TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

Is the Latin American strong man
riding back into town?



May 14, 1999

MADRID- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has lived out his fantasy: not only did he win the hand of the local beauty queen, he has taken over the country. First he attempted a coup. When that failed--and from his prison cell--he tried another. After that didn't succeed he ran for president last year. He won, knocking his country's established political parties right off their perch. Now he's trampled the country's political elite into the ground. He mobilised mobs around the legislature to make his point and cowed Congress into granting him nearly all the powers he had demanded. In short, to rule by decree. Then on April 25th he won with a huge majority a referendum to create a new assembly to re-write the constitution.

Welcome back the Caudillo! Welcome back the parade of military men galloping into the arena of democratic politics in Latin America, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies has just concluded. Ever since Peru's president, Alberto Fujimori, (who is not a military man), suspended the constitution and dissolved Congress in 1992 there has been a clear new authoritarian trend at work in Latin American politics. Democracy is still the formal parameter of power all over Latin America, but it is often, particularly in the north, a constrained, manipulated, very personal kind of democracy, markedly different from one that flourishes--by the year ever stronger--in the southern reaches of the continent--in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and, despite the watchful eye of the military, Chile.

In Bolivia, former general Hugo Banzer who led a military government notorious for its human rights abuses was voted back into office last year. In Paraguay, the southern exception, a jailed would-be coup maker, General Lino Cesar Oviedo, would have probably won last year's election if the Supreme Court had not annulled his candidacy.

Authoritarianism finds fertile soil when there is significant official lawlessness, a rigged political system, patronage and non-compliance of the law by congressmen , argues George Philip of the London School of Economics, explaining Chavez's sweep to near total power in Venezuela. Yet it does not explain everything. In neighbouring Colombia, where confidence in institutions is also at a low ebb and where left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, both financially fueled by the drug trade, control large parts of the country, authoritarianism has yet to gain a serious foothold. In last year's presidential elections Harold Bedoya, a former general who argued for a draconian crack down on endemic political violence, won only 2% of the votes cast.

In Peru there is also a strong undercurrent working against the apparent plans of incumbent Fujimori to run for yet another term in office, claiming that the electoral rules of the constitution do not apply to him. Public opinion which went along with his authoritarian ways as long as he was breaking the legislative log jam and destroying the nihilistic guerrilla movement, the Shining Path, no longer perhaps is prepared to be quite so tolerant, when there is no evidence that he has either created many new jobs nor got on top of Lima's frightening crime wave.

In Mexico authoritarianism, now 70 years old, appears to be entering its terminal stages. The monopoly on power of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party finally cracked in 1997 when, for the first time, it lost control of the lower house of Congress. Many observers have been surprised by how strong the pro democratic groundswell has become and in next year's presidential poll there is a real possibility that an opposition candidate will win. It certainly will be the most closely fought and competitive election in Mexican history.

In short, it is not easy to define one definite trend in Latin American politics. Venezuelan headlines are not the continent's. Yet, ominous for the future, undemocratic practices, such as Fujimori's self-coup in Peru in 1992 and Chavez's populist power grab today are feted not just in their own country but all over the continent. Even in Argentina, President Carlos Menem, who has done so much both to restore democracy and good housekeeping, was badly tempted--if no longer--to tamper with the constitution in pursuit of another term in office. In Panama President Ernesto Perez Balladares last year also tried but failed in a similar effort.

It seems that the democratic breeze still blows the strongest. The real democrats outnumber the phoney ones. The return to democracy and the raising of the standard of human rights in the 1980s--given a great deal of encouragement by the presidency of Jimmy Carter--has left a flag that still catches the wind. More and more citizens take this advance seriously and are fearful that any corner cutting is in reality a short-cut to another dark age of military rule and ugly repression. Today, if a general wants to have a chance in office, at least he must shed his uniform and throw his hat in the electoral ring. And even then he will not succeed in most countries.

Still, there are more authoritarians than there were a decade ago. And despite steady economic growth during the first half of this decade and a decline in inflation (which always has been the poor's worst enemy) the world economic crisis of last year is still playing havoc with most Latin economies and makes the simplistic messages of the authoritarians appear more appealing. Democracy and economic reform cannot yet said to have made much impact on the poverty that is still the lot of around 40% of the continent's population. As long as that figure remains so high there is always the danger that Latin America will re-enter the era of political regression.



Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 385 351172 and e-mail:













The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512   E-mail:

Contact the Webmaster at:
Created by Maria Näslund      © 1997, 1998, 1999 TFF