Democracy in Latin America

Democracy in Latin America

In general, I’m not a big fan of leaders in Latin America eliminating or loosening term limits so that they can stay in office longer. I also believe that recent processes of constitutional reform in many Latin American countries have been sweeping enough to warrant careful and critical review. When I picked up the article by Forrest Colburn and Alberto Trejos in the Summer 2010 issue of Dissent(“Democracy Undermined”), I had hoped that it would provide such a review. Instead, the article is a broadside filled with careless generalizations, overblown rhetoric, and statements that are either misleading or factually incorrect. It is, sadly, so smug and smothering in its biases that it precludes any sort of constructive debate about the Latin American Left.

You know an article about democracy in Latin America is going to be bad when it starts off by coming within a hair’s breadth of endorsing the coup in Honduras. The authors argue that when the Honduran military removed the democratically elected president from office, “What they did was wrong, and yet, there is an alarming trend in Latin America toward dismantling democracy by legal subterfuge under the cover of populist and even socialist rhetoric.”

That hardly disapproving sentence (“and yet…”) is as critical as Colburn and Trejos get of the coup leaders. Everything else they have to say about the coup is positive. In fairness, the authors do allow that the military action was “clumsy.” But they then suggest that it was a “way to avert a very real threat to democracy—Zelaya’s move to call an unprecedented special election to remove a term limit on the presidency.”

This characterization of events differs substantially from more evenhanded assessments from news sources such as, say, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). That agency reports, “Mr. Zelaya planned to hold a non-binding public consultation on 28 June to ask people whether they supported moves to change the constitution. Had voters supported it, a referendum on setting up a body charged with redrawing the constitution would probably have been held at the same time as November’s presidential election. Mr. Zelaya’s critics said the move was aimed at removing the current one-term limit on serving as president, and paving the way for his possible re-election. Mr. Zelaya repeatedly denied he was seeking re-election.”

Let’s grant that Zelaya’s critics are correct. In most parts of the hemisphere, a leader’s trying to create conditions for his or her “possible re-election” at some point in the future is not generally considered legitimate grounds for overthrowing a government.

Colburn and Trejos’s treatment of Honduras sets the tone for the rest of their article. They note that it would be unfair to compare current elected leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela with Adolf Hitler, who also came to power through democratic means. But th...


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