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.

Chile: Can the Constitutional Plebiscite Lead to a New Social Contract?

By Peter M. Siavelis*

An agreement between the Chilean government and opposition to hold a referendum in April on whether to scrap the current Constitution — legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship — has helped reduce tensions throughout the country and signaled that stakeholders are willing to compromise in order to reestablish Chile as a model of stability in a tumultuous region.

  • The most significant, violent, and deadly protests since the end of the Pinochet era exploded in Chile on October 20, after several years of simmering protests and social discontent. The protests, accompanied by looting, attacks on property and infrastructure, and 23 deaths, represented a turning point. Widely billed in the press as sparked by opposition to increased transport fees, this social mobilization represents a much wider demand for a fundamental rewriting of Chile’s prevailing social contract. It shocked the international community and Chileans alike, challenging the idea that Chile was a model of peace and economic development in a regional sea of economic crisis and social conflict.
  • The initial response of center-right President Sebastián Piñera’s government only created more conflict. Calling protestors delinquents and terrorists, and contending the country was at war with itself, he conjured uncomfortable parallels with the dictatorship. Widespread evidence of human rights abuses by police and security forces reinforced these parallels.

Piñera eventually bowed to public and elite pressure and announced a set of immediate reforms, including boosting the minimum wage and pension payments, cutting the price of medicines, lowering public transportation costs, slashing electricity prices, implementing higher taxes for the rich, and reducing the salary of members of congress, who are the highest paid in the region. For the longer term, Piñera acquiesced — one month after the initial explosion of protests — to a process to potentially scrap Chile’s 1980 Constitution, which was also the target of protesters’ ire. The agreement, dubbed acuerdo por la paz y una nueva constitución, grew from intense negotiations between the government and political parties. It was approved in Congress by a wide margin (127 in favor, 18 against, and 5 abstentions).

  • The legislation establishes that on April 26 a nationwide plebiscite will ask Chileans whether they want a new constitution and how it is to be drafted, with two simple questions: if the voter wants a new constitution, and, if so, if the voter prefers a “Constitutional Convention” or a “Mixed Constitutional Convention.” The former will entail a constituent assembly of citizens elected by the population, and the latter a body of one-half members of Parliament and one-half private citizens.
  • Most polling shows over 80 percent of Chileans in favor of a new constitution, and a large majority of those preferring a constitutional convention — an indication of the low regard in which Chilean politicians are held by the public. Whatever mechanism is eventually used, a second plebiscite will be held at a date to be determined for ratification of the new constitution.

The agreement left elements of both sides dissatisfied. The right grudgingly accepted the arrangement, but its more extreme elements remained concerned that a Constitutional Convention will establish social guarantees similar to those of Venezuelan Chavismo and undermine social peace and Chile’s development. More progressive signatories of the agreement added their support, thrilled at the prospects of doing away with the authoritarian constitution, but were concerned it did not go far enough to offer guarantees of gender parity or reserve representation for Indigenous groups and independents.  The Communist Party and a smattering of small parties refused to sign because they wanted deeper reforms.

For now, the immediate reforms and the acuerdo have calmed the pace and tenor of protests, and most accounts point to a peaceful plebiscite in April. This constitutional moment is a big one for Chile. Given the government’s recognition of the severity of the crisis, there is no reason to doubt its sincerity to make the plebiscite go smoothly and provide a framework for moving peaceably forward. If the plebiscite is successful, Chileans will achieve what was nowhere on the horizon only months ago: a definitive end to the Pinochet constitution, one of the dictatorship’s most objectionable legacies. This change will be followed by a reconfiguration of Chile’s fundamental social pact and reforms to its extreme form of neoliberalism, which has created staggering economic and social inequality at the root of these protests. However, for Chile to reestablish its status as model of economic development and social peace, it will have to walk a careful line between reform between competing interests and reestablish some sense of order and predictability after what undoubtedly has been Chile’s most significant social convulsion since the end of the dictatorship. The strength of Chile’s democratic institutions and its political class — which is fundamentally different than others in the region in terms of political skill, respect for the rule of law, and relative probity enhances the possibilities that the country will be able to walk this line.  

January 9, 2020

* Peter M. Siavelis is Chair and Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs, and Associate Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University. His most recent edited book on Chile, with Kirsten Sehnbruch, is Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition.

Latin America: Total Chaos?

By Carlos Malamud*

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South American Presidents waving to the cameras in Santiago, Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Democracy and democratic values are in crisis throughout South and Central America, but the causes – and solutions – vary across the region, with rays of hope that at least some countries will find their way forward. The Bolivian elections, plagued by suspicions of fraud, reflect some of the problems that affect all of Latin America. The previously unbeaten President Evo Morales, in government since 2006, has now shown his limits and, even if his election is confirmed, will govern without the parliamentary majorities he enjoyed in the past.

  • Latin America witnessed violent protests almost simultaneously in Ecuador and Chile; Mexico blinked during a confrontation with the son of narcotics kingpin Chapo Guzmán; the Congress was dissolved in Peru; an ex-President in the Dominican Republic denounced as fraudulent the primary election he lost and joined another party to be its candidate; and a massive exodus continued pouring out of Venezuela, whose crisis is terminal but without an expiration date.
  • The Argentine and Uruguayan elections on October 27 marked the end of a three-year cycle of elections during which 14 countries voted to elect or re-elect their presidents. Speculation was originally that a swing to the right would counteract the Bolivarianism of the previous swing to the left. That shift never happened. In its place, a more heterogeneous and divided Latin America emerged, reflected in the outcome of the Argentine and Uruguayan elections, and in the not-insignificant fact that Mexico is governed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador while Brazil, the other regional power, has Jair Bolsonaro.

The causes of this wave of divisiveness are the subject of different theories. Many observers speak of a Castro-Chavista conspiracy, orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the leftist São Paulo Forum. Others think it’s a popular reaction to the drastic adjustment programs of the IMF. Yet others argue about a contagion factor and the impact of social networks, which enable real-time communication and the transfer of vivid images of events. Nonetheless, any theory that tries to harness all of these theories will be flawed because each national reality is responding to different logic and dynamics.

  • All of the countries of the region are experiencing inequality, poverty, corruption, violence and narco-trafficking, unhappiness with democracy and its institutions, rejection of politicians, and the impact of the “new politics” of social media and fake news. But they are not present to the same proportions.
  • Neoliberal, Bolivarian, and populist governments are all suffering from rebellions. The Chilean protests over transportation fees under neoliberal President Piñera were preceded by protests in Brazil in 2013 under progressive President Dilma Rousseff. If Piñera resorts to military force to stop the protests, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did something similar in 2018, killing more than 300. The IMF might have been behind the reduction of fuel subsidies in Ecuador, but it had no role in Chile. While elections went as normal in Argentina and Uruguay, in Bolivia, like in Venezuela, the allegations of fraud have been constant.

The solutions to each country’s challenges will have to be as different as their causes. While one country needs deeper economic adjustment, another needs to fix its political institutions. Each is going to have to find its way through the crises. Latin America will find little solace, moreover, in the fact that this high level of conflict is not exclusive to its region. From Hong Kong to Cataluña, or in Libya and Lebanon, similar challenges are disrupting national life.

  • Amid the many indications that representative or liberal democracy is under direct attack – that we may be facing the end of an era with potentially dire implications – some positive notes are visible in Latin America. In addition to the orderly contests in Argentina and Uruguay, the local and regional elections in Colombia in late October were an effective exercise in democracy – won by the center and lost by the extremes. Uribismo on the right and Gustavo Petro on the left were the big losers. The emerging symbol was Claudia López, the first woman elected mayor of Bogotá, who is also a lesbian, environmentalist, and leader against corruption. The path ahead is certainly not going to be easy for Latin America, but there is evidence that, with a big dose of tolerance and respect for each other’s reality, Latin Americans can do a lot better.

November 5, 2019

* Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid. A version of this article originally was published as Turbulencias latinoamericanas in El Clarín of Buenos Aires.

Brazil: How Long the Nightmare?

By Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira 

Current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shaking hands with former President Michel Temer

Jair Bolsonaro (right) meeting with former Brazilian President Michel Temer (left)/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/micheltemer/45044560194

The decline of Brazil’s democratic culture since 2013 has thrust the country into nightmarish times from which only its ample civil society, if mobilized, can rescue it. The media daily reveal evidence that many Brazilians now celebrate violence, irrationality, torture, racism, and the demeaning of education, science and culture. We are witnesses to a blend of authoritarianism and radical economic liberalism, explicit subordination to the United States, and abnormality and evil.

  • Many Brazilians long nostalgically for the 20 years behind us, when two parties – one left- and another right-of-center – alternated as incumbents. They were subject to hits and misses, achieved good and bad outcomes. Each side swore that its policies and results were the best, but they were democratic, and they knew the meaning and rules of politics. Until 2013, politics was not a bitter fight between enemies that hated each other, but a compassionate fight between mutually respectful adversaries.

The two adversaries were the Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and the Workers’ Party (PT) – one standing for liberal orthodoxy, the other for distributive orthodoxy. The former put its chips on the markets, the latter on industrial policy. The PT achieved greater growth because it increased public investment and benefitted from the commodities boom of the 2000s, but the two administrations fell into the macroeconomic trap of high interest rates and an appreciated exchange rate that prevented private-sector investment.

  • On the fiscal level, after the financial crisis of 1998, the two administrations posted satisfactory primary surpluses up until 2013. Crisis in 2014 changed all that. Commodities prices plunged; a fiscal crisis ended surpluses and caused a large primary deficit; manufacturing firms were unable to turn a profit because of an overvalued real that flooded the domestic market with imports and caused excessive corporate indebtedness.

The political crisis might have been resolved or partly addressed if the opposition had won in 2014. The reelection of President Dilma Rousseff deepened it instead as her new term began with no support whatsoever from the economic elites.

  • During his brief period as Minister of Finance, Nelson Barbosa attempted to counter the fiscal crisis with a sharp current-spending cut, while increasing investment. Instead, the country returned to an absurd procyclical policy that persists to this day and keeps unemployment at unacceptable levels.
  • These mistakes were the fruit of the deep political crisis that since 2013 put hatred at the heart of political life. Although classic liberalism is defined by tolerance and some level of relativism concerning truth in politics, a form of intolerant liberalism emerged among the liberals, and Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (president in 2003-2010) and the PT were turned into enemies, even if they were simply adversaries. The leaders of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigations took advantage of this hatred for self-promotion. Michel Temer, vice president under Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, took advantage of it to take over, using his “A Bridge to the Future” plan as an instrument. President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office on January 1 this year, harnessed the hatred to win last year’s elections, while relying on economist and investment banker Paulo Guedes as an assurance of a neoliberal economic policy.

For nine months, governmentlessness has resulted, with little or no prospect of a return to right-of-center liberalism or left-of-center developmentalism. Brazil does not appear headed back to the path of normalcy and a healthy alternation of moderate and democratic parties. Brazilians do not know where they are headed, but one thing for sure is that the rule of law and democracy are facing very severe risks. Only a far-right minority truly identifies with the incumbent administration’s policies. But Brazil’s civil society is already well organized, with a working class, a middle class, and a varied and qualitative business class. These are the assets that could help the country overcome the nightmare into which it has plunged. 

September 24, 2019

* Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira is emeritus professor of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, has served as government minister in several Brazilian administrations, and is author of numerous books and articles catalogued at www.bresserpereira.org.br.

 

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Brazil: Will Officers’ Role in Government Taint the Military Institution?

By Christoph Harig*

President and Vice President of Brazil

Vice-President General Hamilton Mourão and President Jair Bolsonaro / Pedro França / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

More military officers have joined Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government than during most periods of the country’s last military regime (1964-1985), which raises the question how much the military – as an institution – will avoid compromising its supposed non-partisan nature.  The President, Vice-President, as well as eight government ministers, are retired or reserve military officers.  Bolsonaro furthermore nominated an active-duty army general as the government spokesperson.  In total, more than 100 reserve and active-duty military personnel serve in various ministries and subordinate government agencies.  Some officers have joined out of true allegiance, others, out of a sense of duty or because they want to prevent worse things from happening.  The government is drawing heavily on individual (mostly reserve) military officers, but the military as an institution is not running the government.  This is not a return to the military’s previous political interventionism: instead, a democratically elected government is (re)militarizing politics.

  • The military’s official discourse is keen on maintaining its image as a non-partisan state institution. However, officers are aware that this will be a challenge.  The presence of dozens of reserve officers in government agencies irrevocably connects the armed forces to the administration.  Although many officers do have reservations about Bolsonaro, others have proudly displayed their satisfaction with the victory of the former paratrooper.  Many citizens and international observers will thus perceive the government’s actions as being at least implicitly backed by the military.
  • For the armed forces, this involvement comes with opportunities as well as risks. On the one hand, there is a considerable increase in the military’s veto power.  They can expect privileged treatment and an effective representation of their interests.  The military might for instance be able to draw some red lines when it comes to being included in the government’s planned pension reform.  On the other hand, the prominent role in Bolsonaro’s administration attracts unwanted public scrutiny.  Discontent with an eventual preferential treatment of the armed forces in the pensions reform might grow louder than if the military had stayed below the radar.

So far, military officers’ involvement in government appears to have boosted the military’s standing.  The generals are widely being seen as a moderating force.  They have blocked some controversial foreign policy proposals of Bolsonaro and the radical wing of the government, such as the move of the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or the establishment of a U.S. military base on Brazilian soil.  Some observers even suggest that the generals have established a tutelary role in foreign policy after the Minister of Foreign Affairs ended military cooperation with Venezuela without consulting the armed forces.

  • Particularly Vice-President General Mourão – once known for threatening military intervention in politics and even considered a liability during the election campaign due to several ill-considered statements – excels in his newly found role as “adult in the room.” As President Bolsonaro is stuck in polarizing campaign mode (for instance, he keeps on attacking Brazil’s press and recently lauded late Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner as great statesman), it is fairly easy for Mourão to present himself as pragmatic and reliable statesman.  In this role, he led Brazil’s delegation to the Lima Group meeting in Bogotá, where he clarified that Brazil would not support a military intervention in Venezuela.

In the long run, the impact of officers’ enhanced policymaking role on the military’s prestige will depend on whether they stay clear of blunders, failures, and scandals.  While the military officers in government might succeed in playing a moderating role for the time being, this development entails considerable risks.  Within and outside of the barracks, there already is a widespread perception of the military as savior that is supposed to rescue Brazil in times of extreme crisis.  This historically grown paternalistic role of high levels of political interventionism – in which allegedly competent armed forces save the nation from incompetent civilian politicians – will only become further entrenched.

March 6, 2019

*Christoph Harig is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Political Science at the Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg, Germany.

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

Honduras: Will Political Reforms Go Anywhere?

Honduras Highway Sign

Honduras by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images / Picserver.org / Creative Commons

By Eugenio Sosa*

Honduras’s long-running political crisis and the realignment of its political parties have given rise to broad discussion of political and electoral reforms, but resistance from the political parties – including the relatively new Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) Party – appears likely to stymie significant change.  Honduran civil society groups increasingly believe that only through political and electoral reforms will the country move toward democracy.  Holding elections is an important starting point, reform advocates say, but deepening democracy requires reducing the monopoly of the political parties.  The configuration of the parties has changed significantly since the coup d’état in June 2009; the century-old “bipartisanship” of the National and Liberal Parties has been shaken up and become more volatile.  LIBRE has moved to the front line, and smaller players, like the Partido Anticorrupción (PAC), have faded.  Reformers argue that this realignment affords the country an opportunity to undertake reforms that cut across the country’s institutions and processes.

  • Depoliticizing the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and making it a truly independent and autonomous body to supervise elections. The current TSE has fallen far short of its legal requirements to ensure, without prejudice, to enfranchise all citizens. 
  • Professionalizing and depoliticizing the National Registry of Persons – removing the partisan activists who dominate it today and directing it to issue identification cards without political influence. Observers agree that 30 percent of voters on the current lists have deceased or left the country.  Other citizens’ names have been mysteriously dropped from voter rolls or been lost while changing domicile.  Similarly, the country needs a complete, honest census.
  • Allowing regular citizens to staff election tables in polling places. They should be chosen based on clear criteria, such as their contributions to society.  In 2013 and 2017, credentials were being bought and sold with party funds, totally undermining observers’ credibility.
  • Establishing second round balloting when no candidate wins an absolute majority. The country’s shift away from a two-party system has significantly increased the chance that a president would be elected with a percentage of votes below the abstention rate.  A runoff between the top two candidates will give the victor greater legitimacy.

Other important reforms are receiving less attention.  Laws on transparency and accountability in campaign finances, such as the Law on Clean Politics implemented in 2017, have not had significant results so far, but discussion of ways to give them teeth has been limited.  Neither is there much talk about how the incumbent candidate benefits from access to public resources, including access to the national networks, or about the biases of privately owned media, which slant coverage and charge different rates for advertising depending on their preferences.  Guarantees of political participation by sectors traditionally excluded from representation and government, such as women, the indigenous, and youth, are also largely off the table.

The urgency for reform, obvious since the coup in June 2009, has surged since the contested elections in November 2017, during which the Constitutional Court decided in favor of the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández in the face of evidence of electoral fraud.  Honduras is now living the paradox of a President serving a second term that is still prohibited by the Constitution.  Some issues, such as re-election, demand serious national debate and may have to be resolved by plebiscite or through a National Constituent Assembly.

  • Despite the broad base of the organizations proposing reforms, the success of any initiatives will depend on the views, limitations, and vetoes imposed by the three main parties. Even LIBRE, the newcomer that previously challenged the status quo, sometimes appears to be buying into existing systems and could go soft on reform.  As a result, one possible outcome could be that certain reforms are implemented in form – such as modernization of the National Registry of Persons – but the parties retain their influence over the office’s magistrates and personnel.  In addition, neither of the three main political forces appears interested in allowing authentic citizen control over voting tables on election day. 
  • While the need for reform is arguably deeper than at any time since the current Constitution was approved in 1982, and while the proposals for moving forward are constructive and mature, the prospects for change appear limited. The configuration of the country’s political parties has changed, but their priorities and behavior have not. 

January 22, 2019

*Eugenio Sosa is a sociologist and senior analyst at the Centro de Estudio para la Democracia (CESPAD), in Tegucigalpa.  This article is adapted from his essay on the CESPAD website.