Latin American Network Initiative

LANI Newsletter – The State of Democracy in Latin America 

By Alessia Mandaglio

When it comes to democracy in Latin America, it is now clearer than ever that certain states – Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – cannot be defined anymore as democracies, but represent de facto authoritarian regimes in the region. Now the assault on democratic institutions in Brazil and Peru threaten to undermine democracy in the entire region.

Despite two months of protests, Peru remains at political loggerheads with internal division tearing apart the state and casting a long shadow over the entire region. In December, President Castillo, elected in 2021, reacted to the third attempt by Congress to remove him from office with a self-coup. Within hours he was abandoned by his ministers and bodyguards, dismissed and arrested while trying to take refuge in the Mexican Embassy. Castillo was immediately replaced by his Vice-President Dina Boluarte. On the same day, protests began in the poorest parts of the country, the demands very clear: the release of Castillo, the deposition of Boluarte and new elections. Around 60 people have been killed by the police response to the protests.

According to analysts, these protests – which represent one of the worst examples of political violence in the country’s history – cannot be explained solely by the protester’s resistance to Castillo’s arrest and deposition. The protests must be explained by looking at the everlasting conflict between the elites of Lima and rural populations, which have been marginalised and discriminated against for centuries and who had placed their unfulfilled hopes in the figure of Castillo, a teacher from the Andes. 

At the same time the protests are also the result of the desperation of an entire nation confronted with the political crisis that the country has been facing for years. Boluarte was sworn in as the seventh President in six years due to the corruption scandals that have  left no Peruvian political figure untouched in the last 30 years – starting with the presidential power itself. The institution that most represents Peru’s political crisis is Congress, protecting special interests and disrupting the country’s normal political activity through constant attempts at impeachment.

Castillo had represented hope for many, yet even his short term in office proved disastrous, due to questionable appointments,repeated cabinet changes, corruption investigations,and an inability to deliver on its agenda.

Here we are facing a country torn apart. On one side, an elite exemplified by President Boluarte – who has shown no intention of resigning and continues to point to the protesters for creating chaos in the country – and a corrupt Congress completely detached from the electorate (as demonstrated by the inability to agree on a date for anticipated elections). And on the other, a forgotten and unheard nation with no hope of improvement and whose feelings are of being ridiculed by those  occupying the high seats of Congress. At present, there seems to be no definitive solution to a country which appears to be completely unstable and ungovernable. 

Scenes similar to the assault on the US Capitol repeated on 8 January. Thousands of supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro attacked and ransacked the headquarters of the three powers in Brasilia, focusing especially on the Planalto Palace – the seat of presidential power – and the Supreme Court. More than 1,800 people who participated  in the attack – described by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as “fanatics, vandals and fascists” and terrorists – were arrested in the immediate aftermath, with the first charges of violent attempt to subvert the rule of law and organisation of a coup already having been issued.

Undeniable is the role of Bolsonaro, if not as an official instigator at least as an inspiration. It is no coincidence that he is already under investigation for inducement while still in the US. During his term in office, there were numerous attacks on Brazilian democracy and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral system and his supporters certainly felt justified by the narrative that the elections were manipulated. The fact that the former President timidly condemned the assault confirmed the suspicions and fears of many that what had happened was now a matter of time.

Whilst there are strong visual parrales with the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol, the attack on Brazil appears more far-reaching.  Brazil is potentially even more polarised, with 49% of voters voting for Bolsonaro in the last presidential election. The role of the military and police should also not be ignored. Support for Bolsonaro among the ranks of the military and police is unquestionable, many have found jobs in the civil service and some generals have held key government positions during his term. Some even positively praised the calls for military intervention by Bolsonaro’s supporters. Under scrutiny above all is the military police, who were in charge of keeping the demonstrations under control, but who instead escorted the demonstrators’ buses and offered very little resistance to the invasion of the institutional buildings.

The counter to Brazil’s democratic woes was the swift and firm institutional response to this attack. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore  that a large part of the population remains highly hostile towards democracy, and attempted to demonstrate this through an attempt to subvert the democratic order. The attack is indicative of  a plague now common to global democracies: the presence of increasingly radicalised fringes, reared on fake news, disinformation, and anti-establishment rhetoric, who refuse to accept election results by appealing to alleged fraud.

This happened only a week before the start of the third term of Lula, who was already President of Brazil from 2003 to 2011. Managing this phase will require a lot of time and energy from his new government. Indeed, there is not only the realisation of the ambitious electoral programme, Lula has a much more difficult task ahead of him: that of mending a country torn apart by Bolsonaro’s four years in power and of showing Brazilian citizens that he is a legitimate president and, above all, everyone’s president. 

Democracy in Latin America is young and hard fought for, the ongoing struggles in Peru and Brazil are indicative of how democracy in the region could crumble. Despite the many structural issues affecting Latin America, one can’t help but marvel at how these democracies are still able to evolve over time and recall the constant struggle for political independence and freedom that is their lifeblood and fuse. There will always be someone ready to fight for democracy, whether in the streets or within the institutions.

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