Anyone speaking to democratic governance in the Americas should start with Latin America’s liberator, Simon Bolivar, who summarized his ideals in 1819 thus:
“A republican government… principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery and the abolition of monarchy and privileges. We need equality to recast, so to speak, into a single whole, the classes of men, political opinions and political custom.”
1. Challenges to democratic governance
Contrary to what many in North America might suppose, support for the concept of democracy appears to be solidifying across most of Latin America. The latest Latinobarometro poll (taken in Sept-Oct., 2009, from face-to-face interviews with 20,200 persons in 18 countries) indicates that support for democracy is at the highest levels since the late 90s and is 11 per cent above the low in 2001. In reporting on the survey results, the Economist magazine (12 Dec. 09) concluded that a “clear majority across the region are now committed democrats.” There is, however, a paradox: democracy is well-liked but is still fragile in several Latin American countries.
Respondents agreed that “Democracy is preferable to any other type of government”, albeit in widely varying percentages in each of the countries surveyed.
(Other findings from the same survey:
- The percentage of respondents saying democracy cannot exist without political parties has increased from 49% in 2001 to 60%.
- In Honduras, 56% of respondents disapproved of the coup against Manuel Zelaya, the elected president, and only 24% of respondents in the region as a whole approved it.
- In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez’s support is down significantly from 65% in 2006 to 45% as of late 2009.
- Brazil is now seen by more respondents to have replaced the U.S. as the most influential country in the region, but the advent of President Obama appears to have boosted the favourable rating of the U.S. from 58% in 2008 to 74% last year.)
Despite the encouraging trends—and a similar opinion survey among the Caribbean nations would no doubt evoke similar responses--the causes of ongoing problems for democratic governance across Latin America seem rooted in colonial legacies with much social exclusion and inequalities. Post-independence governments often failed to invest in quality education for all, health and other public services necessary for full citizenship, particularly in the countries where colonial practices lingered on.
One of the main threats to democracy today are the Maras (heavily armed criminal gangs) and illegal drugs cartels. The two groups have combined in Central America and are part of transnational gangs, who create fiefdoms in regions where government control is weak. Security experts fear the Maras will start to make the leap from criminal overlords to armed political movements with the goal of creating ‘a jungle of quasi-feudal narcostates’.
In part to assist in hemispheric stability, Canada, the U. S. and others should be doing much more for good governance support. The democracy concept of the Bush administration has been replaced by a two-track approach of the Obama administration, which, while sensibly lowering the rhetoric, might also be downgrading democracy encouragement. In Canada, the Harper Government announced ambitious plans to strengthen Canada's role in good governance and democracy support, following an earlier commitment to be more active in the Americas, but implementation is proving to be slow. Democracy and good governance are good foreign policy niches for both countries, but more political will is needed in both capitals.
Eric Hirschberg’s review of recent literature on the re-democratization of most of Latin America since the 1970s suggests that the following issues need to be addressed:
- Democracies must focus on changing from being ‘illiberal’ or ‘delegative’, (with, for example, disrespect for the courts or executive encroachment on the role of the legislatures), to being ‘liberal’. The history of democracy in Latin America is one of advances and reversals and the continent is today full of regressions, with inadequate electoral systems, weak institutions, limited accountability to citizens and the frequent absence of free flow of information.
- The role of the OAS in limiting political abuses and in blocking authoritarian reversals (E.g. Honduras) is vital. We might recall today that the Inter-American Democratic Charter was adopted by all 34 Organization of American States (OAS) member countries in Lima on 11 Sept. 2001 about an hour after the second plane struck the World Trade Centre.
- Democratic slippage needs to be faced effectively. Currently, it seems to be greatest in the Andean countries, where, as Hershberg puts it, some leaders have “run roughshod over checks and balances, emerged from and presided over the steady weakening of political parties, and launched constitutional reform programs in fashions that can only be labeled plebiscitarian.” For example, in the view of author Michael Coppedge, Mr. Chavez, is “an immoderate, intransigent and intolerant politician” under whom Venezuela has “ceased to be an adequately liberal democracy.”
2. Role of parliaments
The website of FIPA (Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas) (http://www.efipa.org/news_en.htmfifa) is a good place to research this large topic. The roles of legislators in Latin America seem as varied as those of their counterparts in Europe.
3. Specific actions Community of Democracy parliaments might take:
One way to improve the ability of governments to deal with threats to democracy is to reconnect parliamentarians with their respective civil societies. It appears that some donor governments support non-government organizations considerably more than parliamentary development. Engaging with legislators on how to improve their representation of constituents in policymaking might be useful and well-received. In order to support representative democracy, we should connect and work with FIPA and other parliamentary associations on how to improve our own and elected bodies elsewhere.
4. Forming a branch of the Parliamentary Forum in the Americas
This would probably not prove difficult but it should not duplicate the work of existing institutions. It should presumably be located where an established organization can function as its secretariat. More linkages among parliamentarians, NGOs and the research community seem desirable.
I’ll close by sharing the optimism of this week’s Economist cover story on Latin America, “Nobody’s Backyard” (Sept 9th) (www.economist.com/):
“Something remarkable is happening in Latin America…This year the region’s economy will again expand by more than 5%. Economic growth is going hand in hand with social progress…The danger for Latin America is complacency…Fixing these problems requires Latin America’s political leaders to rediscover an appetite for reform. Democracy has brought a welcome improvement in social policy…But more needs to be done.”