A popular Latin American saying reads, “la voz del pueblo es la voz de Dios,” which translates to “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” This expression can be regarded as a metaphor for one form of the Latin American version of democracy, which essentially means that if the majority of the “people” want an action carried out, it is the duty of the government to do so in some suitable form. The discussions by Colombia’s Constitutional Court regarding whether popular President Alvaro Uribe could run once again for re-election posed a test of what “democracy” means for Latin Americans. If Uribe had been able to run again, it is almost certain he would have been victorious. Nevertheless, can a democracy remain stable and healthy even though a bunch of obstreperous and repeated constitutional referendums aimed at perpetuating even a very popular leader’s stay in office?
The challenges posed by what could have been a possible re-election of Uribe can be compared to the electoral standing of another archly popular statesman who has a popular if contentious figure, and whose popularity that has thrown the constitutional order of his country into a conundrum-- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Venezuela’s conservative bloc loathes him while the new suffering poor and parts of the youth are beginning to distance themselves from him, to which could eventually bring down his government. If Chavez’ version of democracy deserves to be heard over time, he would do well to lower the sense of a outrage being felt by both his backers and defamers or else he will clash with the voice and will of the people.
Turning back the clock on Presidential re-elections
The surge of presidential elections over the past couple of decades has had a significant side-effect, the altering of constitutions to allow for the immediate re-election of incumbent presidents. Indeed, several South American countries, until relatively recently, had constitutions that barred this privilege, but a number of sitting presidents have managed to override them. In a March 2009 entry in his blog Politika, renowned Peruvian sociologist and political analyst Fernando Tuesta Soldevilla explains that “in many countries – particularly those with ‘re-electionist’ or dictatorial pasts – the principle of no re-election was installed as a constitutional norm for democracy.” Strongman rulers like Mexico’s Porfirio Diaz (re-elected seven times and in power a total of 27 years), Paraguay’s Alfredo Strossner or the Dominican Republic’s Joaquin Balaguer, all used re-election as an authorizing device to remain almost indefinitely in power.
More recently, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori spearheaded a re-election trend in his own country via an “auto golpe (self-coup) in April 1992, through which he dissolved the Peruvian parliament and called for new legislative elections from which his party emerged as winner. This strategy allowed Fujimori to write a new constitution in 1993 and provided for an immediate re-election that ultimately led to 1995 victory at the polls. With him serving as head of state, his party, Cambio 90-Nueva Mayoria, then passed a new law, dubbed ley de interpretación auténtica, to allow Fujimori to run for a second re-election (from the government’s point of view, the first re-election under the new 1993 constitution), but accusations of massive corruption and nationwide protests put an end to the Fujimori regime. It should be added that in both the Peruvian Constitutions of 1933 and 1979, there were articles barring immediate re-election by sitting presidents. When Fujimori eventually left power, transitional president Valentín Paniagua re-instated the article barring immediate presidential re-elections Interestingly, article 142 of Peru’s 1933 Constitution states that both immediate re-election is forbidden and any public official who supports a law revoking this, directly or indirectly, will have to cease his public duties and would be barred from holding any public office. It need not be stressed that any lawmakers during Fujimori’s time lost their duties for supporting any form of electionist scheme.
Following on Fujimori’s success at changing the constitution, Carlos Saul Menem, a then popular president of Argentina, altered his country’s constitution in 1993 so he could run for re-election. The reform of the Argentine constitution was passed in 1994 and Menem was re-elected in 1995, ruling until 2000. Likewise Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) changed Brazil’s constitution to try for re-election in 1998, which resulted in his victory. Following the success of these leaders, a new generation of Latin American presidents followed suit, re-writing their own constitutions to allow for immediate re-election, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe. A January 2009 referendum in Bolivia was approved by more than 60% of the population, allowing the popular President Morales to revise the constitution so he could seek another term, which he won easily in December of that year. On the other hand, another popular president, Lula da Silva of Brazil, respected the two term provisions by rejecting any notion he would seek a constitutional resolution to allow him to run for a third term. He was first elected in 2002 and easily re-elected in 2006.
An example of an unsuccessful self-coup is the May 1993 attempt by Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano. A 1998 journal article by Professor Maxwell Cameron ( Third World Quarterly, 19.2) provides a comparison between Fujimori’s and Serrano’s attempts, mentioning how Serrano was not notably popular at the time of the attempted auto-golpe. Another unsuccessful referendum to change a re-election clause in a constitution came from Panama’s Ernesto Perez Balladares in 1998. Regarding Balladares’ referendum attempt, Marco Gandasegui Jr., professor at the University of Panama, wrote a journal article with a title that summarized the reasons for the president’s loss: “The 1998 Referendum in Panama: A Popular Vote against Neoliberalism” (Latin American Perspectives, 26.2). Again, a president’s popularity may determine what the people were prepared to allow him to do as opposed to what the constitution allows him to do. In such cases, the “voice of the people” was that their leaders not succeed in changing their states’ constitutions, and it was heard.
What is a healthy democracy in Latin America?
Without conducting an in-depth discussion about contemporary democratic history in Latin America, it is safe to say that since its independent history began, the region during its modern period, has been a mixed bag of successes and failures, including periods of military governments and civil wars throughout the 1960s to 1980s. There have been long periods of civilian rule in some countries, involves even these have tended to re-define what a Latin American democracy precisely means, which usually involves re-shaping the rule of law to perpetuate a government’s stay in power. For example, Mexico’s PRI party ruled the country for over seven decades. In Chile, the coalition party that was in power since the fall of the Augusto Pinochet regime in 1990 was Concertación, a union of parties that ruled the country until the recent election of Sebastian Piñera. Even though it has been a series of different leaders in power, the fact that a o party could rule a country for two uninterrupted decades seems to be a hallmark of Latin America’s staple democracy. In Venezuela, two parties ruled the country, taking turns being president, and excluding other parties until Hugo Chavez upset the system in 1999. In turn, Chavez and his Movimiento Quinta Republica, now renamed Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, have ruled uninterrupted ever since.
The ongoing wave of populist governments has also brought about another new trend: the rise of popular leaders who have successfully sought re-election. Chavez and Uribe are currently the frontrunners of this development, with Bolivia’s Morales coming next, following his recent re-election by a 63% majority. The question remains: are these re-elections good for the democratic health of the country? The authors of the American Federalist Papers refer to the possibility of a tyranny of the majority, in which the voice of the minority is continuously drowned out.
Chavez seems to provide a textbook case–study of this. His power base has been the middle-lower and lower class populations of Venezuelan society who, not surprisingly, make up the majority of the country’s population. His (re)election and the success he has enjoyed in a number of referenda and general elections, with the exception of a municipal election in late 2008, show that more than 50% of Venezuelan society has supported Chavez. However, what does this mean for democracy if the other 49% or less of the country, particularly the upper middle and upper classes, have been ruled out for a decade by a government that they do not agree with? Even though still wealthy, the political minority are finding it harder to express their discontent, as Chavez has cracked down on the independent media. In late January, Caracas removed from the air the popular cable channel RCTV. If Chavez is re-elected in 2012, which is most likely the case, he will have been in power for an astounding two decades. Theoretically, it is the will of the Venezuelan people (50% +1) but is this an example of western-style democracy? The situation reveals a new twist, considering that parts of the Venezuelan youth movement, namely university students coming from the Caracas Central University, are staging protests against the regime. The upcoming legislative elections in September will be a new test of Chavez’s popularity, as well as the support of his policies and the level of popular backing that his legislative delegation in Congress is able to attract.
Chavez and Morales all have proven highly successful at the polls, but the populist system in which they operate does not necessarily foster democracy as they stress hegemonic leadership that lacks significant political opponents in elections. A healthy democracy would ideally tolerate political minorities, irrelevant of their financial capabilities, but being capable of gaining political office through which they can attain power in corruption-free elections.
Populist Leadership 101
The last two decades of presidential elections in several Latin American countries have demonstrated that populist leaders seem to be on the rise or that the concept may be becoming more comprehensive. By populism, we mean new parties made just before presidential elections and which revolve around a charismatic leader and his ideology. Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) provides a successful contemporary example of this phenomenon; Chavez, Morales and Uribe would follow. Lula’s victory in Brazil, as well as the 2008 election of former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo, ending of 61 years of one-party rule in Paraguay (the Colorados), and Uruguay, who elected Tabare Vazquez in 2005, also follow this pattern.
Peru seems to stand out as a particularly interesting case. Of the last four presidents, two were from ad-hoc political parties, namely, Fujimori and Alejandro Toledo Manrique (2001- 2006), with only one from a traditional party, Alan Garcia Perez, who already had ruled from 1985-1990 and was re-elected in 2006. It should be noted that Garcia is the only APRA candidate to be elected to the presidency, which hints at the fact that Garcia’s initial charisma had a lot do to with his electoral victory.
Of late, the new norm seems to be that South American voters prefer to elect candidates that do not belong to traditional parties that they view as inherently corrupt. Again, the will of the people ostensibly is being heard, but does this weaken a the fiber of democracy in view of the candidates being elected and their mantle? If an individual votes for Alejandro Toledo or an Evo Morales, it is not to support their ideology, but because they want to have an individual coming from an indigenous background in power, and in their mind that does bolster democracy. If Argentineans elected Christina de Kichner in 2007 because they believed in her platform, but does it still strengthen democracy that her husband, Nestor Kichner, who was the country’s preceding president (2003-2007), or is this some kind of nepotistic- democracy? Regarding the Venezuela experience, the question that still arises is if lower-class Venezuelans vote for Chavez because they resent and distrust traditional parties that he too despises or because of his fiery socialist commitments which includes his social projects in lower-class communities.
The Rise of the Popular Populist et al
A 2009 journal article by Francisco Panizza and Romina Miorelli entitled “Populism and Democracy in Latin America” (Ethics & International Affairs, 23.1) ,one of dozens published on such a topic, brought about by the rise of leaders like Hugo Chavez. The piece enumerates contemporary leaders that have been defined as “populist,” with Chavez and Morales at the head, following by Lula, Rafael Correa, Michelle Bachelet and Tabare Vazquez. A discussion of populism follows, combined with the different policies which such leaders have adopted and how while Chavez and Morales are considered radical, many of the others are considered moderate. Indeed, it is debatable how many of these leaders, or others following them, can be defined as populist or would feel to describe themselves in such terms. A December 2009 article in Poder360 quotes Michelle Bachelet who joked with a crowd at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution by saying “can you imagine how much more popular I would be if I was a populist?”
At heart, the issue is whether the voice of the people in each Latin American is being heard in view of who they are. Chavez may be a populist in view of his rhetoric, his vision, and his social-inspired development projects; however, the question is: considering that the head of state’s successes at the polls in recent years seem to be razor thin, with an upper and middle class increasingly alienated, does Chavez remain the most highly regarded populist? On the other hand, Uribe’s internal leadership, particularly appealing vis-à-vis the insurgent movement FARC has allowed him to achieve a monumental degree of popular support which may be more broad than deep, even though his foreign policy is usually archly Washington-friendly and mordantly anti-Chavez. Finally, in theory, Alan Garcia was seen by many as nursing populist tendencies when he was reelected once again as president in 2006, in view that his APRA party is supposed to be moderate left. In his second term, Garcia’s external policy has centered on being particularly friendly towards the U.S. In any case, Garcia was elected instead of a retired Army officer, Ollanta Humala, a declared Hugo Chavez admirer.
Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Beyond: Mistakes for all Seasons
The rule of Alberto Fujimori in Peru presents a worst-case scenario of what can happen to a popular head of state that has the backing of the people. In 1990 Fujimori was elected president, running largely on an “outsider” platform, capitalizing on the fact that Peruvian society had lost confidence in traditional parties that had ruled the country throughout the 1980s, namely Fernando Belaunde Terry of Accion Popular (1980-1985) and Alan Garcia Perez (1985-1990).
His eventual victory would bring a decade of dictatorship to the country, including a self-coup in April 1992 in which he shut down Congress. In spite of this, he managed to be re-elected in 1995 as the population applauded him for having defeated the two domestic terrorist groups that had waged an internal war in Peru throughout the 1980s, Shining Path and the MRTA. His approachable character, “funny” looks and apparent victory over terrorism made Peruvians turn a blind eye to major human rights abuses taking place in the country, including the creation of a military death squad, Grupo Colina, which was increasingly linked with corruption cases and massacres carried out in Barrios Altos in November 1991 and La Cantuta in July 1992. Indeed, in 1995, he was also able to win re-election by defeating Jose Perez de Cuellar, a popular two-term UN Secretary General. It was only by the late 1990s, as corruption cases mounted and economic growth came to a halt, that it became impossible for Fujimori to continue ruling in spite of his corruption and his sanctioning of major human rights violations. He was forced to flee to Japan under the pretext of attending an APEC forum. At the time, Fujimori and his C90-NM party had managed to once again revise the Peruvian constitution so he could run for a new re-election.
The voice of the Peruvian people thundered in Fujimori’s 1990 and 1995 elections, as he was both elected and then re-elected by large margins. Unfortunately, this popularity gave him a “green light” in luring him into dictatorial actions and multiple rights abuses. He conducted a self-coup in 1992 and continuously cracked down on opposition politicians and media outlets, including former President Alan Garcia, whom Fujimori forced to flee to France and Colombia in self-imposed exile.
People’s Choice vs. the “Big Picture”
A January 2010 piece in The New York Times called “A Sign of Latin America’s Fading Polarization” argued that the election of billionaire Sebastian Piñera to the Chilean presidency “appears to be less a sign of a regional move to the right than that of a pragmatic convergence of left and right agendas.” The author goes on to argue that Piñera will go on to strengthen the group of conservative leaders in the region, like Colombia’s Uribe, Peru’s Alan Garcia Perez and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon.
Nevertheless, the author does not adequately discuss whether the election of these leaders mean that the population of these countries are looking at the “big picture” of ideological tendencies being manifested throughout Latin America, or are focusing solely on domestic politics, on a country by country basis. In addition, it is important to take into account that before Alan Garcia was elected in 2005 (for a second presidential term), the previous Peruvian president, Alejandro Toledo Manrique, was even more Washington-friendly than Garcia has been. One of the reasons why the Peruvian people chose the APRA candidate in the 2005 elections was because they disagreed with Toledo’s implementation of a Washington-inspired free trade economic model.
The Voice of Democracy
While the voice of the people is being heard throughout Latin America in recent presidential balloting, it is questionable if the continuous re-election of a leader, regardless of his or her popularity, supports or harms democracy. Power can corrupt, as was the case of Fujimori’s tap wiring of political opponents, and certain questionable actions taken by Venezuela’s Chavez vis-à-vis the country’s opposition media. It should be added that it is debatable to what degree the now-departing Uribe administration has had a say in the closing of the highly regarded Cambio magazine in Colombia. Nevertheless, it would have been regarded as a reinforcement of democracy if the Colombian leader had intervened to keep the magazine in its current form as a beacon of investigative journalism, even if it carried out investigations against the government itself.
It is most likely better to have a change of the presidential guard in order to maintain a healthy democracy, though this may go against what could be a costly error of the people. Even though the rule of Colombia’s judicial body went against a popular leader, it was most likely the correct choice.
W. Alejandro Sanchez