Democracy Undermined: Constitutional Subterfuge in Latin America

Democracy Undermined: Constitutional Subterfuge in Latin America

Early in the morning of June 28, 2009, the president of Honduras, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, was rousted out of his bed by soldiers and sent out of the country in his pajamas. It was an old-fashioned coup d’état, evoking, seemingly, a bygone era. The coup d’état seemed out of place because democracy has taken hold everywhere in Latin America except Cuba. In principle, now, elections are the only sanctioned route to the presidency; and, in principle again, presidents leave office after completing their term—only then, but definitely then. What was novel, in fact, about the ouster of Zelaya was the fear that prompted it—what can be called “constitutional subterfuge.” The military in Honduras acted in a clumsy 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—in that country and elsewhere in the region. 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 or even socialist rhetoric.

Opportunistic political elites don’t have to break the law when the rule of law is so weak—and public and private institutions are so pliable—that the constitution can simply be refashioned. Such a strategy seems legitimate; it disarms critics; and it even provides a protective shield for the emerging regime. Democratic means are used to dismantle democracy and install in its place something new, something that looks—in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia—decidedly like a new form of authoritarianism.

The region-wide transition to democracy and unfettered markets in the 1980s produced uneven and inegalitarian results, leading to a loss of credibility for liberalism. Critics proliferated. “Outsiders” fared well in challenging traditional political parties and their candidates. Some of these outsiders self-destructed, such as Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a former military officer, found a way to success that is now being emulated: refashion weak democratic institutions into a self-protective cocoon. The ideological cover for the project comes from the detritus of Marxism-Leninism: a “dictatorship of the proletariat” controlled through “democratic centralism” is necessary to fend off the “bourgeoisie” while the needs of the struggling masses are addressed. There is, in fact, no economic plan or strategy, but certain policies of Marxism-Leninism, nationalization in particular, are found to be politically useful.

Since the decade of the 1980s, when so many Latin American countries made a transition from authoritarianism to democracy, there has been widespread political disenchantment. Public opinion polls regularly reveal a distrust of established political institutions, above all toward the legislative branch and all the political parties. Support for democracy is bes...