Latin American Democratic Crises Prolonged, Not Averted

By Ben Purper, Blogger for Latin American Affairs

The three days spanning the end of March and the beginning of April 2017 were a dramatic time for Latin American democracies. First, on March 30, there was the suspension of Venezuela’s primary representative body, the National Assembly. International and Venezuelan observers alike declared the act a ‘coup,’ convinced that the National Assembly was the only obstacle to a full-blown dictatorship in Venezuela. Then, two days later, President Nicolas Maduro seemingly succumbed to international pressure and reinstated the country’s representative body, showing the world that there was still some life in the long-struggling Venezuelan democracy.

However, advocates of Latin American democracy had no time to celebrate, as democracy was under attack elsewhere in South America; on March 31, the Paraguayan Senate approved a constitutional amendment allowing President Horacio Cartes to seek re-election. The move immediately raised alarm bells in a country still haunted by the 35-year-long dictatorship of President Alfredo Stroessner (in power from 1954 to 1989). The amendment, like the dissolution of the National Assembly in Venezuela, was eventually reversed after widespread condemnation; however, both incidents show that democratic institutions in these two countries are dangerously close to collapse.

The precariousness of the situation in both Paraguay and Venezuela is bolstered by violent street protests in both nation’s capitals. In Asunción, Paraguay following the vote to allow re-election, protesters set fire to Paraguay’s Congress building, capturing international headlines and injuring 30 people in the process. The following days saw widespread protests and several deaths in Asunción, which have continued despite the Paraguayan Congress’ decision to reverse the vote. In Venezuela’s capital Caracas, protests have occurred almost daily since the controversy began, again despite the president’s reversal. As the BBC reports: “Despite dozens of people being killed in protest-related violence, the demonstrations show little sign of abating.”

What do these developments mean for democracy in Latin America? Following similar developments, such as the Honduras coup d’état of 2009, these events challenge the notion of regional democratic consolidation. Even if Paraguay and Venezuela do not slide into total dictatorship, neither will qualify as legitimate democracies in the eyes of other Latin American states and the rest of the world. This serves as an impediment to the kind of Latin American unity necessary for the preservation of regional trading and security blocs MERCOSUR and UNASUR – organizations Paraguay and Venezuela both belonged to for several years before Venezuela was removed from MERCOSUR in late 2016 for violating the bloc’s democratic bylaws. Setbacks such as this stall the movement towards Latin American political and economic integration that underpins both organizations.

The human toll of these crises will also continue to increase. Human rights in both countries, most notably the rights to expression and protest, have already almost completely eroded. In Venezuela, a political crisis is coupled with a humanitarian one, as the country’s economic crisis continues to push Venezuelans out of their home country and into neighboring Colombia. Even worse, many observers are warning that Venezuela’s conflict could turn into a civil war if Maduro is not removed, a development that would only multiply the human suffering on the ground in Venezuela.

However, this darkest of outcomes is not inevitable; as both governments’ willingness to reverse controversial anti-democratic decisions show, they are vulnerable to a combination of sustained international and domestic pressure. If human rights groups, foreign leaders, and domestic constituents in both Paraguay and Venezuela keep up the pressure, they may diffuse both countries’ crises before it is too late.

Benjamin Purper recently graduated from the University of Redlands, where he studied International Relations and Instrumental Performance.