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Democratic Speed Bumps in Latin America

After a decade of growing popularity, democracy has hit a slump in Latin America. A recent Latinobarómetro poll cited by The Economist in late October underscores this point. In all but three Latin American countries, fewer people than last year believe that democracy is preferable to any other type of government. In the cases of Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, the drop in support for democracy is significant.

The 2009 removal of democratically elected Manuel Zelaya and the post-coup human rights abuses of the government of Porfirio Lobo are obvious indicators that Honduras is on the wrong track. Dozens of political murders have taken place in Honduras, and there has been little outrage from Washington. Additionally, November’s presidential elections in Nicaragua and Guatemala (and recent polling on Mexico’s 2012 election) reinforce the notion that many in the region have grown skeptical about democratic governance.

Reasons to be Skeptical

Many reasons could explain this change in perceptions. Increased crime — particularly around the flow of illegal drugs — is perhaps the most obvious factor. Latin Americans want law and order and are willing to overlook an administration’s democratic lapses to achieve domestic security.

As people get wealthier, the Latinobarómetro poll suggests, they expect more and better government services. This craving is understandable, although the highly inefficient tax regimes in the region make this difficult to achieve. Large informal economies and numerous loopholes or exemptions to current tax collection systems pose challenges that most politicians have been unwilling to address.

For example, Mexico’s rate of tax collection is one of the lowest of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But Guatemala’s is even worse; it was only 10.5 percent of GDP last year. The average rate in Latin America is about 14 percent of GDP.

Legislative inertia is also a factor. Since the end of military dictatorships in Latin America, many countries have been plagued by frustrating legislative gridlock. “The truth is that people in Latin America care very little about parties and congresses, and expect even less from them,” according to a Brookings Institution analysis.

Global financial crises have also not helped. In terms of economic prosperity, Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world. During these crises, the poor and lower-middle classes prioritize meeting their daily needs. If their ability to make ends meet declines, they tend to blame the ruling parties and give in to the temptation to simply “throw the bums out” and bring in new leaders, regardless of their stances on human rights, transparency, good governance, or the rule of law. At a time when electorates view their leaders as weak and ineffectual, those who promise a “strong hand” become more attractive.

Backward Steps in Nicaragua, Guatemala

During his campaign for a third term as president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega repeatedly reassured voters that he was a strong, experienced leader who knew how to get things done. To a certain extent, he is right: Nicaragua has a history of economic volatility, but the situation has remained relatively stable under Ortega’s recent stewardship. His anti-poverty programs and subsidies, partly a result of generous Venezuelan loans, also helped persuade voters. Nevertheless, from banished term limits to alleged corruption, and from a judiciary stacked with Ortega loyalists to convincing evidence of electoral fraud (which was not even necessary), Ortega is already well on his way to bringing Nicaragua back to the authoritarianism that the country is all too familiar with.

In 2006, Ortega was instrumental in changing Nicaraguan electoral law to lower the threshold for a first-round presidential victory from 45 percent to either 40 percent of votes cast or 35 percent, as long as there is at least a five-point difference between the first- and second-place candidates. In the 2006 presidential election, Daniel Ortega captured 38 percent of the vote, thereby precluding a run-off that many analysts believe he would have lost.

Ortega accepted electoral defeat back in 1990, although Nicaragua has remained, at best, a fledgling democracy since then. Nicaraguans were again reminded of Ortega’s perennial presence on the Nicaraguan political scene in 1999 with the implementation of el Pacto, or “the Pact,” an agreement reached between Ortega and then-President Arnoldo Alemán of the Partido Liberal Constitutional. Although the two leaders were not close at the time, their two parties held almost all the power in the country’s National Assembly. This “pact” shielded both leaders from criminal prosecution and consolidated power in the judiciary and the Supreme Electoral Council. (This agreement is still in place, even though it has now become clear that Ortega has gotten more out of the deal than Alemán.)

Alemán still did get a 20-year prison sentence for numerous charges of corruption in 2003. In 2009, Nicaragua’s Supreme Court exonerated Alemán; his conviction was conveniently overturned. Transparency International recently honored Alemán in their list of “The World’s Ten Most Corrupt Leaders” in recent history.

The 2009 Nicaraguan Supreme Court ruling that exempted Ortega from only serving two presidential terms sent a strong message that good governance in Nicaragua was waning. Under the Nicaraguan constitution, presidents are not allowed to run for consecutive terms and are supposed to respect a two-term limit. But because Mr. Ortega essentially controlled the Supreme Court, its judges ruled that the previous laws constituted human rights violations and should not apply to him. Legally speaking, Ortega could be president for the rest of his life. Nicaragua’s institutions were never particularly strong, but as its extremely politicized court makes clear, they are undoubtedly weakening under Ortega’s watch. Due to rampant fraud committed by Ortega’s Sandinista party in 2008 municipal elections, the EU and the United States suspended aid.

In Guatemala, meanwhile, the incoming administration of Otto Peréz promises to be a step backwards in terms of human rights. Peréz held a number of high positions in the Guatemalan military during Latin America’s bloodiest civil war. Many voters were too young to remember the massacres in the country’s western highlands, most of which occurred during the early 1980s. Crime statistics in Guatemala are atrocious, and security was voters’ foremost concern throughout the campaign. Guatemala has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. In 2010, there were more than 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, rising to an astounding 110 per 100,000 in the capital. To put this in perspective, the homicide rate in the United States is less than five per 100,000. Guatemala’s neighbor Mexico, which is in the throes of a bloody drug war, has a homicide rate of about 14 per 100,000. With a pitiful prosecution rate hovering around 2 or 3 percent, Guatemalan voters are desperate for a solution to what they consider their most pressing problem.

Peréz’s campaign slogan of mano dura — or “the strong hand” — promised to crack down on violent crime and pursue offenders relentlessly. Security concerns dominated the presidential campaign, as runner-up Manuel Baldizón also put an anti-crime message at the top of his agenda. Once in office, Peréz will likely involve the military in police matters, reversing a trend toward civilian control.

Feckless Governance in Mexico

Mexicans, meanwhile, have grown tired of the feckless governance the country has experienced since its “democratic breakthrough” in 2000. Nowhere is the lack of compromise or legitimate negotiation more obvious than in Mexico’s federal legislature. Under Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) leadership, legislative gridlock has plagued Mexican political life for the past decade. President Felipe Calderón has fared slightly better than former President Vicente Fox, although frustration among the Mexican citizenry remains. Voters have finally gotten a taste of multiparty democracy and discovered how bittersweet it is.

A recent report published by Human Rights Watch, which documents widespread abuses by state security personnel and even judicial actors, has shown how damaging President Calderón’s misguided “war on drugs” has been for ordinary Mexican citizens. Calderón’s egregious mismanagement of Mexican security policy has exacerbated citizens’ growing exasperation, and rightfully so. Systematic and widespread abuses by state security personnel under the auspices of PAN “democracy” would make anyone question whether democracy has developed in Mexico over the past decade.

Certainly, the media environment has improved since 2000, and the country’s judicial system is more relevant and unbiased than it was under the rule of the long-serving Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Nevertheless, much of the political power in Mexico has moved from the federal executive to the country’s various governorships and, perhaps most tellingly, to Congress and key players within Mexico’s three big political parties. During the 70 years of PRI authoritarianism, political actors from disparate groups did not need to work together. Mexican politicians are still learning how to accomplish this.

Calderon’s drug war has undoubtedly failed, but more fundamentally, Mexican citizens simply do not trust the country’s existing institutions, of which political parties would probably top the list. For next year’s presidential election, the PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor of the state of Mexico, is the current frontrunner. As in Guatemala, many voters are too young to remember the authoritarian past and the PRI’s connection to it.

In a 2010 Latinóbarometro survey that included 18 Latin American nations, Mexicans were more apathetic about democracy than anyone else. Nothing would indicate that things have changed since then. A recent UN study revealed that 36 percent of households were victims of crime last year, a year that witnessed around 22 million “common crimes.” This is not entirely drug-related violence; criminal activities are more pervasive than that. There is no evidence to suggest that these statistics will improve between now and next July’s presidential election.

Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala may be bellwethers for a regional shift away from democracy, or they may simply be exceptions. The counter-examples of Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Panama suggest that democracy is not completely on the decline in the region. Nevertheless, challenges from crime to legislative gridlock are likely to persist in the region, and these challenges will put pressure on what are still fragile democracies.

U.S. Foreign Policy vis-à-vis Latin America

There was a real and not unfounded hope that the administration of George W. Bush would make a concerted effort to engage with Latin America’s political leaders. But after 9/11, the region fell to the bottom of U.S. foreign policy priorities. The Obama administration has not done much better. Plan Colombia and the Mérida initiative, which deal largely with security issues and fighting an unwinnable drug war, do not constitute a coherent grand strategy. More recently, U.S. policymakers have again been reminded of the tight links between energy security and national security.

This provides another reason to strengthen U.S.-Latin American ties, especially since China’s influence in Latin America will only grow over the coming decades. In 2009, China became Brazil’s biggest trading partner. Placing a greater emphasis on human rights and respect for civil liberties is crucial. Washington’s lackluster response to post-coup violence in Honduras only encourages further democratic backsliding elsewhere. Revisiting comprehensive immigration reform would be another good place to start.

The devastating effects of the 40-year war on drugs are related to current violence in Central America. And yet, there is little to suggest that anyone in Washington is willing to reexamine U.S. drug policy. As the United States shifts its focus to East Asia, reengagement with Latin America will probably be a gradual process.

U.S. policymakers must approach the region with more nuanced strategies. Latin America is not a monolithic entity, where a certain set of policy goals in one country will be relevant or entirely applicable to another. In spite of many similarities, Mexico is not Guatemala. Andean nations should not just be lumped together in the same policy category. Although there are no easy answers, appreciating the specific context of each country will be essential.

Strengthening relationships must go beyond military or security-related bonds. Right now, American foreign policy in the region is unacceptable, counterproductive, and will likely presage a continued rise in authoritarianism. Latin America is not the Cold War hot spot it once was, but it is a region that still merits attention. Diplomacy on the cheap usually produces undesirable outcomes. The perpetuation of current U.S. policy will be no exception.