Where have all Latin America's dictators gone?

Latin America's transition to democracy seems well established, with credible elections this year throughout the region. The recent Ecuador uprising underscores how dangers remain.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
PHOTO CREDIT: AP, Reuters RESEARCH: Steven Kurczy

On the afternoon of Sept. 30, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa found himself in a most undemocratic situation: holed up in a hospital, locked in by angry police officers revolting against proposed cuts to their bonuses.

"Kill me!" the fiery president dared his foes.

Mr. Correa was rescued 12 hours later by the military, but he claimed that a coup attempt had been averted. Latin American leaders, on alert after Manuel Zelaya was ousted from the presidency of Honduras in his pajamas last summer, rushed to the Andean leader's defense.

Others doubt his claim of a coup but say the events of Sept. 30 equally underline threats to democracy in Ecuador. Correa, they say, is a president with too much consolidated power, so much that citizens feel street protests are the only viable way to try to resolve their disputes.

As Ecuador sorts out what really happened last month, Latin America is taking stock of where its democracy stands today. In some countries, it is robust. Although still vulnerable to strongman presidents, democracy has widely taken root across Latin America, the United Nations said in report this month.

The claim of a coup in Ecuador came just as Brazilians went to the polls to vote in a new leader, since it is time for the wildly popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to step down. A quiet first round of voting heads into a runoff Oct. 31 between Mr. da Silva's handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and centrist opposition challenger Jose Serra.

Some leaders inflate power

Brazil's voters and those across the region are showing a maturity in selecting leaders, demanding economic stability and responsible social inclusion, regardless of ideology. And yet in other countries around the region, leaders have inflated executive power at the expense of other institutions, reversing gains made in the past 20 years across the region.

"For the vast majority of cases, you have normal, pro-democratic politics," says Dexter Boniface, an expert on Latin America democracy at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. "And in some cases, you have this weakness of institutions, where the political party system is not well institutionalized.… You have these twin dynamics under way."

In many countries in Latin America, the transformation from military rule and dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and '90s has sealed a democratic tradition. The expectation of free and fair elections and that the democratically elected leader finish his or her term is resounding across the region.

That is one reason – geopolitics aside – that there was such an international outcry when Mr. Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was jostled from his bed in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, at gunpoint in June 2009 and forced into exile in neighboring Costa Rica.

Transformative elections

Two hundred years after much of Latin America won independence from Europe, elections across the region almost unanimously show how strong democracy stands today. Ongoing elections in Brazil, and earlier ones this spring in Colombia and last winter in Chile, revealed candidates – whether from the right or left or center – focused on macroeconomic stability and social inclusion for the poor.

In Colombia, voters selected the candidate of the ruling party of former President Álvaro Uribe. In Chile in December, voters selected an opposition candidate, the first time since the fall of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian government that the left-leaning alliance was not the victor.

"These elections are showing that there has been a transformation," says Mauricio Cárdenas, director of the Latin American Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the former minister of Economic Development and Transportation in Colombia. "Voters are pushing the government on their basic priorities, [such as] macroeconomic stability and the need to strengthen social programs. This is happening at the right, left, and center. Society is a lot more mature now."

Warning signs remain, including the power that chiefs of staff have amassed over time. "One of the problems in the region is still the executive power on steroids in some places," says Peter DeShazo, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Most fingers point to Mr. Chávez. Despite losing ground in legislative elections to the opposition last month, he has been able to take control of the judiciary, clamp down on opposition media, and get rid of term limits.

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega has also been accused of manipulating the judiciary, rigging municipal elections, and controlling the legislature.

And in Ecuador, while foes are dubious about a coup attempt, they say that democracy has been damaged by Correa. "This is a result of the way democracy has been functioning in Ecuador. There are no checks and balances," says Ramiro Crespo, a political analyst in Ecuador. "People feel obligated to use force as a form of dialogue."

Discredited parties also a threat

Mr. DeShazo says that discredited political parties across the region are another threat to democracy, even in countries such as Peru, where there is a check on executive power. "They were not successful in reducing poverty and seen as oftentimes corrupt or as parties that were totally based on political gain and office-seeking. In so many different countries they collapsed," he says.

And not all threats to democracy are political in origin. In Mexico and parts of Central America, the growing problem of organized crime is taking its toll on the democratic process, with mayors and political candidates now figuring in the mounting death toll.

"For a long time, the drug war was not yet a problem for keeping the political regime intact," says Mr. Boni­face. "But it has entered a stage into which it is threatening the freeness and openness of their elections."

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