Why Latin America Is Becoming Less Democratic

The populist wing of Latin America's contemporary left poses a sig­nificantly stronger challenge to democracy than did the wave of right-wing populist presidents who rose to prominence in the 1990s (or in Co­lombia's case, the 2000s). Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori, along with Brazil's Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-92) and Colombia's Al­varo Uribe (2002-10), also employed populist strategies, but on behalf of neoliberal economic policies and, in Peru and Colombia, the need to defeat violent leftist guerrillas. Despite differing from the current crop of left-wing populists on ideology and policy, these rightist presidents nonetheless favored a similar personalistic leadership style and mobi­lized amorphous, heterogeneous mass followings in a quasi-direct fash­ion. Each president cast himself as the people's champion in a struggle against malign forces such as established politicians and left-wing insur­gents. In these ways, neoliberal populists garnered wide popular support that they sought to sustain with plebiscitarian tactics.

In typical populist fashion, these neoliberal politicians sought to boost presidential powers, weaken checks and balances, and extend their control over the government while preparing their own reelections. Me­nem, for instance, bent constitutional rules by issuing an unprecedent­ed number of "emergency" decrees and packed Argentina's Supreme Court in order to protect his arrogations of power. Collor steamrolled Brazil's Congress, forcing legislators to accept drastic macroeconomic-stabilization measures by using his decree powers to confront the law­makers with a fait accompli. Menem and Uribe pushed constitutional changes designed to help them get reelected. Most blatantly, Fujimori closed Congress and took control of the courts with his 1992 autogolpe (self-coup). Faced with strong international protests, he sought to tack away from naked authoritarianism by calling a constituent assembly that augmented presidential prerogatives and allowed for his reelection. The new charter also weakened the legislative branch by replacing Peru's bicameral Congress with a unicameral assembly. In these ways, right-wing populists damaged Latin American democracy, destroying it alto­gether for a time in Peru.

But this deterioration was limited in severity in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, and in duration in Peru. Collor did not keep his promise to "kill inflation" and was defeated by Brazil's political class, which forced him to resign amid a corruption scandal. Menem and Uribe did achieve policy success and parlayed the resulting popularity into convincing re­election victories. But the desire of each to win a third consecutive term ran afoul of intraparty opposition in Argentina and a powerful indepen­dent Constitutional Court in Colombia. When Menem and Uribe stepped down, democracy in Argentina and Colombia recovered. Even Fujimori, who in 2000 managed to win a second reelection, fell soon thereafter as his ever more extreme personalism collapsed under its self-destructive logic. Once the president had pulverized the party system and subjugated the Peruvian state, his rule was thoroughly extra-institutional, resting on shady personal connections sustained by widespread corruption. When evidence of this crass bribery surfaced, Fujimori's hold on power van­ished. The political demise of Fujimori--who is now serving jail time for corruption and human-rights abuses--brought back full democracy, with ample public debate and free and fair elections. Thus, right-wing popu­lism did not ruin democracy in Argentina, Brazil, or Colombia, and in Peru democracy's destruction and temporary replacement were followed by a quick resurrection.

By contrast, left-wing populism has a more negative balance sheet. Chávez dominated Venezuelan politics for fourteen years, stopped only by his death. His underlings have good chances of retaining control, aided by the emotional impact of Chávez's "martyrdom." Morales, Correa, and Ortega have also cemented their respective hegemonies and prepared their own continuations in power. Bolivia's president, as mentioned, has gone back on his promise not to run again in 2014. With Correa's February 2013 reelection to a third term now behind him, he is poised to tighten his own political stranglehold. Given these leaders' unfettered control over state resources and their willingness to employ discriminatory legalism, opposition forces face steep uphill battles in a context of heavily rigged electoral competition. Incumbent governments have jailed opposition politicians or driven them out of the country in Bolivia, and have attacked and intimidated civil society in Ecuador and Nicaragua. These tightening constraints on political pluralism give the nondemocratic leaders of left-wing populism ever firmer foundations for their rule.


Why has left-wing populism been doing more damage to democracy in Latin America than right-wing populism did? This asymmetry re­flects differences not in intention, but in capacity. Today's populists of the left command greater political strength and have more policy tools. They can push further down the road toward concentrated power than could their neoliberal cousins of a few years ago.

First, right-wing populism has a temporary (usually crisis-driven) sup­port base, while leftist populism has more lasting roots, particularly in the "informal" sectors that figure so largely in the economies of many Latin American countries. Second, by reducing the power of the state over markets and private economic actors, neoliberalism diminishes the power of right-wing leaders. The growing state interventionism favored by left-wing populists, by contrast, gives them additional means of influence. Third, neoliberalism exposes right-wing populists to international pres­sures for democracy; economic nationalism, by contrast, insulates left­ist presidents from such exhortations. Finally, right-wing populists acted separately, while today's left-wing leaders form a coordinated group. This cohesion further disarms international pressures to maintain democracy. For all these reasons, Bolivarian leaders have managed to strangle democ­racy much more effectively than neoliberal populists ever could.

The populists of the right always stood on shakier political ground than that of Chávez and his friends. Neoliberal populists won office by vowing to solve crises. Success made these leaders dispensable. By contrast, left-wing populists invoke structural problems--poverty, in­equality, marginalization--that allow only for slow progress and resist definitive resolution. Stubborn problems thus justify one reelection of "the leader" after another. Moreover, these presidents have relied not only on performance-based legitimacy, but also on durable identity-based appeals that cast them as champions of, for example, informal workers, barrio residents, or indigenous people.

The right-wing populist presidents Menem, Fujimori, and Collor rose to power amid bouts of hyperinflation. These economic catastrophes dis­credited the existing parties in Argentina, Peru, and Brazil, respectively, opening space in each country for an outsider who pledged to stop the pain. But the political weakness that followed Collor's failure to end in­flation contributed to his downfall on corruption charges. Menem and Fu­jimori eventually brought skyrocketing prices under control and received massive popular support in return. But the backing did not endure: Once these presidents had restored economic stability, voters switched to wor­rying about poverty and unemployment--problems that executives com­mitted to neoliberal austerity, budget discipline, and privatization found much harder to solve. Within Menem's own Peronist party, for instance, a rival running to Menem's left cut him off from his hopes for a third term.

Fujimori and Uribe also won popular support with their success in fight­ing guerrillas. An improving security situation boosted each president's popularity for a while. But as the danger receded, especially in Peru, citi­zens' priorities shifted, exposing the two chief executives to a paradox of success. Their very accomplishments hamstrung their efforts to perpetuate themselves in office. Fujimori fell in 2000, the victim of his achievements as well as his considerable excesses, and Uribe failed to parlay his 2008 victories over leftist insurgents into another reelection in 2010.

Left-wing populists, by contrast, base their appeal on structural prob­lems. They highlight Latin America's longstanding social deficits, espe­cially widespread poverty and inequality. While the established political class looks self-serving and beholden to privileged elites, left-wing popu­lists project concern for common citizens and start generous social pro­grams that--despite frequent administrative problems stemming from po­liticization--significantly increase benefits, alleviate destitution, and bring symbolic recognition as well. This deliberate identification with ordinary people and their plight is reinforced by the leaders' affiliations with the popular sectors from which they spring (or with which they identify them­selves). Left-populist identity politics is especially important in Bolivia, where the supporters of Morales like to boast that he is the first indigenous president that this majority-indigenous country has ever had. Similarly, Chávez dwelt often on his humble upbringing and spoke in a popular (and vulgar) idiom not previously associated with presidents of Venezuela.

Left-wing populists claim to be the first chief executives to embrace a preferential option for the poor. Their social programs embody this commitment, but cannot quickly overcome longstanding structural defi­cits. This slow progress with no end in sight yields more durable politi­cal payoffs than neoliberal populists' success in solving dramatic crises. Left-wing populists prove their social orientation and performance, and then point to the difficulty of the task in order to explain why they must stay in office. Thus, activist social policies further cement identity-based loyalties. These bonds give left-wing populism more reliable political sustenance than neoliberal leaders can command and allow left-wing populists to do graver damage to democracy.

The neoliberal economics to which recent right-wing populists were de­voted, far from fortifying their political hegemony, ended up diminishing their control over economic matters and hence weakening them politically. Certainly, in the short run market-based reforms can augment presidential influence. Privatization programs, in which the government decides who may buy public enterprises, offer obvious opportunities for extracting fa­vors. But once firms pass into private hands, the government loses control. Thus neoliberalism's end product is reduced presidential clout.

Neoliberal orthodoxy limits leaders in other ways. Budget disci­pline restrains patronage spending. Personnel cuts shrink the leeway for hiring cronies. Reliance on market forces precludes large-scale employment programs. Moreover, business and international financial institutions insist on firm, transparent legal parameters and thus reduce leaders' autonomy and discretion. In sum, neoliberalism constrains populist chief executives and hinders their continued reelections.

By contrast, left-leaning populists boost state interventionism. They add to the public payroll, increase regulation, and nationalize enterprises. This yields growing patronage resources, so presidents can buy support and press their opponents. As ever more people come to depend on the state, they become possible targets for discriminatory legalism. Citizens have an incentive to toe the line and back the incumbent, however grudg­ingly, as in the 2012 election that returned a dying Hugo Chávez to the presidency of Venezuela. Businesspeople need to think twice before fund­ing oppositionists lest the government find a pretext to revoke business li­censes, deny access to foreign exchange, or impose other sanctions. Once a populist president has established hegemony and defanged accountabili­ty mechanisms, extensive state interventionism offers untold new chances to reward friends, punish foes, and tilt the playing field.

In the years since the Cold War's end, international pressures in favor of democracy have come to the fore. Neoliberal economic-policy com­mitments exposed right-wing populists to these in ways that left-wing populists have seldom if ever experienced. After Fujimori's self-coup, he quickly backed away from open authoritarianism lest economic sanc­tions foil his market reforms. To preserve his hard-won economic suc­cess, Fujimori called elections for a constituent assembly and restored room for political competition. Neoliberalism trumped authoritarianism. Similar external pressures later limited Fujimori's efforts to manipulate the 2000 presidential election; they also hindered Menem's and Uribe's attempts to stay in office.

Left-wing populists, by contrast, can huddle behind economic nation­alism. Reduced reliance on global market forces and rising statism build walls against international efforts to promote democracy. Under fire for blatant uses of discriminatory legalism, Chávez pulled out of hemi­spheric institutions such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He also kept international election observers out of Venezuela, which helped him to hide how badly he had warped the competitive arena in his own favor. With the continuing boom in oil and natural-gas prices, commodity-rich Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have been able to ignore global market pressures (as has Nicaragua, which receives Venezuelan subsidies).

Yesterday's right-wing populists differed from today's left-wing popu­lists, finally, in being less organized as a group. Neoliberal presidents may have banded together to found the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) but they never did much to support one another diplomatically. For instance, neither Menem nor Collor backed Fujimori after his self-coup, and neither ever came close to trying to shutter Congress. When Chávez put democracy to death by constituent assemblies, he inspired imitators. Fujimori's more direct attack on democracy had no such effect on his neoliberal peers.

Left-wing populists act in coordinated ways. Morales, Correa, and Zelaya (who was stopped early in the process) sought to retrace Chávez's path through constitutional change to political hegemony and discrimi­natory legalism. Daniel Ortega took advantage of Nicaragua's low level of institutionalization to push his changes through by informal means. They all benefited from Chávez's petrodollars, political advice, dip­lomatic support, and security protection. This comprehensive backing from Caracas strengthened left-wing populists both at home and abroad. Thus did Chávez help to smother democracy in several countries.

The tendency of left-wing populists to close ranks also serves to pro­tect their assaults on political competition from international rescue ef­forts. The hemispheric community can force the president of Peru to retreat from open authoritarianism, but has no such leverage on a cohe­sive group of countries that aid one another and wield something akin to a veto within regional institutions. Among their tacit allies have been more moderate countries, such as Brazil, which see Bolivarian radical­ism as a handy foil that raises their bargaining power vis-`a-vis Washing­ton. The diplomatic self-interests of Latin American democracies have thus played a role in hampering international efforts to prevent authori­tarian backsliding in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

In fact, left-wing populists have skillfully used the region's democra­cy-defense arrangements to abet their own internal assaults on democra­cy. International mechanisms to protect competitive rule were designed with dramatic threats, such as coups against elected presidents, in mind. When Chávez faced an irresolute attempted coup in 2002, these mecha­nisms helped him, just as they helped Evo Morales when he had to deal with mass protests in 2008. It is no small matter that chief executives, who naturally display solidarity with their counterparts elsewhere, are typically the ones who must apply these measures.  

Discriminatory legalism has so far proved a democracy-strangling tactic that the international community has found hard to rein in. Outsid­ers to a country must first pierce the veil of formal legality, and then de­cide when discrimination has become bad enough and broad enough to count as a violation of democracy. Left-wing populists typically move gradually to undermine democracy; where is the threshold that calls for international intervention? The most visible victims are usually legis­lators, high-court judges, and party politicians--not types that foreign presidents will feel most eager to rescue. As elected populist presidents squeeze and manipulate their opponents, diplomatic backing against the onslaught can prove scarce.

Because they can so easily be made to shield perpetrators more than victims, current democracy-protection protocols in the region are serv­ing to undermine democracy and--however unintentionally--to further tilt the playing field in several countries. Like discriminatory legalism at home, the asymmetrical internationalism that informs regional coun­cils helps to spread and entrench nondemocracy. The new competitive authoritarian regimes of Latin American leftist populism lack the harsh­ness of old-school dictatorships, but they have achieved a degree of "perfection" (to borrow Mario Vargas Llosa's ironic term) that even Mexico's long-ruling PRI in its heyday could not rival.


Historically, it has been the right that has done the most damage to competitive civilian rule in Latin America, so when a new threat from the left emerged during a time of what appeared to be democratic con­solidation, many observers were surprised. For decades, oligarchs had stifled mass participation while soldiers mouthing anticommunist slo­gans had all too often intervened to crush popular empowerment and democracy. Leftists bore the brunt of the repression, learning to stop calling democracy a "bourgeois farce" and to embrace human-rights safeguards and checks on state power. Much of Latin America's left has thus come to have strong democratic credentials.

Populist politicians, however, lack firm commitment to ideologies and principles and concentrate on the quest for personal power. The urge to boost the leader's clout, the dislike of constitutional limits, and the harsh treatment of rivals make populism an inherent threat to democracy. Popu­lists both right and left have displayed these tendencies, but the latter have done more damage to democracy with their greater staying power and more skillful efforts to hoard power, knock down institutional safeguards, squeeze opponents, and skew competition. Beneath a veneer of formal legality, these populists have blunted and even exploited the hemisphere's methods for guarding against reversals of democracy.

With its claims to make democracy more direct and to be especially mindful of the poor, left-wing populism has crafted an attractive message. It has spread from Venezuela to several other countries and has stimulated interest elsewhere, especially Argentina. The temptations that it spawns make Chávez-style populism a particular threat to democracy.

This threat also seems to have clear limits, however. Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay, and now Colombia boast stable democra­cies. Steady institutions, pluralist party systems, and respectable gov­ernment performance leave less room for populists. The downsides of Bolivarian populism, which include raging inflation, corruption, and violent crime, are well known and act as a deterrent. Left-wing populism and soft authoritarianism are unlikely to infect those countries.

Where leftists have achieved political success in those nations, they differ profoundly from Chávez. With coherent organizations and agen­das, the Brazilian Workers' Party, Chile's Concertación, and Uruguay's Broad Front have eschewed personalism and populism. Committed to existing institutions and gradual change, they have preserved and en­riched democracy. Thus the authoritarian turn in Latin America today comes not from the left in general, but from a populist left that in certain countries is even more dangerous than its rightist forebear. The scrim of "progressive" rhetoric around this undemocratic style of politics only makes things worse.

Chávez's death may abate this threat a bit, but competitive authoritari­anism will likely persist and continue to hold appeal. The original Boli­varian leader is now gone, and Venezuelan subsidies may shrink, weak­ening especially Ortega in resource-poor Nicaragua. But the lessons of Chávez's remarkable "success" live on and may inspire more imitators, particularly in Argentina. The undemocratic incumbents in Bolivia, Ec­uador, and Venezuela have entrenched their rule and wield many tools for extending it, aided by the commodities boom. Moreover, neither the domestic opposition nor the international community has found a way to stop discriminatory legalism. For these reasons, the end of the authoritar­ian trend in Latin America is not in sight.

This post originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Presented by

Kurt Weyland

is the Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics at the University of Texas–Austin.

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