Across Latin America, citizens and governments are clashing over their countries’ authoritarian pasts

Supporters of Pedro Castillo, who narrowly defeated right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori in Peru's presidential election last month, protest in Lima on July 6 over the delay in announcing the final outcome of the vote. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)
Supporters of Pedro Castillo, who narrowly defeated right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori in Peru's presidential election last month, protest in Lima on July 6 over the delay in announcing the final outcome of the vote. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

In recent months, Chile rejected its political establishment as it convenes a constituent assembly for a new constitution. Anti-government protests and organizing continue to roil Colombia and put its conservative president on the defensive. And a presidential election in Peru delivered a win for a leftist outsider of the likes the country has not seen in 40 years.

Latin America is undergoing a resurgence of leftism. Some analysts are calling it a revival of the “pink tide” of the early 2000s, when many Latin American countries elected leftist leaders. But rather than run-of-the-mill instability or political flip-flopping, recent events reflect the region’s continued struggle with its authoritarian past.

The formerly jailed politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is set to challenge Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s 2022 presidential election, and leftist presidents preside in Mexico and Argentina. Leftist remnants from the 2000s — notably Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua — remain firmly in power. And neoliberal economic policies are under fire across the region as countries grapple with the covid-19 pandemic.

Many countries struggle with remnants of their authoritarian pasts

In my book with Victor Menaldo, “Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy,” we gathered data on the constitutional origins of all democracies around the globe from 1800 until the 2000s. We found that most new democracies, as well as many long-standing ones, operate under constitutions written by the previous authoritarian regime. Since World War II, over two-thirds of countries that transitioned to democracy retained an authoritarian-era constitution.

Why does this matter? It shows how authoritarian-era elites in most democracies continue to exert their influence years — even decades — after they leave office through biased rulemaking and policymaking. We found that when elites from the authoritarian past retain political and economic influence, public policy and decision-making systematically favor elites over the vast majority of the population. This means social safety nets are shoddy, inequality is rife and government power is restricted.

That’s what seems to be happening in Latin America today. Many elites from the authoritarian past, as well as their children and ideological successors, continue to hold substantial power.

Chile’s protesters want to roll back authoritarian influences

Chile continues to operate under the authoritarian constitution that Gen. Augusto Pinochet imposed in 1980. Pinochet embedded broad protections for himself and his allies in the constitution that guided the country’s democratic transition in 1990. The constitution gave military figures critical Senate seats, banned extreme-left parties, granted amnesty to Pinochet and other generals and created an electoral system that favored conservative interests. Although there were progressive reforms in the 2000s, many Chileans believe their constitution broadly favors conservative elites, the military and business.

Forging a new social contract was at the heart of protests that roiled the country starting in 2019. The conservative government of Sebastián Piñera, which has ideological and personal links to the Pinochet government, was forced to concede to a referendum on a new constitution. The government lost in dramatic fashion as voters overwhelmingly backed a new constitutional project.

And then in May, leftist parties and independents swept the establishment in elections for delegates to the constituent assembly. The ruling conservative party failed to gain enough seats in the constituent assembly to block major change. Chile is poised for a true reckoning with its authoritarian past.

Peru’s election was a reckoning with its authoritarian past

Peru’s presidential election last month also reflects a battle against a previous authoritarian period. The election pitted two controversial candidates from opposite ends of the political spectrum against each other: Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Castillo. That made for one of the most contentious presidential elections in Peru in decades.

Fujimori is a right-wing champion of open markets. She is the daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori and herself a former first lady (her father was unmarried when he gave her that designation). Keiko Fujimori has come under repeated fire over corruption claims and allegations of vote-buying and has been in and out of jail while under investigation.

Pedro Castillo is a left-wing grass-roots organizer and primary schoolteacher. He has close ties to Marxist political groups but is new to the political scene in the country.

Peru has been a bastion of centrism and fiscal discipline in Latin America for decades, which traces back to “Fuji-shock” policies of neoliberalism adopted by Alberto Fujimori in the early 1990s. Global financial institutions, international investors and the Fujimori government forged a tight alliance in the 1990s that set Peru on a path to rapid but unequal growth. Many elites, primarily based in the capital, Lima, and the northern coast, have fared well. But the pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of that model: a weak state, flimsy social safety net and large informal sector.

While the election has yet to be officially called, Castillo’s slim lead seems unassailable. In Latin America and elsewhere, many will be watching whether he will moderate his goals and advocate a mere tweak of Peru’s neoliberal economic model or whether he will radically change course. But change will not be easy: Castillo faces an uphill battle in policymaking with a fractionalized congress.

Authoritarianism is still far from dead in Latin America

The outcome of the struggle against authoritarian relics remains uncertain. In such countries as Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and, most recently, El Salvador, authoritarian tendencies are deeply entrenched or advancing. But even where democracy has a longer track record, as in Brazil and Peru, politicians and elites with roots in the authoritarian past are pushing back hard against leftist and popular threats.

My research shows that this tenacious fight is a high-stakes game. It pays off for elites when they are successful, limiting representation and inclusion in democracy. But when voters push back even harder, they can finally determine their own democratic future.

Michael Albertus (@mikealbertus) is associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-author, with Victor Menaldo, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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