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It Could Happen Here: Latin America and the U.S. Both Have an Authoritarian Problem (And for the Same Reasons)

Published: May 29, 2018
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Retracing the rise and fall of authoritarianism across civilized society is like watching a pendulum swing back and forth. Its comings and goings have become inevitable, and essentially predictable, because we’ve never addressed the underlying cause — just its symptoms.

You will hear Venezuela’s most recent presidential election described by its victor, Nicolás Maduro, as a triumph for democracy. Most world leaders tell a different story, alleging blatant corruption and election fraud. It’s an alarming but not surprising turn of events for the country and indeed for the entire continent.

It’s true that democracy in Latin America has been touch-and-go for a while. Even the democracies that exist there — and certainly the “socialist” states — are democratic or socialist in name only. Generations of intermittently poor leadership (conveniently and almost *strategically* poor, if you’re feeling cynical) have left behind democracies that seem almost designed to fail, wherein the next several rounds of democratic elections are a little less likely to be fair, less likely to represent the will of the people and where the political and business elites are better-insulated then ever from the real-world consequences of austerity for the poor and socialism for the rich.

A Brief Recent History of Authoritarianism

In a world governed chiefly by the exchange of money, one of the best ways to judge a country’s (or a continent’s) degree of civility and progress is to measure how many of its underprivileged citizens climb out of poverty and into the middle class in a given period.

By this metric, the Latin America of 2000 to 2010 saw a veritable boom of opportunity and prosperity. In that decade, an estimated 49 million citizens rose from poverty and gained entry into the more mobile middle classes. Inequality was still common and severe, but wages were rising and commodities were cheap.

This upward trend didn’t survive. Commodities got expensive once again. Latin American centrists and leftists spent lavishly on some social programs but didn’t make long-term investments in the underlying structure of the public and private sectors — namely those focused on delivering better education, better ethics and better life expectancy. To hear one analyst describe it, Latin America “failed to capitalize on times of plenty and convert them into long-term growth.” Governments in the region kept overspending in an attempt to compensate for their commodity-driven economies and public-private corruption flourished as a result.

Now, thanks to all this mismanagement and complacency — not to mention the generally and inevitably disastrous decision to measure a nation’s greatness sheerly in terms of its GDP — Latin America stands poised for its most decisive lurch toward authoritarianism in more than a generation.

“It Couldn’t Happen Here”

At this point, the recent histories of many Latin American countries begins to converge with the recent history of the United States:

Voting citizens had now witnessed the crumbling foundations of its pretend democracy and the pure rapaciousness of the private sector. Much of the citizenry was falling back into poverty without a reliable social safety net to catch them. Lawmaking and profitmaking elites — which were increasingly difficult to differentiate between — sensing their time drawing nigh, turned to increasingly eccentric “populists” and strongmen to erase the last traces of democracy holding back private interests from ruling the country.

Venezuela has emerged as a clear indictment of not taking very old symptoms seriously and presages trouble for the rest of Latin America. But its sham democracy has always been a sham. Hugo Chávez used the government to line his pockets and his friends’ pockets. Later on, his right-hand man and successor, Nicolás Maduro, continued Chávez’s work by further damaging and possibly permanently destroying the country’s democratic credibility by “winning” a presidential election whose integrity has been almost universally "panned" by world leaders since late May 2018.

What’s likely to happen as a result? Probably nothing except “economic sanctions,” which are essentially punishments for poor people. As though the people of Latin America need more of that right now.

As you can tell, we’re at the point where Venezuela’s and the United States’ recent histories are still largely interchangeable. Insofar as Venezuela is a bellwether for the state of Latin American politics, and insofar as America still holds a place of moral leadership in the West and beyond, the state of democracy in the world looks tenuous.

In fact, it looks a little less like the “people” of Venezuela and the U.S. “chose” their strongmen to “shake up” their failing systems and a little more like agents of the status quo did their choosing for them. Communism and socialism didn’t fail Venezuela — in part because they never made an honest go of it. And democracy didn’t fail America because we were never actually a democracy to begin with.

The failing system here is the hold that selfish elites and companies have over democracy, simply as a matter of course. A country is not a company, but we’ve all helped define money as “moral power” and longevity in government as “public favorability.” Whether it’s in the U.S.A. or Latin America, the consequence-immune political donor caste will probably always find a way to enforce bottomless austerity for the most vulnerable citizens if it means healthier profits and lower taxes elsewhere.

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