“Democratic institutions in Latin America were capable of resurrecting themselves from the ashes of military dictatorships only where these institutions had flourished previously. But where they had been historically weak, or had hardly existed, reinventing them proved harder.”
In Latin America, after the long military dictatorships of the 20th century and the putting aside of the ideological polarization which resulted in armed conflict in several countries, the recovery or the setting up of the rule of law appeared to be the goal: a way to safeguard a future where democracy and development could progress together.
It could be said that the ambition at the turn of the twenty first century was to make political reality respond to the Constitutional letter, something which we had consistently failed to do since the independence era. It implied nothing less than going back to the 19th century in order to enjoy a 21st century based on the ideas that underpinned the founding of the Latin American liberal republics.
After the dictatorships our democracies began to function by returning to the fundamental political right to elect representatives, and from there to test the effectiveness of the institutions as a way to safeguard against the dreaded return of the perverse concentration of power, and unipersonal discretion over and above the law, remained to be tested. This had been the persistent reality imposed in Latin America since the 19th century, a reality which ended the dream of protection provided by the majesty of Constitutions and the rule of law – something our successive autocratic rulers always considered to be childish nonsense.
Before the 20th century ended it soon became clear that democratic institutions were capable of resurrecting themselves from the ashes of military dictatorships only where these institutions had flourished previously, as in Uruguay or Chile. But where they had been historically weak, or had hardly existed, as in most Central American countries, they were hard to reinvent.
In other countries, such as Venezuela, it was the exhaustion of a democratic system discredited by corruption, which opened the way for new proposals which themselves eventually proved dramatic failures. Nor was populism, cloaked in revolutionary pomp, something new in Latin America: it had been a familiar spectacle since the time of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in Colombia.
We also learned, or rather remembered, what history taught us: namely, that populist democracy is only the pseudonym of authoritarianism, even a stepping stone to outright dictatorship. Here the boundaries are very subtle. If there is absolute concentration of power and curtailment of the freedom of expression, if citizens fear power, if corruption corrodes authority, then we are on the threshold of dictatorship. From there it is only a small step to bloody repression. And populism is simply the cellophane sheet wrapping on that poisoned offering.
But another problem has made its presence felt since the turn of the century, and not at all surprisingly, and is today spreading like wildfire: corruption. Corruption is very much a feature of these recovered democracies, even appearing at times as if it were an integral part of it; in many ways because it is encouraged by institutional weakness – including a lack of transparency and control over the greed of many who take the reins of power. As soon as a popularly elected government took office, those who entered public office seemed ready, from day one, to start stealing. And the party goes on; witness the Petrobras scandal in Brazil.
Corruption scandals keep recurring and voters appear to suffer from an incurable yearning for rulers who have been tried and convicted of embezzlement and illegal gains. Such was the case of Guatemala’s ex-president Alfonso Portillo, who was recently welcomed by a cheering crowd at the airport after serving a sentence in the US for money laundering, a crime to which he himself had confessed.
The outlook only gets worse with the determined incursion of organized crime, encouraging corruption at all levels, as in Mexico, where drug cartels seek to undermine the rule of law, and are making significant progress. They are snaring judges, prosecutors, police officers, and ministers in their nets in a number of other countries where the disproportionate weight of drug money can cause the institutional framework to collapse. What we have here is a hydra that grows one hundred heads as soon as you cut off one: a hydra that is capable of mass murder, incineration, dismemberment, and beheading; it has a lot to teach ISIS gunmen in matters of cruelty.
But for now, we should ensure that the State survives, by making it visible. The State is only real where it controls a territory, because if not it tends to be substituted: in the city districts, by criminal juvenile gangs, as in San Salvador (El Salvador) or San Pedro Sula (Honduras); in the municipalities and the rural areas, by the drug lords themselves, who act as if they were the State, but on the margins of it, imposing their own law and order. This is concerted anarchy, in which there is an appearance of order, but an order forced on the population by fear and terror. If drug gangs are building schools, hospitals, and drinking water systems it is because the State only exists on paper. However, for the State to recover internal sovereignty, it must first function as a truly democratic system.
What has come to be called “the political class” needs to see beyond the end of its collective nose. Long-term plans must be made without bringing in ideological positions. A country’s strategic development includes not only investments, economic growth and the quality and reach of social programs, but also a different model of public security, one not solely based on repression.
Public security entails creating active links with the community. Drug dealers are not from Mars: they are born and grow up in poor communities, they retain emotional bonds with their own people, and they know how to use populism for their own ends. This is the challenge. The State must connect with these communities; balaclava clad special forces will keep on failing to prevent and control crime as long as the State does not think first about integration, social transformation and the elimination of chronic poverty.
*Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke with the FSLN to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His many books include El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006), Adiós muchachos (Alfaguara, 2007), Cuando todos hablamos (Alfaguara, 2008) and El cielo llora por mí (Alfaguara, 2009)
Translated by Democraciaabierta and Lalineadefuego