It may not be inevitable that a Humala or a Fujimori presidency “would push Peru down the path of populist authoritarianism,” but nor is the Andean state the only Latin American country facing a challenge to its democratic institutions.
Reports suggest that Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has secured victory in a referendum on a set of 10 proposed constitutional amendments, including two that would give the presidency new discretionary powers over the judiciary and media.
“They’ve been saying it’s totalitarian… [a word] used for a state in which things are done by force. We’re doing this democratically,” he said.
He requested the right to replace the Supreme Court with a “transitional judicial council,” comprising three members to be selected by government branches he controls, and sought permission for a communications law that would allow government officials to censor content deemed to be violence, sexually explicit or “discriminatory.”
The referendum is the latest in a series of creeping coups which are enhancing executive prerogatives at the expense of democratic institutions and threatening to reverse “the rolling back of authoritarian prerogatives and autonomy” which, one analyst writes, was vital to consolidating Latin American democracy.
Correa is trying to “demolish the foundation of the ‘liberal democracy’ and replace it with a ‘dictatorial democracy,’” writes Carlos Alberto Montaner- in short replacing a state in which popular consent to being governed is conditional on respect for constitutionally-enshrined individual rights, separation of powers, a market economy and a vibrant civil society, with a pseudo-democratic variant:
On the other hand, the dictatorial democracy, as described and defended by the Dominican Juan Bosch in a 1969 essay titled “Dictatorship With Popular Support,” and revived by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in the so-called 21st Century Socialism, is in turn rooted in the enlightened despotism of the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s a type of government in which the authority — exercised by an exceptional caudillo legitimized in the polls by a majority of voters.
The final results have yet to be confirmed, but indicators suggest that Correa won approval by a narrow margin on all 10 proposals.
The referendum coincided with last week’s revelations that Correa received funding from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerrilla and drug-trafficking group, personally requesting $400,000 for his 2006 presidential campaign.
The transactions were exposed in a Strategic Dossier, published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, based on a two-year analysis of computer software belonging to Raúl Reyes, head of the FARC’s International Committee, seized in a March 2008 raid by Colombian armed forces.
“When Rafael Correa declared his presidential candidacy in 2006, FARC was initially unimpressed by his leftist credentials,” said Nigel Inkster, director of the Institute’s Trans-National Threats unit.
“But as his popularity increased and his radical potential became more evident,” he said, “FARC contributed approximately US$400,000 to his campaign…at a critical juncture.”
The dossier also confirms that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez subsidized a FARC bureau in Caracas and permitted the FARC “to use Venezuelan territory for refuge, cross-border operations and political activity, and effectively assigned the group a role in Venezuelan civil society.”
This is why institutions matter, writes Joel D. Hirst, an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“They serve to defend our progressive, universal, inalienable, and irreversible human rights from individuals,” he argues. “To de-institutionalize a country upon the requests of one person (or a segment of the country) upon calls of retaliation, retribution, and revolution will always lead to misery.”
The experience of Latin America’s democratic transitions provides a valuable template for other regions, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently suggested.
“For our security and strategic interests, we have to design an architecture of cooperation, and we are looking more and more to increasingly capable partners in the hemisphere,” she told the Washington Conference on the Americas. “For our core values, as we promote democracy and human rights here and around the world, we can point time and time again to what is happening for our partners and friends in this hemisphere.”
But that architecture and consensus on values are being threatened by what some analysts consider the stealthy dismantling of democracy by constitutional subterfuge.
The referendum in Ecuador appears to be the latest manifestation of a trend in which, as the World Movement for Democracy has observed, “an anti-democratic populism has gained strength, leading to the dismantling of core features of a democratic system, such as constraining media, the separation of powers, and the rule of law.”
Despite these current challenges, Latin America’s experience is instructive, not least for any democracies emerging from the Arab spring, demonstrating “that democratic consolidation is a slow, incremental process that can occur even within the framework and even limitations established under authoritarian regimes,” writes Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas:
For countries like Egypt and Tunisia, which have already forced the stepping down of authoritarian leaders, the democratic experiences of countries like Brazil, Chile and Mexico are illustrative. In all of those cases, far from a radical change, structural change and reform was largely incremental, negotiated. And despite the handwringing over the “reserved domains”of the past autocratic regimes, the practice of democracy over time and the gradual trust and consensus building that came with electoral competition and political representation allowed for the rolling back of authoritarian prerogatives and autonomy…………. It’s a lesson worth sharing.