Ecuador’s Return to the Past

By John Polga-Hecimovich and Francisco Sánchez*

Inauguration of the President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso/ Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Ecuador’s underlying political and economic pathologies bode ill for its governability and democratic stability as President Guillermo Lasso, inaugurated in May, attempts a return to the neoliberalism, fiscal austerity, and minority government that marked the contentious politics of the 1990s and 2000s.

  • This “return to the past” is the result of successive governments’ inability to resolve longstanding structural deficiencies. The Revolución Ciudadana of President Rafael Correa (2007‑17) reflected an illusory stability that depended on favorable political-economic conditions. Correa promised political, economic, and social transformation; promulgated a new Constitution to achieve it; and touted a national plan of buen vivir. He survived 10 years in office, more than double any other president in Ecuador’s history, but his change was not fundamental or durable – a consequence of the inefficiency, centralization, and personalization of decision-making under one man.
  • Under the Lenín Moreno government (2017‑21), Ecuador’s pathologies reemerged salient as ever. Correa’s acolyte in the recent presidential election, Andrés Arauz, lost in the runoff against Lasso, who campaigned on a platform of fiscal austerity that was hardly an attractive proposition for an electorate battered by the COVID‑19 pandemic and years of slow economic growth.

While breaking with one version of its past – correísmo – the electorate seems to have resigned itself to another. Ecuador’s longstanding political dysfunction, driven by multiple factors, looms large.

  • Ever-changing rules of play. Since independence from Spain in 1820, Ecuador has had 20 constitutions and myriad electoral rules. In moments of crisis, especially since Ecuador’s democratic transition (1978‑79), elites have generally sought to alter the formal rules of the game – as a kind of restart button. Although Correa proclaimed that the Constitution he pushed through would endure for 300 years, it was modified 23 times in nine years to correct errors and alter citizens’ rights.
  • Weak rule of law and persistent corruption. “Extractive elites” siphon resources from the people and often support institutions and policies inimical to sustained economic growth. Stories abound of the cultivation of party adherents and votes through clientelism, and corruption has politicized the judiciary. Correa created a breeding ground for scandal. In 2017, the court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison and banned him from politics for 25 years, whereby he fled to exile in Belgium.
  • Fragmented parties. Ecuador’s party system is one of the most fragmented and weakly institutionalized in the world. Since returning to civilian rule, the parties have proven unable to sustain electoral support – most last only a handful of elections before they disappear. Despite high party turnover in the legislature, voters lack clear institutional channels of representation.
  • Slow growth and surging debt. Since the mid-2010s, economic, political, and social crises have reversed many of the gains made during the greatest economic boom in the country’s history. Correa’s large investments in infrastructure, such as roads, hydroelectric plants, schools, and health facilities, reduced political pressures. But the average annual deficit jumped to 3.5 percent of GDP between 2007 and 2017, and total foreign debt jumped from $10.5 billion to $31.5 billion, and reached $40 billion by 2020, while domestic debt grew fourfold. President Moreno’s efforts to change course provoked outrage and social unrest.
  • Significant interbranch conflict. Ecuadorian executives have been politically weak despite an institutional structure that strengthens the presidency relative to the legislature. They have to build coalitions through the distribution of pork and other perks, leading to weak and corrupt governance.

These factors drastically reduce Lasso’s policy options. In legislative elections held last February, moreover, his Creando Oportunidades (CREO) party won only 12 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly. His 4.8-point margin of victory in the second presidential round gives a false sense of a popular mandate. It was a case of “outcome inversion” – when the first-round winner is defeated in the runoff – in a context of low party-system institutionalization.

  • Another challenge is that the country’s long-standing pathologies and the turmoil they cause have undermined Ecuadorians’ support for democracy, which fell from 66.7 percent in 2014 to 54.4 percent in 2019, a trend that is mirrored in several other Latin American states. Satisfaction with how democracy works in Ecuador, peaking at 68.8 percent in 2014, has once again become a minority position.

After the promises of reformist leaders, stability, and favorable economic conditions, Ecuador – like much of Latin America – seems to have returned to, or to never have actually escaped from, the volatility of its past. Its social, political, and economic weaknesses are mutually reinforcing. Economic hardship exacerbates the highly transactional and patrimonial nature of the political system and weakens the party system as lawmakers switch allegiances and votes based on whichever political broker can offer more.

  • Limited political and economic resources handicap Lasso’s efforts to address urgent problems, including the pandemic, that would sorely challenge even an experienced leader. Without a team with public-sector know-how, inexperienced politicians often end up absorbed by the pathologies of a political system that make their weaknesses more acute. From a historical perspective, there is no evidence to suggest that Lasso will succeed where previous presidents have failed.

July 27, 2021

* John Polga-Hecimovich is associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Francisco Sánchez is professor of political science and administration and director of the Iberoamérica Institute at the University of Salamanca. This article is adapted from their recent essay in the July issue of Journal of Democracy.

South America: Mounting Tensions, Few Solutions

By Christopher Kambhu*

Protest in Colombia/ Oxi.Ap/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

Across South America, calls for structural change have re-emerged on the streets and at the ballot box, but governments face many obstacles to constructively address them. These calls are a continuation of region-wide protests in 2019, when citizens demanded reforms or rewrites of the existing social contract to address various political, economic, and social inequities. While government pandemic measures pushed protestors off the streets throughout 2020, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inequities that prompted protests.

  • Inequities in Colombia have sparked nationwide social conflict. Protests against a proposed tax reform have broadened into demands for a basic income and accountability for security forces accused of killing dozens of protesters. Most protests have been peaceful, but radical groups have created “autonomous zones” free of police presence and established roadblocks, causing goods shortages in major cities. Negotiations between the government and protest leaders have yet to gain traction. President Ivan Duque’s approval rating has plummeted to historic lows as he appears unable to meet the moment. Backlash against demonstrators is emerging, with some wealthier residents violently repelling protestors from their neighborhoods.
  • In Ecuador and Peru, citizens have used the ballot box to voice their frustrations, leading to surprising electoral outcomes. Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador’s new center-right president, has formed a governing coalition with indigenous and social-democratic parties that are the second and third largest in the national legislature (Lasso’s party is the fifth largest). In Peru, provincial teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo has narrowly won June’s presidential runoff over Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a controversial former president convicted of corruption and human rights abuses. Castillo’s far-left party, which began contesting national elections only last year, is now the largest in Peru’s legislature, but needs to forge complex alliances to govern effectively.
  • Chile took a different path. Under intense pressure, the government acceded to popular demands for a constitutional rewrite. A national plebiscite last October assented to the rewrite by a wide margin, and elections for the Constituent Assembly in May demonstrated widespread rejection of the current elites. Most members are political independents or newcomers; a sizable number rose to prominence during the initial wave of protests in late 2019. The membership has gender parity, a first for such a body, with 11 percent of seats reserved for representatives of indigenous groups.

Efforts to forge new social contracts are difficult at best and each path faces obstacles to success. Colombia’s current political leadership appears unable to calm tensions, and voters must wait until national elections next year to elect new leaders. While demands for change in Ecuador and Peru have elevated some candidates and parties to unprecedented success, sharp ideological divisions and partisan fragmentation in both legislatures appear likely to limit potential reforms. Castillo’s mandate is tenuous and weakened by Fujimori’s rather Trumpian allegations of fraud and attempts to throw out ballots. In Chile, the ideological diversity of the Constituent Assembly could very well preclude it from reaching the required two-thirds majority needed for any proposal to enter the new Constitution, which will be put to a national referendum in 2022.

  • The inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 and a busy electoral schedule will keep reform issues at the forefront of political discourse; these debates will likely intensify with 11 countries across Latin America holding national elections over the next 18 months. While upcoming elections offer a timely opportunity for citizens to push their countries in new directions, governments will face political, fiscal, and social challenges which threaten implementation of any proposed reforms. At this early stage in the region’s electoral supercycle, political leaders have yet to capably address their citizens’ demands.

July 7, 2021

* Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

Peru: Approaching Ungovernability?

Voting in Peru during the presidential election/ Presidencia Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Disputes over the final vote count in Peru’s June 6 presidential runoff are likely to drag on, but those promoting fear and mistrust in the political system already appear to be the clear winners, with grave consequences for the future of the country’s democracy. The two leading candidates – leftist Pedro Castillo and rightist Keiko Fujimori – both represent significant threats to liberal democracy, and the country’s elites and media are complicitous in moving the country closer to ungovernability.

  • Castillo and his Perú Libre party ran on an unapologetically non-democratic platform, promising a Leninist government and suggesting an end to the democratic alternation of power. Fujimori defended the corrupt dictatorship of her father, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), and as leader of Fuerza Popular has fought a constant battle against the rule of law.
  • First-round voting in April showed that neither of them won many hearts and minds – 18.9 percent voted for Castillo and 13.4 percent for Fujimori – but they advanced because the other 17 candidates were even worse, deeply divided, and weak. Preparing for the second round, rather than reach out to the 70 percent of voters who rejected them, they showed the arrogance of immoderation and left citizens wondering which would be less likely to tyrannize them.

Other political leaders and the country’s elites, instead of demanding that the two candidates commit to democracy, made things worse. Unlike the elites in other countries, Peru’s do not seek to take over the levers of political power; rather, they are most comfortable maintaining a mediocre status quo. The left showed unconditional enthusiasm for Castillo, and conservatives like author Mario Vargas Llosa embraced Fujimori – while the two candidates proceeded to tear the country apart with fear-mongering, scare tactics, and empty promises.

  • Fujimorismo based its campaign on causing panic by feeding people’s fear of communism and terrorism, and linking Castillo to them. By mid-May, politicians who had said they’d hold their nose while voting for Keiko began casting her as a national savior. Her allies filled the streets with posters warning of the “Communist invasion.” Business leaders said they would fire employees if Castillo won. Castillo resorted to similar tactics to stir panic about a return of a Fujimori to the Palacio de Gobierno.
  • The media shed all pretense of independence and hyped these warnings as if truth, exhuming stories of terror from the past to drive home the point. Polls and vote results show, however, that the media’s gross bias prompted many voters who had intended to cast empty or unmarked ballots to vote for Castillo.

Peru may well be entering a period of ungovernability. Five years of political turmoil, corruption scandals, and institutional decay, under four different Presidents, had already wounded the country before this election, but fear – which, as Martha Nussbaum said, is the feeling that controls people, not liberate them – now runs even deeper and stronger. Well-founded questions about both Fujimori and Castillo’s commitment to democracy will keep tensions high, and the political, business, and media elites have created a climate in which allegations of fraud will persist despite international observers’ conclusions that the elections were clean. The forceful rejection of Fujimori by half of the population, and the Castillo’s utter lack of even basic governing skills are real risks. Arbitrary manipulations of the Constitution will be attempted to strengthen or weaken whichever government takes office. Calls for military intervention are certain. Political opposition will radicalize. The historic split between mestizo-dominated Lima and the rest of the country, vulgarly called la Indiada, is worsening.

  • But this is not Peru’s inescapable fate. Its democracy still gives the people the weapons with which to impede an authoritarian project. They do not have to believe that Fujimori’s backers are all corrupt anti-patriots, nor that all of Castillo’s are anti-Peruvian Communists. It’s true that the country has been wracked by the pandemic like no other, and that it is hindered by debt and other challenges. While neither of the candidates and their forces have demonstrated the greatness and humility needed to lead through these crises, rescuing Peruvian democracy requires accepting that the one with the most votes will be President, even if purely by chance, and deserves an opportunity to govern without calls for a coup to remove them. A country decimated by the pandemic needs the hope of being able to move into the future together.

June 18, 2021

*  This article is a synthesis and translation of commentaries and interviews by Alberto Vergara, who teaches at la Universidad del Pacífico in Lima and was co-editor of Politics after Violence: Legacies of the Shining Path Conflict in Peru.

Haiti: Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Police get in position as the protesters escalate their chants/ Ben Piven/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Despite the Haitian government’s postponement of a referendum on a Constitution drafted by a committee hand-picked by President Jovenel Moïse, the President’s power grab looks likely to persist, almost certainly prolonging and deepening the country’s current crisis. Moïse has ruled by decree since January 2020 because – in part owing to his own obstructionism – legislative elections in 2019 were postponed and a new legislature could not be seated. He has also insisted that delays in his inauguration in 2017 entitle him to a one-year extension of his term, until February 2022. Political tensions have triggered large, violent protests and catalyzed a surge in murders, kidnappings (up 200 percent over 2020), and other crimes – a deterioration that the Catholic Church calls “a descent into hell.” Gangs, often acting as surrogates for political factions, have been terrorizing neighborhoods and have attacked nine police stations in the past week, according to the Miami Herald.

  • Most controversial among Moïse’s actions has been a new Constitution drafted by a closed group of his allies and a referendum on it originally planned for June 27. The new Constitution would give him significantly greater powers by, for example, eliminating the post of Prime Minister and making the Legislature a unicameral body easier for the President to control. Many observers view it as mostly a tool to consolidate his one-man rule and increase impunity. Although Moïse has denied he intends to seek a second turn, his Constitution would allow him one.
  • Criticism of the Constitution and referendum has been widespread. The entire political opposition has condemned it, as has the Catholic Church. Even the head of Moïse’s Parti Tèt Kale has publicly opposed it. Thousands of demonstrators have spontaneously taken to the streets in generally peaceful protests, while massacres by pro-government forces have escalated in slums generally supportive of the opposition.  

The international community, which has been permissive of Moïse as he’s pursued most of his plans over the past year-plus, criticized his efforts to ram through the Constitution – lamenting the lack of transparency and the narrow participation in its drafting – and finally pressed him to suspend the referendum. But it is also quietly facilitating some of the steps required to lead up to such a vote.

  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in February criticized Moïse’s human rights record, but the OAS has embraced his claim to an extended term and, while expressing concern about process issues, was not forceful against the Constitution gambit. Indeed, an OAS mission visiting Port-au-Prince this week will focus on the surge in violence and preparations for future elections, not stopping his Constitution.
  • The Biden Administration has been slow to take a stance on Moïse’s machinations – not announcing opposition to the referendum until this week. It has criticized his inability to quell the violence without linking it to his policies or agenda. Announcing last week that the United States was extending Temporary Protective Status for 100,000 Haitians, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas noted that Haiti is “currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

Haitian crises have been so deep and long in recent decades that this one is difficult to distinguish from others, but it is a perfect storm of a sustained political power grab amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its massive economic hit. Moïse is almost certain to push for his new Constitution as a condition for holding elections. Haitian elites have never heeded lofty appeals for them to build democracy and make compromises. They expertly exploit the international community’s reluctance to punish them because of the harm it will cause the Haitian people. (UNICEF reports that severe acute malnutrition among young children has doubled over the past year.) Cooperation between government opponents in Haiti and the Diaspora has introduced an element of protest and resistance not seen since the mid-1980, but the international community still heeds primarily local political and economic elites.

  • Washington’s hesitance to become more forceful probably reflects the view that it has no better alternative than tolerating Moïse. If so, it would suggest the Biden Administration has not learned the lessons – such as that the elites are unreliable partners – of the failed U.S. pledge during Barack Obama’s presidency to help Haiti “Build Back Better” after the 2010 earthquake and the Trump Administration’s coddling of Moïse in return for his opposition to Venezuela at the OAS. The State Department’s belated opposition to Moïse’s referendum, however, may be a sign that it is listening to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and Haiti Caucus’s urging that the Administration get out of its “source bubble” and reach out to constructive opposition voices.

June 10, 2021

Lula Is Back, But What About Brazilian Democracy?

By Fábio Kerche and Marjorie Marona*

Rally in Support of Lula/ Ricardo Cifuentes/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva recovered his political rights last month when the Supreme Court overturned his convictions on corruption charges, but Brazil will need more than a simple court decision to restore the country’s confidence in its democracy and institutions after years of political turmoil.

  • The court ruled that the conduct and decisions of then-Judge Sergio Moro and the Operação Lava Jato (Carwash) investigators that landed Lula in prison were not impartial and, therefore, the justices invalidated the conviction of the former president (2003-2011). The case began to unravel in 2019 when a Brazil-based U.S. journalist, Glenn Greenwald, published leaked private conversations between Moro and the prosecutors showing a highly politicized agenda. The ruling reinforced the public perception that Lula was innocent and that Lava Jato was used as a political weapon against him and his Workers’ Party (PT).
  • The action opened the door for Lula to be a presidential candidate in 2022. It also demands restarting the trial from ground zero, but the consensus among legal experts is that a re-trial cannot be mounted before the election.

Lula’s return coincides with a period in which President Jair Bolsonaro faces enormous difficulties. The Senate is currently investigating his government’s alleged negligence in the 400,000 deaths caused by its COVID policies. Furthermore, the Brazilian economy is not recovering, as the Bolsonaro team asserts. Unemployment is over 14 percent, and hunger has reemerged as a perverse reality for millions of Brazilians. According to a Datafolha poll, only 24 percent of Brazilians consider the government to be good. Bolsonaro suffers from the lowest polls among presidents in the democratic period, except for Fernando Collor as he resigned in the face of impeachment.

  • The same poll shows that Lula would handily beat Bolsonaro in a presidential election – 41 percent to 23 percent among intending voters. In a second round, Lula would beat Bolsonaro 55 percent to 32 percent. Moreover, the public narratives pushed by Bolsonaro supporters trying to identify Lula as a radical left-winger are being put aside. The press, despite repeated attacks by the current government, portrays Lula as a much more reasonable alternative than Bolsonaro. Lula is emerging as a conciliator and a moderate center-left politician.
  • Attempts to build a center-right candidacy, a so-called terceira via (third way), seem to be getting little traction so far. The growth of center-right parties in the 2020 municipal elections is not being reflected at the national level, and the TV pop stars cited as potential 2022 Presidential candidates are not gaining momentum.  

Far from radicalizing him, Lula’s 580 days in prison seem to have softened his sharp edges, and his immediate full-time focus on looking for solutions to the COVID crisis fits his strategy of reminding the public that Brazil was a better country under his government. He is not in a rush to officially launch his candidacy, but he’s talking to several parties and leaders – even those in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s controversial impeachment and of Lava Jato, which portrayed the Workers’ Party as a criminal enterprise. He is also looking into possible alliances in state elections in exchange for broad support for his candidacy. There are indications that his vice-presidential running mate will be someone closer to the center-right, signaling that his government will be of reconstruction and not of polarization. But the path ahead isn’t necessarily easy for Lula. Bolsonaro has a group of loyal supporters and, even with a slow pace of vaccinations, there is a chance that all Brazilians will be protected from COVID by the end of this year, bringing hope for better times. Bolsonaro is also providing financial aid to the poor, which will help him recover voter share.

  • The 2022 election is perhaps the most critical test for Brazil’s fragile democracy since redemocratization. The Bolsonaro government, whose handling of national challenges has been highly problematic, continues to flirt with authoritarian measures. Civil and human rights are being weakened. Whether Bolsonaro ultimately succeeds in consolidating a regime of his own design or becomes merely a stumbling block in Brazil’s democratic history now looks likely to depend on a 75-year-old former president and former union leader who’s returned from prison to provide, yet again, an alternative to the status quo.

May 19, 2021

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and former CLALS Research Fellow. Marjorie Marona is a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Chile: Will the Constitutional Assembly Move Democracy Forward?

By Patricio Navia*

Polling place in Chile/ Atina Chile Elecciones 2005/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chileans go to the polls this weekend to elect members of a constitutional assembly – empowered to write a new Constitution by a plebiscite last October – but unrealistic popular expectations in a highly political year appear likely to complicate its work and could result in a flawed document.

  • Almost 80 percent of the Chileans who voted last October (i.e., 80 percent of half of the country’s eligible voters) supported a rewrite of the Pinochet-era Constitution, promulgated in 1980. Voters also chose to elect a new 155-member assembly for the task, rather than form one from among prominent political and social leaders. The assembly will have nine months to draft the document (with an option for one three-month extension), which will be voted on in mid-2022.
  • Chile’s busy election calendar is likely to complicate the assembly’s work. Saturday and Sunday’s voting will also choose governors, mayors, and city councilors, and there are elections in November for Congress and a new President – threatening to create tensions and a perfect political storm that undermine the quality of the new magna carta. Some parties have already held internal primaries for their presidential candidates, and coalition primaries are scheduled for July 18. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first round of voting on November 21, the two leading candidates will compete in a runoff on December 19.

The flaws of the constitutional process itself are clear. One is that the guaranteed gender-parity condition (50 percent representation for men and 50 percent for women) risks a situation in which higher vote-getters are not seated. The assembly’s mandate also includes guaranteed representation for the indigenous – a noble goal that nonetheless could lead to distracting recriminations in a convention that, per the plebiscite, will require approval by two-thirds of delegates for every element of the new Constitution. The objective is to achieve what Chilean authorities have called “a high degree of consensus” but could actually put agreement out of reach.

  • In addition, the assembly will begin deliberations in late June, when the Presidential and Legislative campaigns will be underway. The new government will take office in March 2022, but the new Constitution will not be ready until the second half of 2022 – and ratified by an exit plebiscite even later. The new government will have to wait for over six months after its inauguration for the new Constitution to be finalized before it can begin to govern, and, even worse, the offices of those elected might not exist.
  • Another major challenge is disunity and, in some cases, a lack of vision in the traditional political parties. Parties of the right, which finally got out from under the shadows of the Pinochet dictatorship and problematic market reforms, now appear ill-prepared to lead as Chile enters a transition period. Despite two terms in office (2010‑14 and 2018‑22), President Piñera has not constructed a new model for the right in Chile and now, having lost much momentum, is unable to lead rightist parties sorely lacking leadership.
  • Polls indicate, however, that Chileans do not embrace the more state-oriented options espoused by the left. Citizens want robust social rights and a reliable social safety net – which the assembly will find easy to give them without having to identify funding sources – but studies show they strongly prefer a society based on competitive markets with the protections they get as consumers, preventing abuses and guaranteeing individual rights. The right has been unable to capitalize on these views and, ironically, has never been in such a position of weakness as it is now. When Chileans realize that the many promises of the Constitution cannot be materialized, they will feel cheated.

The plebiscite creating the constitutional assembly increasingly appears to have been an effort to exorcise the Pinochet government that wrote the 1980 Constitution – rather than a mandate for a new left-leaning model of governance. Neither will the new magna carta be a magic pill that will solve all of Chile’s problems, including inequality and deficient public health and private pension systems, as many voters undoubtedly wish. These unfulfillable expectations will weigh heavily on the assembly throughout this political year.

  • Failure of the assembly is not a foregone conclusion, of course. Even after we analyze the results of this weekend’s votes, we cannot rule out that the political parties and civil society might rise to the occasion of making the debate and drafting into a healing process. If President Piñera commits all his energy to leading his government and party until he steps down 10 months from now – a historic but difficult task for a lame duck with a checkered legacy – one challenge will be the balancing act between promoting his base’s agenda and reassuring others that their interests will be respected and included. For now, however, it’s hard not to conclude that Chileans underestimated the complexities that writing a new Constitution would entail, especially producing one that meets the high expectations of a people hungry for solutions.

May 14, 2021

* Patricio Navia is a sociologist and political scientist at New York University and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago.

El Salvador: Eastern Region’s Weak Democratic Political Culture

By Rodolfo Mejía-Dietrich and Adán Mendoza*

Polling place in El Salvador/ Amber/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

El Salvador has made important democratic progress since the peace accord ending its bloody civil war in 1992, but the country still suffers from a profound deficit in citizens’ exercise of their rights and fulfillment of their democratic obligations – creating a serious risk of authoritarian practices and impunity by groups in power.

  • While President Nayib Bukele’s actions have catalyzed debate in the capital about democratic stability, surveys and research in the four departments of El Salvador’s eastern region show that low levels of interest in essential elements of democratic culture – community organizing; oversight of government operations; requests for public information; demands for public accountability; and efforts to root out corruption – are limiting direct and institutional democracy. This is among the key findings of surveys of 1,073 persons of diverse demographic groups by our center, the Centro de Investigación para la Democracia (CIDEMO) at the Universidad de Oriente.

Salvadorans have not lost faith in democracy as a system that, despite imperfections, would best serve their and the nation’s interests. But our surveys, conducted in September 2019, confirm that citizens are deeply frustrated with the country’s failure to achieve it. The country has at times shown the trimmings of democracy, but its political culture remains largely unchanged.

  • Confidence in democracy has been battered by citizens’ belief that the government is unable or unwilling to grapple with their daily challenges. Crime and personal insecurity, at 42.5 percent, are the problems at the top of citizens’ concerns. Poverty and unemployment are also major problems, respectively ranking 13.7 percent and 11.5 percent in the survey.
  • Despite the scourge of crime, the government institutions charged with combating criminal groups enjoy significant popular legitimacy; our polls show the military enjoys 81.2 percent popular confidence and the National Civilian Police, 72.2 percent. But those responsible for building and ensuring democratic practice do not. The Asamblea Legislativa polled at the time as the institution with the lowest level of confidence, and the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, upon which the credibility of elections depends, scored 56 percent.
  • At a little less than 5 percent, corruption ranked significantly lower as people’s greatest immediate concern, but other research indicates that it causes broad citizen apathy toward civic participation. There are widespread perceptions that opportunities to reduce corruption have been repeatedly blocked by those who most benefit from it. These conclusions coincide with those of Transparency International, which in 2019 ranked El Salvador 113 out of 180 countries (with 34 of 100 possible points). Among relatively stable countries, it is among the most corrupt in the world. Slightly more than 90.6 percent of citizens CIDEMO polled support the creation of an international commission against impunity (CICIES), which President Bukele promised during his campaign.

Nearly 30 years after the country started its juridical-institutional transformation, the same hindrances to effective democracy – high levels of poverty, precariousness (vulnerability), and inequality – remain colossal challenges to building a system of social participation, civic education, and inclusion. The country’s relative stability over the past two decades, certainly compared to the war years, disguise the underlying popular sense that the system has failed to serve them. The Oriente of El Salvador is far from the capital, San Salvador, and thus does not benefit from much of the country’s economic activity, and it has lost a great number of migrants seeking a dignified life elsewhere. But other research around the country shows its citizens’ frustration is not unique, as further documented by the World Bank and others that have found that about half of all households countrywide lack the conditions of dignified wellbeing.

  • The fundamental challenge for CIDEMO is to promote dialogue between citizens and emerging leaders to encourage citizen participation and to build capacities in civic education aimed at favoring the goal of expanding the exercise of citizens’ rights and duties. Our wager is that equality and freedom are critical wellsprings of advancing toward optimal levels of democratic governability.

* Rodolfo Mejía-Dietrich and Adán Mendoza are, respectively, the director and fulltime researcher at the Centro de Investigación para la Democracia at the Universidad de Oriente in San Miguel, El Salvador. This article is adapted from their recent study, Democracia, gobernabilidad y corrupción: Estudio de la cultura política en la región oriental de El Salvador. CLALS is providing technical assistance to CIDEMO under a USAID subaward that has made this UNIVO initiative possible.

Latin America: Impact of the January 6 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

By Ilka Treminio Sánchez, Fábio Kerche, and Esteban De Gori*

Tear gas outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021/ Tyler Merbler/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

AULABLOG invited three Latin American experts to comment on the impact of the events in Washington, DC, last month on U.S. relations with the region.

Ilka Treminio Sánchez*

During the Trump Administration, the United States revealed regrettable signs of institutional erosion and democratic backsliding. The political engine that allowed and promoted these actions was based on polarizing political discourse that shaped a hostile atmosphere toward Trump’s and his supporters’ opponents. This behavior escalated to the point of attacks on the electoral results and the violent assault on the Capitol by Trump’s followers on January 6, the day Joe Biden’s victory was certified. The insurrection failed as institutions upheld the legitimacy of the electoral process and the popular will of the citizens.

For Latin America, and for Central America specifically, this episode signifies the rupture of the myth of democratic exceptionalism in the United States. It reveals U.S. fissures and defects that are characteristic of the hemisphere’s weakest democracies. Central America has many times experienced authoritarianism, populism, violence against the adversary, social violence against ethnic groups, attacks on Congress, and attempts to alter electoral results. The Trump Administration’s actions have seriously damaged the United States’ image as a country that guarantees democracy – and its future governments could lose moral authority in the region on this matter.

  • The January 6 assault could give new life to undemocratic “zombie ideas” in Central America, undermining progress in political and civil rights made in the last decades. It could further embolden efforts to weaken election processes and increase presidential authoritarianism already present in the region.

Fábio Kerche*

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and President Trump’s campaign to overturn the electoral results were a sad scene for more than just the United States. Democracy is the regime in which a government can be defeated in an election and then leaves office peacefully. The events in Washington revealed that, even in a country in which democracy was a consolidated regime, it is vulnerable – with profound implications for younger and more fragile democracies worldwide. This includes Latin America and particularly Brazil.

  • It is important to remember that the Brazilian political crisis started when the runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections challenged the results. Fortunately, the U.S. political institutions were still strong enough to overcome the impasse in Washington. The United States’ most recent crisis gives Latin Americans cause to consider what should and should not be done to protect and consolidate democracy across our continent. In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is trying to reproduce Trump’s style, the failure of the U.S. Capitol insurrection – and the triumph of the country’s Constitutional order – should discourage any imagining that there is a way out of democracy.

Esteban De Gori*

The insurrection was undoubtedly shocking for South America. No government and no citizenry had imagined that a group of persons could occupy the U.S. Capitol as they did, nor that challenges to U.S. electoral processes could be so intense. Among the most powerful events: persons supported by the President overrunning the building and deepening the runaway polarization; the struggle of the democratic system to overcome the challenges to the electoral competition; and, perhaps most profoundly, the erosion of popular faith in the system. Leaders in most of Latin America, with the exception of Venezuela and perhaps others, showed concern and surprise. A crisis afflicting a great geo-economic player in the context of a pandemic and trade war with China could bring greater uncertainties and risks and, especially now, few opportunities.

  • The insurrection and the singularly belligerent government of Donald Trump are not the only things driving reassessment of the United States as a promoter of democracy and the rule of law. Since 2008, to take the financial crisis as a point of reference, doubts about the effectiveness of the country’s political system have deepened. That discomfort helped bring Trump to power as it eroded faith in the political system and its ability to balance desires and demands. The early statements and actions of the Biden Administration suggest awareness of this discomfort and willingness to begin addressing it.
  • The events (and Biden’s efforts to overcome them) do not appear likely to significantly change the U.S. relationship with Latin America. The pandemic and other challenges to democracy have placed extraordinary pressure on the region’s leaders, for whom the images of U.S. insurrection may have engendered even a certain empathy. They now know that parliaments and democratic institutions can be illegally occupied; that debate can go horribly awry; that polarization can seriously deepen in any country of the hemisphere.
  • More than the turmoil in Washington, the pandemic and its economic consequences appear likely to influence U.S.-Latin America relations. Joe Biden will probably remain focused on the country’s customary interests in the region – no great changes – although with less belligerence than Donald Trump. China, the other great regional power, will continue to promote its position without big conflicts or stridency. Even if the United States retains its economic edge in Latin America, its problems – and China’s gradual expansion in the region – put Washington on the downward path typical of a great power in decline.

February 11, 2021

* Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.
* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO and IESP-UERJ in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.
* Esteban De Gori teaches sociology at La Universidad de Buenos Aires and is a researcher at Argentina’s Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET).

Chile: Finding a Path to a New Social Pact

By Pablo Rubio Apiolaza*

Chileans demand constitutional reform/ Jose Pereira/ Public Domain/ Creative Commons License

Chile’s constitutional plebiscite on October 25 has calmed the aftershocks of the political earthquake that began with social protests one year earlier, and optimism is currently high that the two-year process of drafting and approving a new Constitution will help the country establish a much-needed new social pact.

  • The October 2019 demonstrations and the government’s response – including violence perpetrated by both sides – were a shock to Chilean society. The Carabineros were found to have committed serious human rights violations. A political negotiation between the government and opposition signed the following month included an agreement to hold a national referendum on the country’s Constitution, which has remained in force since 1980, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled the country.
  • That accord and the COVID‑19 pandemic that hit Chile several months later diminished the social protests. The plebiscite originally was to take place in April, but was delayed, initially without contention, due to coronavirus. Nevertheless, in the campaign in the runup to the vote, social conflict flared up between the supporters of changing the Constitution (Apruebo) and those who wish to preserve it (Rechazo). Clashes between protesters and Carabineros ensued. The violence has little support among Chileans, however. According to a mid-October survey by Plaza Pública Cadem, a Chilean polling firm, around 73 percent “reject the violence in the protest,” and only 25 percent think “violence is legitimate for achieving social change.”

The October referendum provides an institutional framework and legitimizes mechanisms for resolving the social conflict or at least reduce it. The overwhelming margins of the vote eliminated challenges. According to official results, Apruebo won 78.2 percent, with landslides in all 16 regions of the country, even in conservative and right-wing areas like La Araucanía in the south. Overall, Apruebo won in 341 of the 346 comunas of the country.

  • The vote also showed Chilean people support an elected “Constitutional Convention” (79 percent in favor) to draw up a new Constitution, rather than a “mixed” convention with current members of Congress comprising half its delegates. The convention will have 155 members, with equal amounts of men and women, elected by popular ballot next April.
  • While only 50 percent of eligible voters turned out for the referendum, there is no doubt that the results reflect the preferences of the population. The most votes in Chilean political history were cast, with 7.5 million electors. According to an exit poll by Plaza Pública Cadem, 85 percent of young voters supported Apruebo. In the same poll, supporters said their primary reason was to “guarantee fundamental social rights like health, education and pensions.”
  • Congress is discussing some changes to the Convention scheme approved by the plebiscite, such as assigning a number of “reserved seats” to indigenous, who the last census determined to be 12.8 percent of the Chilean population. There apparently is a consensus to move this reform forward.

The referendum has dealt a peaceful but grievous blow to the legacy of Pinochet 30 years after he left office, and opens the way for Chile to achieve a new social pact. The plebiscite has helped reduce protests and violence in the short term, and it represents the beginning of a long process ushering in a new era for Chile. Between now and the 2022 scheduled date for another referendum on the text of the new Constitution, the country will have to elect delegates, in April, whose work will include between nine and 12 months of debate and negotiation.

  • Meanwhile, President Sebastián Piñera, who steps down in March 2022, has to grapple with the immediate needs and social demands resulting from the pandemic and Chile’s other challenges. He remained neutral in the referendum, but his administration has been seriously weakened by the protests and their aftermath; his support in the polls is about 18 percent. He is trying to reform the Carabineros, pressing it to improve its human rights record and accept greater civilian and democratic control, and he recently replaced the senior commander and the Minister of Home Affairs, but reform implies a radical change in the force’s institutional culture.

November 11, 2020

* Pablo Rubio Apiolaza is a Chilean historian and researcher at the Library of Chilean Congress. Until recently, he was Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University.

Why Are Chile’s Protests Continuing?

By Pablo Rubio Apiolaza*

protests in chile

Protests began in Chile October 2019/ Diego Correa/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chile’s political agreement in November to hold a referendum on the country’s Constitution in April reduced protests for a while, but the underlying causes of discontent – deep-seated frustration among many Chilean citizens – continue to fester and drive an array of peaceful and violent protests. Since November, President Sebastián Piñera has promoted an aggressive social agenda, including raising the minimum wage and improving the pension system. A survey by the Center for Public Studies (CEP) in Santiago in early January, however, found that Piñera’s approval rating was around 6 percent – the lowest of any president since Chile’s return to democracy. By almost all accounts, distrust in the government and anger at the corruption of politicians and corporations remains deep. People want solutions “here and now” to many of their demands. Both peaceful and violent protests have continued through the traditionally quiet summer break.

The mobilizations are not as spontaneous as they were in October and November, according to many observers, but there’s little evidence of a conspiracy to disrupt the referendum agreement.

  • Trade unions and traditional social movements organized under the banner of the Mesa de Unidad Social have become important actors, but new activists have also emerged. The loosely organized “Primera Línea” (front line) has engaged in violent clashes with the Carabineros, mainly in Santiago. Anthropologist Magdalena Claude observed and interviewed some members of Primera Línea in January and called them the “ACAB clan,” borrowing an acronym popularized by British punk rockers proclaiming that All Cops Are Bastards. According to Claude’s research, the group is composed of young workers of the service sector, not members of political parties. They do not have a recognized leadership and organize in horizontal networks.
  • Some conservative Chileans are denouncing the protests as the result of “foreign intervention” and a “coup d’état” provoked by the “extreme left.” They cite as evidence a New York Times report on January 19 that the U.S. State Department estimated that nearly 10 percent of all tweets supporting the October protests originated with Twitter accounts that appeared to have links to Russia. Allegations of foreign intervention by Venezuela and other countries have been endorsed by Chilean Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera and President Piñera. Neither the U.S. nor Chilean government has provided evidence to support any of these claims.

Damage to the government’s credibility and reputation since October seems likely to continue to embolden opponents in the runup to the referendum. Carabinero abuses have been verified and condemned by a host of observers, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and various Chilean organizations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, led by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, has detailed “multiple allegations of torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence by the police against people held in detention.” More than 30 people have died in protests and, although the great majority of the tens of thousands of protestors detained have been released, anger over their arrest is fresh. The government has convened 15 experts to develop recommendations to reform the Carabineros – to enable them to move “forward with urgency the recovery of the public security with absolute respect for human rights” – but challenge of building public trust will be monumental.

  • A prestigious Chilean polling firm, Cadem, reported two weeks ago that 63 percent of the Chilean population approved of the protests and – importantly – 80 percent believe that Chile will be a better country after this critical situation. In any case, the plebiscite in April will take a place in an unstable context, with an uncertain outcome. For the Piñera administration, the challenges seem unlikely to abate, and pressures may surge when the school holidays end in March.

February 19, 2020

* Pablo Rubio Apiolaza is a historian, visiting researcher in the Department of History at Georgetown University, and researcher at the Library of Chilean Congress.