This month, readers of The Atlantic were treated to a lengthy article documenting alarming threats to democracy in certain Latin American countries with progressive and leftist heads of government. The piece, written by Kurt Weyland and titled “Why Latin America is Becoming Less Democratic,” is riddled with significant errors and mischaracterizations. Perhaps even worse, editors at The Atlantic didn’t make clear that the article was first published in a “journal” that is funded by the U.S. government.
The original article was published in the Journal of Democracy, which has long focused on providing analysis to justify U.S. government intervention abroad. The Journal of Democracy is an official publication of the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) International Forum for Democratic Studies. Although nominally a “nongovernmental” organization, the NED receives most of its funding from the U.S. Congress. In 1991, Allen Weinstein, who helped found the NED and then became its acting president, told the Washington Post, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA" .
Some examples of the NED’s work include using U.S. government resources to fund groups and individuals involved in the short-lived 2002 coup d’état in Venezuela, and two years later funding organizers of the recall effort against then-president Hugo Chávez. One of the NED’s core grantees is the International Republican Institute, which played a major role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Haiti in 2004.
These are just a few examples that highlight the NED’s disreputable history in Latin America, which would take far more space than a blog post to tell. While it clearly would have been worth noting the source of the article, the article itself is full of both factual errors and egregious mischaracterizations. To keep this post brief, I’ll only review a few of the most egregious errors here.
- Weyland writes: “Since the third wave reached Latin America in 1978, the region had seen only occasional threats and temporary interruptions of democracy in individual nations.”
- Weyland writes that “Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina (2007-), whose fervent supporters take inspiration from Chávez, is eyeing constitutional changes and renewed reelection.”
- “That Venezuela had already fallen under nondemocratic rule was confirmed in October 2012 by Chávez’s unfair reelection, achieved with the help of intimidation tactics, tight restrictions on the opposition, and the massive misuse of the state apparatus.”
- “With its electoral façade and progressive rhetoric about helping the excluded, the soft authoritarianism that is taking hold in parts of Latin America has an attractive face.”
- “As soon as [Chávez] was elected president of Venezuela, he set about revamping the country’s institutional framework. First, he called a constituent assembly.”
- “[Ecuadorean president Rafael] Correa also seized on a 2010 police rebellion—painted by him as a coup attempt—as a pretext for cracking down on independent social and political forces.”
- “Bypassing or subjugating intermediate institutions such as firmly organized parties, the leader—often a charismatic figure—establishes face-to-face contact with large number of citizens. In earlier decades, mass rallies were crucial; now-a-days, television allows populists to reach their followers ‘in person.’ Chávez hosted a regular Sunday talk show.”
- “In Bolivia, the Morales government shut the opposition out of decisive stages of the constitution drafting process.”
This statement is only reasonable if one completely ignores the U.S. government’s role in the region, which constituted a threat to democracy that was neither “temporary” nor limited to “individual nations.” Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. conducted a massive and well-organized campaign, especially in Central America, using Cold War pretexts to install and support leaders who would foster favorable conditions for U.S. business interests.
In Nicaragua, the campaign involved massive illegal military aid to the contra paramilitary forces who used those weapons to kill health care workers, teachers and elected officials in their fight against the democratically-elected Sandinista government, bringing condemnation from the World Court, as well as Amnesty International, Americas Watch and other human rights groups and international bodies.
At the same time, the U.S.-backed Guatemalan General José Efraín Ríos Montt, massacred and tortured the people of Guatemala -- with U.N. estimates indicating over 200,000 were killed or disappeared in acts of genocide. The same Cold War premise of fighting “communists” was used to justify large-scale atrocities in El Salvador and Honduras. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the U.S. supported brutal dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Brazil, and other countries, and militarily invaded Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). More recently, of course, the U.S. supported coups in Venezuela, Honduras and Haiti.
It could not be more clear that democracy in Latin America is threatened and actually has been compromised on many occasions by the U.S.’s foreign policy, especially in the post-1978 period that Weyland names. Rewriting history to minimize and erase these events serves the interests of U.S. government, so it is perhaps no surprise that publications like the Journal of Democracy carry out this work diligently, but when government propaganda makes its way into independent publications like The Atlantic without comment, it is cause for alarm, especially when there are numerous factual errors.
Fact check: President Cristina Fernández has not said anything to this effect. She has proposed constitutional amendments focused on reforms to the judiciary, and she has already addressed the Argentine congress specifically, saying that she is not planning to pursue reforms that would allow her to run for a third consecutive term. Weyland would be right in noting that some of her supporters floated the idea of a third term, but Weyland’s claim as written is simply not true. If this seems like a minor point, consider that Honduran ex-president Manuel Zelaya’s support for a non-binding referendum on a constituent assembly was misreported in the media as a bid to extend his presidency, and this was used both within Honduras and internationally as a justification for his removal. Weyland perpetuates this myth, saying that Zelaya “was stopped” before he could “boost the presidency’s powers and pave the way toward indefinite reelection to that office.” By falsely presenting the coup that removed Zelaya as an event that forestalled a nondemocratic turn, and saying nothing about events following the coup, Weyland turns the reality of the coup upside down.
The 2012 elections in Venezuela were declared free and fair by election accompanying groups and by monitors such as the Carter Center, which noted that “the whole opposition leadership, including, most importantly, Capriles himself, unequivocally reject those claims [of election fraud favoring Chávez], stating that the results reflected the will of the electorate.” Journalists and human rights watchers monitoring the electoral process praised the system while giving detailed reports about what they saw.
In sweeping statements such as this one, Weyland casts doubt on both the electoral victories and the policies of progressive and left governments in Latin America. He suggests that the people’s will is not represented in the official outcomes of national elections, and even if left-wing politicians seem popular that is because they trick and/or intimidate citizens and do not deliver on promises to the poor and other disenfranchised sectors of society.
Actually, these are not elections whose legitimacy is seriously questioned by any but those on the extreme right. And the implication that progressive and left governments are limiting their policies to “progressive rhetoric,” is absurd. The overall trend in the countries that have elected progressive and left leaders has been the enactment of policy alternatives to neoliberalism, and their effect has been large reductions in income inequality, a reduction in poverty, and provision of health care, education and important services to many people who previously could not access them. These policies have included reforming and regulating the financial sector in Ecuador, investing oil profits into social missions in Venezuela, and successfully managing a large financial crisis and debt default in Argentina -- resulting in only one quarter of negative economic growth followed by nine years of some of the highest growth in the region.
Weyland’s reference to an “electoral façade” betrays the central goal of the NED: when Washington’s candidates don’t win, often the elections are depicted as illegitimate and sometimes the electoral process is attacked – as seen with the most recent Venezuelan election, or with the U.S.’ interference, via the OAS, in Haiti’s last presidential election.
Weyland’s claims here come after stating that “graver and more sustained danger is coming from the leftist variant” of populism than the rightist version, but is the Venezuelan constituent assembly really evidence of anti-democratic tendencies? No again. Calling for a constituent assembly was exactly what Venezuelans elected Chávez to do. Ending the ossified political arrangement known as “Punto Fijo” – in which political parties routinely alternated in and out of power - and calling a constituent assembly were key campaign promises he made ahead of the 1998 elections. Chávez was fulfilling his campaign promises– a much more infrequent phenomenon in the U.S.
Many observers both in and outside of Ecuador characterize the events of September 30, 2010 as an attempted coup d’état: after assaulting him with tear gas, rebelling police officers later held the president hostage in the hospital where he was being treated. The coup attempt was condemned as such by presidents and representatives of UNASUR, foreign dignitaries such as the president of Spain, and the OAS. Weyland and The Journal of Democracy may be taking the U.S. government’s line, one of the few countries that declined to recognize the events as a coup attempt, even though then-Secretary of State Clinton did issue a statement expressing “our full support for President Rafael Correa.”
Calling for respect of “firmly organized parties” in Venezuela in the context of Chávez’s rise in politics obscures that one of the central political problems in Venezuela during the 90s was deep distrust in the main political parties and their “Punto Fijo” arrangement, which Robinson describes as a polyarchic system.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that President Obama has a weekly address on YouTube, and yet he is not derided as an illegitimate president because of his use of social media. Presidents and major politicians all over the world have Twitter and Facebook accounts that they use to communicate with constituents, and many even make appearances on talk shows. Is such “face-to-face contact” somehow nefarious?
Weyland is again telling only half the story, which in this case is worse than none. The truth is that opposition legislators boycotted stages of the constitution drafting process because they disagreed with the direction in which things were going. Bolivia had elected its first indigenous president, with massive support from the country’s social movements, and he was facilitating a transformation of society to one in which a racial minority and tiny elite did not wield power over the majority of Bolivians. Evo Morales’s election drew comparisons to the end of apartheid in South Africa with the election of Nelson Mandela, and the new constitution was compared to the Freedom Charter.
It is not surprising that extreme elements in the opposition boycotted the process of approving a new constitution that cemented the rights of the indigenous majority, and it is misleading to describe these events as a “populist” power-grab.
This has been a brief review of some major claims that Weyland uses in arguing his point, namely that “democracy in the region is facing a sustained, coordinated authoritarian threat” from the progressive and left governments in Latin America. I have detailed not only mischaracterizations and significant omissions, but also argued for more independence in the practice of journalism. One of the responsibilities of a well-functioning press is to clearly indicate when articles are reused from sources funded mostly by the U.S. government.
 Ignatius, David. “Innocence Abroad: The New World of Spyless Coups.” The Washington Post. Sep 22, 1991: C1. Print.