Many of us have spent hours following the events in Washington DC, trying to make sense of the violence unleashed by a sitting President unwilling to accept his electoral defeat. This kind of behavior has not been uncommon in the Western Hemisphere. In both Latin America and the Caribbean, we have had our fair share of personalist dictators, military juntas, hegemonic parties and autogolpes from democratically elected leaders. But I am troubled by facile comparisons and frankly offensive comments that have emerged in the press and social media discussing whether the U.S. is a “banana republic” or talking about the “latinamericanization” of American politics. I have spent most of my professional career thinking about, writing and learning from the research produced by colleagues shedding light on the political processes of democratization in Latin America. The recent experience of Latin America since the 1980s has regularized a form of political interaction that is quite distinct from what has been happening in the US. The US is not becoming like Latin America.
Democracy in Latin America has taken root and is rather robust. A distinguishing trait of democratic systems is that when such institutional arrangement works, losers in elections acknowledge their defeat. In democracies, politicians who do not command an electoral majority do not resort to legal chicanery, incendiary rhetoric, lies, threats or force in attempts to remain in office. They may always challenge electoral counts in courts, through legally-codified processes, but when these institutional processes end, they recognize their defeat. Those are the rules of the democratic game. The beauty of democratic rule is that it is pro tempore: ambitious politicians can always wait for their next opportunity to gain office legally, through the will of the people, as expressed by a future electoral contest. There have been, of course, exceptions within Latin America, instances of democratic backsliding and serious shortcomings in democratic public accountability. But to a large extent, democracy in Latin America is widely accepted as the only game in town.
In the past decades, most countries and citizens in Latin America have learned, after many painful episodes of populism and dictatorship, to abide by democratic rules and procedures of electoral contestation as the best mechanism for the turnover of political power. In this sense, the current polarization in the U.S. should not be compared to the Latin American experience. Latin American institutional rules regulating political contestation and the electoral institutions established to count citizen votes, including independent electoral boards and systems of legislative and judicial oversight, the regulations of campaign finance and the systems of representation that ensure the voice and representation of minorities, are arguably more robust than those found in the United States. And a common shared understanding of why democracy is worth preserving seems to be more imbued in the Latin American psyche and political values than ever before. This is the opposite of what has been happening in the US.
Latin American and Caribbean countries share with the U.S. a malaise that emerges from deeply unequal societies, in which the State has been unable to temper unfair disadvantages conferred by the mere accident of being born in a favela or a “ciudad perdida,” instead of a cosmopolitan neighborhood like those found in any of our global cities. The exclusion of indigenous peoples, and the racism triggered by something as superficial as the color of our skin, reflect the accumulated experiences of labor exploitation, discrimination, colonialism and extraction. Blocked social mobility and widening gaps between rich and poor exacerbated by technological trends and shifts in labor demand are a major challenge. Criminal violence, drug abuse, incarceration and police brutality disproportionately burdening some specific groups in our societies that suffer premature deaths. The social problems of Latin America are not dissimilar from those facing the United States.
But the bigotry, intolerance, utter lack of empathy and outright racism as distinguishing traits of Presidential politics were specific U.S. American challenges over the past four years, perhaps only shared to some extent with Brazil. Normalizing the phenomenal failure of the U.S. as a society to prevent a man representing those values from gaining political power, by saying it is similar to Latin America, does not reflect the great strides Latin American and Caribbean societies have made in preventing such abuses during the past decades. As many of my colleagues have been warning, the U.S. has been on a dangerous path were democracy can die, for already several years.
The opportunism of enablers within the political system who allowed a sitting President to continue lying and betraying the trust of American citizens also reflects an utter failure in the system of checks and balances. That failure has cost the U.S. very dearly. It is not just the assault of a mob on the capitol, encouraged by the President, that has no place in a democratic system. But the hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths from COVID-19. In my view these deaths are a direct consequence of his lack of stewardship and leadership of the US President. Those deaths are not normal. It is my sincere hope that, in some weeks, we can become less blinded by partisan polarization and divisive rhetoric and can come together with solidarity to recreate the country that the U.S. has always aspired to be: a land of equal opportunity to all, including the opportunity to not die from a preventable disease.
Let me be clear that this does not mean that democratic rule in Latin America is perfect. Far from it. The threats to democracy are evident in countries like Brazil, Nicaragua or El Salvador. And the democratic systems of Peru or Ecuador are quite fragile. The region still has authoritarian rule in Cuba and Venezuela. And for millions of poor Latin Americans, democracy has not brought with it the promises of better public service provision, government accountability or redistribution. But to a large extent, the hopes of leveraging democracy as a political regime that can enhance freedom while redressing long standing challenges of social justice is alive and well in Latin America.
I wish you all well in these troubled times, and may the Latin American experiences be a beacon of hope and optimism for a better future.