Using Democracy to Dismantle Democracy

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Pablo Lobato /

Latin American presidents Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales are often touted for their seemingly progressive policies, expressed in populist platforms that promise to provide for the poor and restore power to the people.

The fiery journal Dissent (Summer 2010) believes these darlings of North America’s alternative press urgently require closer inspection, arguing that their regimes in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia (respectively) represent an alarming regional trend–using democracy to dismantle democracy.

“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,” write Forrest D. Colburn and Alberto Trejos, professors at the INCAE Business School, which has campuses in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. These Latin American governments have been turned into “the latest and most fashionable incarnation of dictatorship”–not progress–they argue.

Progressive rhetoric helped pave the way. In Venezuela in the late ’90s, Chávez’s new constitution was heralded “as a ‘refounding’ of the nation-state,” the scholars write, “necessary to correct historical injustices and to focus public policy on meeting the needs of the impoverished majority.” It also downsized the number of elected officials and lengthened their terms, concentrating the president’s political power and enabling a sweeping nationalization of resources. Promises to the majority, on the other hand, remain largely unfulfilled. Between 2007 and 2008, Correa and Morales also pushed through new constitutions plastered with populist values and resulting in similarly staggering grabs of presidential power.

The strategic mimicry is no coincidence, according to Colburn and Trejos. All three presidents received counsel from the same set of legal scholars, led by Roberto Viciano Pastor, a constitutional law professor at the University of Valencia. His intentions may be noble, Colburn and Trejos write, but the effect is deconstructing democracy in the region. The leaders have yet to produce a social “payoff” for their reforms, and “by wrecking democratic institutions, presidents like Chávez, Correa, and Morales are not only subverting the rights of their opponents, they are also leaving tomorrow’s majority without a voice.”

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