The World

Latin America’s New Authoritarianism

Venezuela’s flawed election is the latest in a regional shift away from democracy.

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro greets international observers for the election at the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday.
Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro greets international observers for the election at the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday.
Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Despite Venezuela’s people starving and refugees pouring out of the country, President Nicolás Maduro will stay in office for now. In a deeply flawed election marred by low voter turnout and opposition abstention, Maduro bested his opponents with nearly 70 percent of the vote. With his re-election, dictatorship is on the march in Latin America for the first time in a generation.

Democracy in Latin America has taken a beating over the past century. Every country in the region has toyed with it and periodically discarded it. But with the exception of Cuba, every Latin American country also returned to democracy in recent decades, marking a sea change in freedom and political competition. As recently as a few years ago, some expressed optimism that the end of dictatorship in Latin America was nigh.

But the seeds of a return to dictatorship were sown in Latin America’s most recent transitions to democracy. Nearly all of the region’s current democracies were founded by outgoing authoritarian regimes that set up institutions in ways that would favor them and restrict responsiveness to the majority of citizens. Disturbingly, research I have conducted indicates that since 1900, members of the top echelon of former authoritarian regimes in Latin America have been four times more likely to return to political office or win influential economic positions under democracy than to be punished for their misdeeds under dictatorship. 

In the 2000s, many voters were willing to overlook the flaws of democracy as a massive commodity boom swept over the region. From 2000–10, some 49 million people climbed out of poverty into the middle class in Latin America. Incomes rose dramatically, even as inequality in many countries remained stubbornly high. Leftist leaders rode the commodity boom in what became known as the “pink tide”, spending freely on social programs and infrastructure projects to voters’ delight.

But the party ended with the commodity bust in 2015 through 2016. Leaders were found swimming naked when the tide went out: During the boom years, they had failed to use spending to improve education, diversify commodity-reliant economies, or boost economic competitiveness. On top of that, governments overspent and engaged in all sorts of corrupt deal-making.

Many middle-class citizens in the region began to sink back into poverty. Economic elites became stained by revelations of endemic corruption on a massive scale. Fed up with an inability to improve their lot or get their voices heard, and amid a backdrop of deteriorating economies and sky-high inequality, citizens began to turn to populist strongmen who promised to shake things up.

The Venezuelan election was a hallmark of creeping authoritarianism in Latin America. From 1999 through 2013, former president Hugo Chávez exploited popular disgust at unresponsive and elite-driven politics to revamp Venezuela’s political institutions in his favor, pack the courts, and leverage state resources to dominate his opposition for almost a decade. But his hand-picked successor, Maduro, quickly abolished what little remained of Venezuelan democracy. Thanks to falling oil prices, Maduro lost access to Chávez’s war chest, which had been used to fund popular social programs. With electoral victory unlikely, and after several years of weak leadership and predictions of his imminent downfall, in the past year he has rolled out the security forces to repress popular protests, jailed the most threatening opposition candidates, and pushed aside the National Assembly.

The result is an economy in free fall. Hyperinflation has decimated wages, there are widespread food shortages, preventable diseases are ravaging the population, and more than 10 percent of the population has simply packed up and left. Yet Maduro is stronger than ever politically: His alliance with the military is rock-solid, the opposition is divided, former elites have been systematically hounded and expropriated, and he successfully convened a rubber-stamp constituent assembly.

Other leaders in the region are taking notes as Venezuela’s slide back into dictatorship has gone unchecked. Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, bolstered in his first term by frothy agricultural-commodity prices, has steamrolled his political opposition and reformed the constitution to stay in office indefinitely as economic fortunes turned. His family has systematically bought up major media outlets to silence opposing voices. And his security forces killed dozens of students in a protest over social security last month.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is also taking the authoritarian cues as he remakes Bolivian society. In 2016, he lost a popular referendum that would have allowed him to run for re-election a fourth time, but then got his wish anyway by pressuring the constitutional court to rule in his favor. His argument: that his human rights would be violated if he weren’t allowed to run.

Meanwhile, dictatorship is alive and well in Cuba. For the first time since the revolution, last month marked a transfer of power to a non-Castro. Yet the new boss is the same as the old boss: a faithful servant of the Castros and the Communist Party.

Peru and Brazil are also flirting with anti-democratic politics. Peru’s disloyal opposition saved its president from impeachment in December in a devil’s-pact exchange for freeing a former dictator. The president went down just weeks later in a corruption scandal tied to the Brazilian conglomerate Obredecht. Brazil impeached its president in 2016 in what was widely viewed as an illegitimate power play by the opposition. And last month it imprisoned Lula da Silva, a former president loathed by the right who was also the odds-on favorite for beating the right in Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections. Lula had refashioned Brazilian politics in the 2000s, bolstered by oil revenue from the state giant Petrobras, only to later be tied to the enormous Lava Jato corruption scandal involving Petrobras, Obredecht, and other firms.

What might staunch the Latin American lurch toward dictatorship? Some prominent figures are calling for a well-timed coup in Venezuela. But if there has been anything more prevalent than dictatorship in Latin America in the past century, it has been coups, and the mere suggestion of U.S. interference is anathema throughout the region. These coups have rarely led to more democratic outcomes.

The real barriers to successful democracy in Latin America are the imperfect, elite-biased foundations of democracy itself that were crafted to protect figures from the last batch of outgoing authoritarian regimes. What Latin America needs most are committed democrats who seek to rewrite social contracts in ways that are responsive to the majority without trampling the rule of law, due process, and prudent leadership. Rulers like Maduro are a far cry from passing that test.