Dictatorships in 21st century Latin America are increasingly using democracy as a tool to legitimize authority, consolidate power, and repress their citizens. This piece considers the recent examples of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Honduras.
21st century dictatorships in Latin America are increasingly ‘democratic’. In their various forms and stages, these carefully engineered and gradually implemented regimes do not reject, but are actually using democracy as the most effective way to legitimize their authority and justify their brutal repression.
Unlike the military dictatorships that rejected democracy across the region during the 20th century (e.g., Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Reynaldo Bignone in Argentina, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in Colombia, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, Castelo Branco in Brazil, Luis García Meza in Bolivia, Maximiliano Hernández in El Salvador, or Rafael Trujillo in Dominican Republic), modern dictatorships in Latin America use democracy not only to attain but also eventually to retain power and, in the process, legitimize their political authority. This phenomenon can be referred to as “democratic blending”: a masked transformation of democratic institutions, principles, and the rule of law that allows elected yet steadily authoritarian governments to benefit from the appearance of democracy while constructing the rules of a dictatorship.
Governments that successfully push forward this portrayal of democracy often seize the institutional (security forces, branches of government) and non-institutional (media, opposition) structures of power that either limit, supervise, or counterbalance their authority. In turn, the rule of law, once democracy’s prime institution, becomes its most corrosive element. Eventually, this democratic blending leads to an ineluctable yet more lethal effect: the destruction of democracy.
Rather than promoting the will of the people or a social agreement on distribution of power, democracy in this context becomes the perfect masquerade with which to advance the dictator’s will and prevent the distribution of power. This phenomenon can be referred to as “democratic delusion”: an illusory sense of constitutional authority designed to develop disguised dictatorships. Once it blends, democracy is no longer a system of government but a tool of maintaining power for a repressive regime. This piece will discuss three recent examples of these phenomenon in Latin America: Nicaragua, Honduras, and Venezuela.
Autocracy and Brutal Repression in Nicaragua
The case of Nicaragua is revealing. Since the democratic election of Daniel Ortega as President of Nicaragua in 2006, Ortega and his wife, the Vice-President Rosario Murillo, have created one of the most autocratic regimes in the region. After getting control of the National Assembly (by winning 71 out of 92 seats), the Supreme Court (by appointing 11 out of 16 justices), and the Supreme Electoral Council, Ortega’s government successfully promoted a constitutional reform process, enabling him to run for three consecutive terms while reducing the number of votes required to be elected.
At present, opposition in Nicaragua is non-existent. And the only remaining independent force, the students’movement, has faced a violent crack-down by security forces and paramilitary groups all over the country, which in recent weeks has resulted in more than 81 people being killed, 838 injured, and 438 arrested. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has called these deaths “unlawful killings” while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has insisted on the need of conducting an on-site investigation notwithstanding the government of Nicaragua's rejection.
Systematic Corruption and Authoritarianism in Honduras
Another critical case of the phenomenon discussed earlier is Honduras. Using the power of constitutional appointments, President Juan Orlando Hernández gradually seized control of the Supreme Court of Honduras, which was the only way for him to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on presidential re-election established by Articles 42.5 and 239 of the Honduras Constitution of 1982 in conjunction with Article 330 of the Penal Code, the latter of which criminalizes any attempt to modify the Constitution to that end.
However, thanks to a Supreme Court decision that declared inapplicable such provisions and authorized the indefinite presidential re-election in Honduras, President Hernández did run for a second term, wining the 2017 presidential election.
Hernández’s government has been accused of electoral fraud, systematic corruption, and human rights violations.Yet both political and criminal investigations against his government have been diluted through acts of Congress—another institution Hernández’s government now controls. Worst yet, just as President Ortega has done it in Nicaragua, President Hernández is using state security forces to repress any protest in Honduras. The face of an authoritarian regime in Honduras is finally emerging.
Political Deterrence and Dictatorship in Venezuela
Among all cases of democratic blending in Latin America, Venezuela represents the most endemic one. Following the democratic election of Nicolás Maduro as President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 2013, Maduro gained institutional control of the state by using the powers granted by Venezuela’s Constitution of 1999.
After securing the loyalty of all Supreme Court justices through strategic constitutional appointments, President Maduro won the sympathy of the military, security forces, and public officials by increasing their salaries in the mist of the country’s worst economic crisis. Then, using Article 348 of the Constitution, President Maduro called for a Constituent National Assembly (ANC), which not only replaced the National Legislative Assembly—until then controlled by the opposition—but further ordered the removal from office of Maduro’s last standing critics: Venezuela’s Attorney General Luisa Ortega and Zulia’s Governor Juan Pablo Guanipa.
Furthermore, Maduro’s government has ordered the detention of more than 1,300 political prisoners while the ANC has passed laws precluding political parties that did not participate in the 2017 municipal elections—that is, nearly all opposition parties—from participating in the 2018 presidential election; a political and authoritarian move that ended with Nicolás Maduro’s re-election.
Maduro’s regime has also muzzled the media through the use, misuse, and abuse of the rule of law. His government has expelled several foreign correspondents, detained at least 66 journalists, and closed 69 media outlets across the country. Additionally, the Constituent National Assembly recently approved a law authorizing the criminal prosecution of individuals and media outlets for posting or broadcasting messages that either “encourage” or “incite” hate, violence, or public disturbance.
The trend of Latin American autocratic and authoritarian governments using democracy as a tool in the process of creating dictatorships exposes critical flaws of democracy as a system of government. The replication of these regimes reveals not only the personal ambition or abuse of power of the leaders discussed here, but also the eventual dissembling of democratic values (freedom of expression), principles (separation of powers), and institutions (free vote) that once inspired, and are synonymous with the notion of democracy.
Jose Mauricio Gaona is a DCL candidate at McGill University’s Faculty of Law, O’Brien Fellow at the McGill Centre for Human Rights, and Saul Hayes Fellow at McGill’s Faculty of Law. He is recipient of the Vanier award from the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Research Council of Canada and the Dean’s Honor Scholarship and Fellowship award from the University of California UCLA School of Law. Jose Mauricio has been an invited lecturer at Yale and McGill Universities as well as an invited panelist at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Ottawa, and National University of Singapore. His research focuses on the intersection between democracy, national security, global migration, and human rights protections.