Latin America’s feudal castle

The more progress democracy makes, the more it is threatened: elites know what expanding democracy means for them - they react.

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Alain Rouquié, former French ambassador to Brazil, summed up Latin America’s progress in 2010: ‘After decades of instability and dictatorship, democracy seems to have taken root everywhere.’ He had in mind the electoral victories of Michelle Bachelet in Chile (2006), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006) and Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva in Brazil (2003) when he wrote, ‘Henceforth, a woman, an Indian or a manual worker can reach the highest office through the ballot box’.


Things have changed since. In Bolivia, a coup ousted ‘the Indian’; in Brazil, the ‘worker’ (Lula) is being harassed by a justice system manipulated by the right; and although Bachelet completed her term as Chile’s president, her Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff, elected in 2011, was removed from office on trumped-up charges in 2016.


Until a few years ago, Rouquié’s optimism seemed justified: in Brazil in 2003 there was an orderly transition of power for the first time in 43 years; Hugo Chávez (in power 1999-2013) expanded popular participation in Venezuelan politics; and former Ecuadorean economist Rafael Correa (2007-17) peacefully completed his second term; none of his seven predecessors in the previous decade had completed even one.


Now the mood has darkened. Brazil’s president, former military man Jair Bolsonaro, is nostalgic for his country’s era of dictatorship (1964-85) and his son Eduardo talks of the need for a new one, ‘in case the left radicalises’. In January 2019 Juan Guaidó, a second-rate neoliberal politician, declared himself president of Venezuela with US and EU backing. Ecuadorean president Lenín Moreno tried to use the judiciary to stop adversaries standing in this February’s presidential election.


‘Democracy is the rule of reason’


So Latin American democracy, rather than having ‘taken root everywhere’, is experiencing another unstable period, even sliding towards authoritarianism. Why? Perhaps precisely because of the progress that preceded it. Like Icarus, whose fall becomes more inevitable the higher he climbs towards the sun, Latin American democrats create the conditions for their own failure as they near their goal.


Latin America’s republics were founded on the democratic principle, however paradoxical that may seem in a region of colonels in dark glasses. When they declared independence in the 19th century, white ‘Creole’ elites did so under the banner of the Enlightenment. And when they took up arms, it was in the name of popular sovereignty; Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), ‘the Liberator’, wrote, ‘Americans today, and perhaps to a greater extent than ever before, who live within the Spanish system occupy a position in society no better than that of serfs destined for labour, or at best they have no more status than that of mere consumers ... We were never viceroys or governors ... seldom archbishops and bishops; diplomats never; as military men, only subordinates; as nobles, without royal privileges ... we were neither magistrates nor financiers’.


But, writes Rouquié, ‘it was not the colonised, Indians and metis who rose up, but a white minority, often made up of an aristocracy of property owners of European origin.’ They declared equality mainly to free themselves from a metropolis that deprived them of power, though they retained their wealth. Despite the democratic constitutions they promulgated, the elites held on to their privileges. The right to vote was restricted to those deemed ‘competent’.


‘Collective reason is sovereign’


‘Collective reason alone is sovereign, not the collective will,’ wrote the Argentine writer Estebán Echeverría (1805-51). ‘Thus it happens that the sovereignty of the people can reside only in the reason of the people, and that only the prudent and rational part of the social community is called to exercise that sovereignty. Democracy, then, is not the absolute despotism of the masses, or of the majority; it is the rule of reason’.


Rouquié concludes, ‘For the liberal elites of South America, democracy was impossible given the state of society, but also irreplaceable’ since it justified independence. The hand that wrote the birth certificate of Latin American citizenship also sealed its fate, and the struggle that ensued still shapes Latin American politics. On one side were those who favoured a form of popular sovereignty adapted to fit the reality of hierarchies they considered both natural and immutable — democracy without equality or, as Rouquié puts it, ‘without citizens’. On the other side were those who wanted to subvert the established order by making the principles written into constitutions a reality.


This structuring of politics occurred within the context of a particular form of integration into the global economic system. Unlike the northern colonies of North America, which ‘lacked the geological and climatic conditions and the indigenous populations necessary for the establishment of export economies’, as economist Andre Gunder Frank wrote, South America provided Europe with raw materials it needed for its industrial revolution and bought its finished goods.


The Creole oligarchy did not envisage independence depriving it of its wealth, which was the product of the free trade principle that filled the sails of the ships that crossed the Atlantic. Under these conditions, ‘the transfer of power does not entail a transformation of society,’ wrote Chilean intellectual Luis Vitale. ‘Whereas in Europe liberalism served the industrial bourgeoisie against the landed oligarchy, here it was enlisted by those very landowners against the Spanish monopoly. In Europe, it served the cause of industrial protectionism, here, that of free trade’.


‘Independent’ Latin America reinforced the economic dynamics that made it a vassal. British foreign secretary George Canning astutely observed in December 1824, ‘Spanish America is free and, if we do not mismanage our affairs, she is English.’ The subcontinent was caught in the economic trap of underdevelopment, with a concentration of wealth, a weak internal market and an underdeveloped industrial base. It has still not freed itself from this despite early 20th-century attempts to do so.


When the first world war and the Great Depression interrupted the flow of international trade, most countries around the world promoted local industry through import substitution. In South America this had two initial requirements, the first of which was to preserve existing social structures. However, without wealth redistribution, an internal market cannot produce sufficient demand to stimulate increased production. So in Latin America production was concentrated on niche consumer sectors for the wealthy: clothing, footwear, basic electronic equipment etc. To overcome this would have needed a form of industrialisation in which the state, not consumer demand, determined which essential goods were produced.


‘A naïve form of capitalism’


The second requirement that constrained attempts to develop industry was the need to preserve the logic of the market. Since Latin American countries were insufficiently developed to produce their own capital goods, they had to import them. As Gunder Frank said, ‘they substituted one type of import for another.’ In 1963 the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote, ‘This naive and liberal capitalism was also superimposed on the feudal structure without destroying it. It abandoned to their fate the great masses of peasants and workers, and reserved progress for an urban minority ... This is what Latin America is: a collapsed feudal castle with a cardboard capitalistic facade’.


A feudal castle, an economy that free trade condemned to underdevelopment and an uneasy proximity to the US, which soon viewed Latin America as its backyard: intellectuals such as Frank, Fuentes and Vitale knew there was no reason to think the path to emancipation would be straightforward. Their political current spoke the language of the 1960s and 1970s. Fuentes wrote, ‘A democracy cannot exist, you know, with empty stomachs, empty minds, and empty shacks. Democracy is not a cause; it is a result.’


So, these writers thought, down with ‘formal democracy’ — the dysfunctional bourgeois form of democracy that governed South American societies, which they refused to consider as a tool to change the world. Long live ‘true democracy’, the end point to which the processes of emancipation would lead. And forget about the ballot box, because only a revolution would enable Latin American republics to realise the ideals that had created them, even if it meant paying a price. ‘Revolution!’ Fuentes wrote ironically. ‘You cry to heaven, wring your hands, weep before violence and bloodletting. Yes. Unfortunately, it has never been possible to persuade the leading classes of a feudal country that their last hour has come.’


These authors’ determination was all the greater because they had seen the fate of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina (1946-55), Getúlio Vargas (1951-54) and João Goulart (1961-64) in Brazil, and Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic (1963). These leaders wanted to take political account of the dispossessed without upsetting social hierarchies — ‘make revolution before the people do’, as Rouquié put it. But even that proved too much. The military overthrew them all, believing they threatened democracy by challenging the status quo.


The left’s hopes in Allende


This claim of defending popular sovereignty was used to justify the military pronunciamientos (coups) of the 1970s and 80s. Admiral Emilio Massera, a member of the junta that took power in Argentina in 1976, said, ‘All those who, like us, believe in pluralist democracy are waging a war against the worshippers of totalitarianism, a war for freedom and against tyranny.’ Anti-communism, which was at the heart of the East-West confrontation, raised the conservative defence of privilege to the level of a universal struggle: Massera claimed it was a ‘third world war’ against ‘dialectical materialism and idealistic trade unionism’. It also ensured invaluable US support.


Salvador Allende’s accession to power in Chile in 1970 broke with the past. He believed that the formal and the real democracies were reconcilable and that the ritual of elections could advance the ideal they stood for. His ambition aroused enthusiasm among a left that had abandoned armed struggle but still had hope. Many focused their attention on Santiago, including future French socialist president François Mitterrand.


During a trip to South America Mitterand explained his fascination, sincerely convinced or not: ‘Chile represents an interesting and original synthesis. It is unlikely that in France, an advanced industrial country in the zone of western influence, violent action could develop without being repressed by the forces of the upper middle class. A grassroots movement can, on the other hand, legitimately contemplate winning by legal means, through universal suffrage and pressure from workers in sectors in crisis. What’s needed is to show the French that this way is possible’ (Le Monde, 14-15 November 1971).


But Chile’s ruling classes saw Allende’s boldness as justification for crushing democracy, in the name of democracy. ‘I have always respected and admired democracy as a political concept,’ explained General Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Allende in 1973. ‘But despite its virtues, without suitable adaptation it has shown itself to be completely unable to oppose communism’. Elsewhere in Latin America, the same causes produced the same effects, and by 1978 only Colombia, Venezuela and Costa Rica had avoided dictatorship. Colombia had a bloody civil war, and Venezuela lived under the Puntofijo Pact, a formal arrangement made in 1958, sharing power and benefits between the three main political parties.


In the 1980s, successive authoritarian regimes collapsed, inaugurating a ‘democratic transition’ phase. But, writes Rouquié, ‘“restored democracies” are not quite representative regimes like any other. They are the heirs of dictatorships, when they are not their prisoners.’ In Chile, the constitution inherited from Pinochet, with its neoliberal economy and privatised universities, outlived his regime and was only abolished in a 2020 referendum.


These ‘negotiated’ democratic transitions placed democracy under the tutelage of the armed forces, which were guaranteed amnesty from prosecution; they watched from the wings. In 1987 and 1988, there were three military insurrections in Argentina. In Chile, Ernesto Ottone, a member of the central committee of the Chilean communist party and former advisor to President Ricardo Lagos (2000-06), recalled, ‘We asked ourselves, “What is our minimum aspiration for Lagos’s mandate?” The answer was quite simply, “That he serves his full six years and leaves on his own two legs”’. That could only happen, Ottone suggested, if political struggles were seen ‘within a framework that does not endanger the essential unity of Chile and guarantees democratic governability. This means abandoning any plan that could reproduce the causes of a tragedy like that of 1973.’


Rupture of Chile’s democracy


Abandoning any such plan was made easier because the political and economic elites, to which Ottone and his co-author Sergio Muñoz Riveros (former advisor to President Michelle Bachelet) belong, agreed the changes introduced under the dictatorships were sound. These former communist activists noted that ‘it has been necessary to recognise, even indirectly, the part played by the dictatorship’s policies in the emergence of a dynamic of economic recovery after the failure of the 1970-73 period. Though hard to admit, it must be conceded that, on certain questions concerning the functioning of the modern economy, the professors were on “the other side of the street” [neoliberal economists].’


The same is true of an intellectual world that lost its most radical figures to dictators’ bullets or became convinced that the military had been provoked by a period of collective unreason: ‘We all bear a share of responsibility for the rupture of Chile’s democracy,’ declared former presidents Patricio Aylwin (1990-94) and Ricardo Lagos, commemorating the 30th anniversary of Allende’s death. Muñoz Riveros and Ottone have tried to disseminate this conviction, quoting former Liberation editor Laurent Joffrin: ‘The socialist revolution ... is a dangerous myth that liberates the totalitarian Leviathan when it succeeds and terrorism when it fails.’ The theory of the two demons asserts that socialists and fascists share responsibility for bringing dictatorships into being, but the socialists initiate the process by provoking the fascists in the first place.


Those engaged in democratic transitions strive not to provoke the Leviathan, even if that means putting up with a world in which the dysfunctions that caused past popular uprisings keep getting worse. That world’s pillars still stand: social inequalities, relegation of part of the population to the political margins, and acquiescence to free trade and US diktats: a world that still fails to create the conditions necessary for real democracy. ‘One child in two lives in poverty in our country,’ said Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández at his inauguration in December 2019. ‘When there’s no bread, democracy is impossible.’


For those who still believe in popular sovereignty, everything remains to be done. Some conclude that, because institutions which result from negotiated transitions leave no room for the people’s demands and electoral processes often lead to betrayal of promises, politics must happen in the streets, away from palaces. They point to the Bolivian demonstrators who, in the early 2000s, won significant victories against planned water and gas privatisations. John Holloway set out this strategy, adopted by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, in his 2002 book Change the World without Taking Power.


Others, critical of an approach that means surrendering power to the conservatives, have revived the old hope that, despite its limitations, the ballot box can still enable Latin America to free itself from its feudal prison. Like Lula in 1985, they are clear it alone will not be enough: ‘We are trying to respect the rules of the democratic game. We believe that parliament is not an end in itself, only a means. We will try to use it as much as possible. To the extent that we perceive that through the parliamentary route, through the purely electoral route, we won’t come to power, I take responsibility for telling the working class that they have to seek another way’. After two presidential terms Lula conceded, ‘If Jesus came to Brazil, even he would have to make an alliance with Judas’.


And so, in several countries, leaders determined to ‘democratise democracy’ were elected in a pink tide through Latin America: Chávez in Venezuela (1998), Lula in Brazil (2002), Néstor Kirchner in Argentina (2003), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005), Rafael Correa in Ecuador (2006), Cristina Fernández in Argentina (2007) and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (2010).


They tried with varying success to fly higher, to bring their societies closer to the democratic ideal: reducing inequalities; transforming the underprivileged into citizens; building states capable of meeting the needs of the people. The social and economic progress during this period has been abundantly documented, including in this publication (Le Monde Diplomatique). Voting suddenly became meaningful again. In an annual study on Latin Americans’ relationship with democracy in 2010, Latinobarómetro, a private not-for-profit, noted that, ‘since 2007, the population’s support for democracy has been steadily increasing ... This is the first time since we started using this democracy satisfaction indicator [in 1995] that a continuous increase has occurred four years running’.


‘They will not set foot in the Miraflores palace’


But the more progress democracy makes, the more it is threatened: elites know what expanding democracy means for them. They react. Most of these countries have had military coups, fraudulent removals from office, attempted insurrections, economic blockades by bosses. This includes Brazil, where Lula and Rousseff went out of their way to be conciliatory. When conservatives regain power they use this opportunity to harass their opponents, so incumbent progressive leaders, or those from progressive movements, cling on to their posts, sometimes flouting the rules of democracy. In November 2016, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro said of his opponents, ‘They will never set foot in the Miraflores palace: neither through ballot papers nor bullets’.


In 2002 a military coup overthrew Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The head of the employers’ federation, Pedro Carmona, declared himself president, dissolved the national assembly and constitutional bodies, and dismissed governors and mayors before a popular mobilisation stopped him. Heirs of Fuentes in Chávez’s inner circle advised him to seize the opportunity, and a source who was there said Chávez was told, ‘The opposition has shown it does not respect the popular will; this is the ideal moment to suspend the elections. This will give you the time you need to carry out all the necessary transformations to finally establish popular sovereignty in Venezuela.’ Chávez refused. He pardoned those who overthrew him, hoping they would finally accept the rules of the democratic game. But the former conspirators did not change and kept criticising the man who spared them from prison for ‘drifting towards authoritarianism’, a drift that their actions helped bring about.


Icarus reaches for the sky, then falls, reminding us of the question: how do you build democracy with non-democrats?



- Renaud Lambert is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique. Translated by George Miller.


Copyright ©2021 Le Monde diplomatique — used by permission of Agence Global.
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