some in Latin America see lessons from their own countries’ experiences.
A supporter of presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla takes a selfie at a roadblock set up by people protesting what they call electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Dec. 1, 2017. As the United States wrestles with the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, some Latin Americans see parallels with their own countries’ experiences.
January 19, 2021
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By Whitney Eulich
Venezuela is a modern poster child for crumbling democracy. So after the Capitol riot in Washington, when Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted a statement expressing “concern over the acts of violence,” it felt pulled from the twilight zone.
Caracas “condemns political polarization and hopes that the American people can blaze a new path toward stability and social justice,” he wrote.
As the United States debates how to move forward, the moment feels uncomfortably familiar to many in Latin America who have experienced anti-democratic leaders and violent protests firsthand: from the long, slow erosion of democracy in Venezuela, to a coup and contested elections in Honduras. The comparisons aren’t perfect. But some see an opportunity for reflection – and possible lessons for the U.S. from neighbors to the south.
The attempts to overturn the 2020 election underscore “our countries are less different than we thought in a lot of ways,” says Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of “Americas Quarterly.” “The polarization, the institutional decay, the rising inequality. All the things that have been in the headlines in Latin America for years, we’re now seeing in our politics in the U.S.”
When a mob of protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, the world looked on in shock. But for many in Latin America – where caudillos, coups, and delicate democracies have emerged repeatedly over the past century – the violence in Washington felt uncomfortably familiar.
Although democracy has arguably strengthened across the region in recent decades, many Latin Americans have experienced anti-democratic leaders and violent protests firsthand: from the long, slow erosion of democracy in Venezuela, to a coup and contested elections in Honduras; or violent protests in front of Argentina’s presidential palace that forced the president to flee by helicopter, and demonstrators climbing on the roof of congress in Brazil.
The comparisons aren’t perfect. But as the U.S. debates how to move forward, with the rest of the world watching, some Latin Americans see an opportunity for reflection – and possible lessons for the United States from neighbors to the south. The U.S. may have arrived at the brink earlier this month, but it’s now facing a pivotal moment, they say, when decisions of politicians and citizens alike will determine the path ahead.
“It worries me because if this happens in the U.S., where are we headed?” asks Lourdes Ramírez, an award-winning Honduran journalist. “There need to be sanctions or some kind of accountability [for President Donald Trump], because there can’t be absolute power. That’s what I’ve admired about the U.S. – the checks from Congress and the Senate. That’s what allowed it to avoid what’s happened in Honduras.”
In the wake of the Jan. 6 unrest, some U.S. politicians were criticized for comparing the riots to what they’d expect to see happen in “banana republics” or the “Third World.” For many in Latin America, the subtext was the idea that U.S. democracy can’t fall prey to the same threats that have emerged in other parts of the world.
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“What these analogies miss out on is that Latin American democracies have actually been pretty stable for the past 30 years,” says Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of “Americas Quarterly.” “As a matter of fact, some countries in the region you could argue today are more stable than the U.S.,” like Uruguay and Costa Rica, which have built strong institutions and electoral traditions.
Yet the U.S. and Latin America may have more in common than Americans like to acknowledge.
The attempts to overturn the 2020 election underscore “our countries are less different than we thought in a lot of ways,” says Mr. Winter, who has lived in and studied the region for two decades. “The polarization, the institutional decay, the rising inequality. All the things that have been in the headlines in Latin America for years, we’re now seeing in our politics in the U.S.”
The view from Caracas
Venezuela is a modern poster child for crumbling democracy: from years of extreme inequality, and firebrand Hugo Chávez’s rise to power, to multiple coup attempts, constitutional changes to allow his reelection, highly manipulated elections, and the decline of independent institutions.
After the Capitol riot, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted a statement that felt pulled from the twilight zone: “Venezuela expresses its concern over the acts of violence that are taking place in the city of Washington, USA; condemns political polarization and hopes that the American people can blaze a new path toward stability and social justice.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza speaks at a press conference regarding a U.S. court ruling authorizing a sale of shares of Venezuela’s Citgo parent company, at the Foreign Ministry in Caracas Jan. 16, 2021. Mr. Arreaza tweeted a statement of concern after the Jan. 6 riot in Washington.
For many Venezuelans, watching events in the U.S. stirred up memories of their nation’s own missed opportunities, for citizens and politicians alike.
Like much of the U.S. in recent years, Venezuela was highly polarized by its former president, Mr. Chávez, who tapped into the media to rally his base and decry his detractors. “When you went to meet people for the first time, one of the first questions you were asked was ‘Are you for or against Chávez?’” recalls Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan lawyer specializing in international relations. He sees parallels with stories he hears from friends in the U.S. of families and communities divided over their support for Mr. Trump.
“It became, really quickly, an us-versus-them scenario on both sides,” he says. “Obviously that climate of polarization leads to other troubling things that we’re also seeing in the U.S., like the media being attacked as not impartial, or people seeking out sources that will tell them what they want to believe.” U.S. citizens have a responsibility to build bridges where they can, he adds.
In retrospect, it’s easy to spot mistakes by Mr. Chávez’s opponents, Mr. de Alba says. Many people left government during his early years in office, and the opposition at times burned bridges instead of fighting to maintain them – such as with the military.
“So, when the conflict got to the point where in order for things to change you really needed a channel of communication with people with opposing views, it just didn’t exist,” he says. “It’s hard to come back from.”
Elsa Cardozo, a retired professor of international affairs at Venezuela’s Andrés Bello Catholic University, says this is a key moment for educators at all levels in the U.S. Teachers must cultivate not just knowledge about democracy and respecting its norms, but critical thinking and self-reflection. “That was something really ignored and overlooked for many years in Venezuela before Chávez” rose to power, she says. An engaged population that understands democracy, and its own political moment, is harder for politicians to take advantage of, she adds.
Reconciliation – or not
Polarization was the name of the game in Honduras in the late 2000s as well. Then-President Manuel Zelaya found success in speaking to a portion of the Honduran population that had long felt overlooked and ignored by traditional politicians. But his pledge to hold an unofficial referendum on whether to change the constitution to allow for presidential reelection led to a military-backed coup in 2009.
Less than a decade later, conservative judges overruled the constitution’s ban, allowing the political coalitions behind the coup to present a candidate for reelection. Institutional independence deteriorated, widespread protests became regular occurrences, and the 2017 reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández was widely criticized internationally for irregularities.
Lester Ramírez, director of governance and transparency at the Association for a More Just Society, says one of the biggest lessons learned from Honduras’ 2009 coup, and the years of eroding democratic institutions and attacks on civil society that followed, was the need for reconciliation. “If we had had a reconciliation process in all of society, I think we would have avoided the type of leadership that we have right now,” he says. “We thought that by having elections we would start a new chapter. We did, but we’re still carrying baggage from the last chapter before it.”
Ms. Ramírez, the journalist, agrees. There was a truth commission following the 2009 coup, “but no one took the recommendations seriously,” she says, urging U.S. politicians not to do the same. “So we kept weakening our democracy and our rights.”
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Mr. Ramírez (no relation to Lourdes Ramírez) says he’s rooting for the U.S.’s recovery from today’s deep divisions and animosity. If the U.S. can heal from this, perhaps that’s something they can “export,” alongside messages of democracy targeted toward Latin America. Given that economic and political divisions – and the leadership that plays into these divides – are challenges facing many Latin American societies, he’d love to see a solution in the U.S. that could be implemented internationally.
“I’d like to see a good counter-effect to populism and authoritarianism,” he says. “Something that can give people economic opportunities and a chance to share their voice.”