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Democracy is in crisis in Latin America. Brazil may be the next trouble spot.

- October 22, 2018
A man yells after listening to Brazil’s anthem during a rally for presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, of the far-right Social Liberal Party, in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 21. Brazilians will return to the polls on Oct. 28 for a second round of voting. (Leo Correa/AP)

An authoritarian-seeming partial outsider who praised the country’s military dictatorship, rejects some rules of the democratic game and threatens to undermine citizen’s rights has won the first round of the Brazilian presidential elections. Jair Bolsonaro is now the front-runner for the second and final round of the elections. If he wins, he may corrode the largest democracy in Latin America from the inside out.

Brazil is not the only Latin American country with troubled politics. Democracy has collapsed in Nicaragua and Venezuela and is in serious trouble in countries such as Bolivia and Honduras. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, just as in Brazil, criminal organizations rule the poorer parts of many cities, weakening democracy and undermining the rule of law. Data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project — along with several other sources — show that democracy is weaker than it has been for decades. Public support for and satisfaction with democracy is also falling, according to the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) and Latinobarómetro.

One might expect that Washington would try to shore up flagging democracies in its own neighborhood. However, as photos of Bolsonaro’s supporters waving American flags suggest, the United States has not helped these developments. In a recent article published in Democratization, we examine how Washington’s policies affected transitions from authoritarianism (37) and democratic breakdowns (27) in Latin America from 1945 to 2010. Our research demonstrates five ways in which U.S. policy toward Latin American democracy is changing.

The United States no longer supports democracy

One of our key findings is that U.S. embassies — together with broader U.S. democratic promotion programs — supported every transition during the third wave of democratization that started in 1978. Furthermore, American foreign aid — a proxy for U.S. support for democracy — is closely associated with democratization during this wave.

This is no longer true. As recent reports have discussed, the long-standing policy of democracy promotion has been virtually abandoned by the current administration. Last year, the State Department considered removing democracy promotion from its mission statement. This year, the Office of Management and Budget tried to slash funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, considered jointly with USAID and the State Department, one of the three key organizations that promote democracy.

The United States is sending ambiguous messages

Many Latin American coups, even those that Washington ultimately denounced, happened because the United States did not clearly signal its support for democracy, so that key Latin American leaders thought the United States would acquiesce or support plotters. Dog-whistling and contradictory messages are back. President Trump lavishes praise upon dictators and seems to suggest that the United States would back non-electoral solutions to constitutional crises. The debate about whether to back a military coup in Venezuela sends problematic signals that previous academic work, as well as our own, has found to be systematically associated with the occurrence of breakdowns in Latin America.

The military has greater leverage

The armed forces remain key players in getting coups started and keeping autocrats in power. They are coming to play a bigger and more political role in many Latin American countries. This year, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia had already started to militarize criminal threats when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis toured the countries in August. Although Mattis mentioned the importance of civilian oversight of the military, he avoided commenting on militarization. U.S. failure to more tightly control arms shipments to criminal organizations in Latin America and its promotion of a “war on drugs” have abetted the high levels of criminal violence, which has negative consequences for democracy.

Geopolitics isn’t helping

Breakdowns of democracy in Latin America tended during the most tense moments of the Cold War. Geopolitics has come to play a role again, as China and Russia make inroads into the hemisphere. China has become Venezuela’s authoritarian regime’s major source of financing and has gained influence elsewhere in Latin America. Washington has expressed concern for strategic reasons, but has not championed democracies. As a result, it is easier and cheaper for would-be authoritarians to weaken democratic institutions. Trump’s claims that Latin Americans who are fleeing situations of endemic violence are criminals and rapists may have contributed to falling approval for the United States.

The United States is abandoning or ignoring multilateral institutions

International networks and organizations have helped diffuse democracy in the past. Since the early 1990s, the Organization of American States (OAS) has partnered with the United States in countering electoral fraud and coups, particularly through Resolution 1080 (1991) and the Inter-American Democratic Charter (2001). However, Washington did not back the OAS and recognized the government when it reported fraud in the 2017 Honduran elections. This year, Trump became the first president not to attend the Summit of the Americas, suggesting a lack of interest in regional regimes. Beyond the Inter-American System, the U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council suggests a broader lack of commitment to multilateralism.

It is now 40 years since the beginning of the most enduring and encompassing wave of democratization ever in Latin America. In 1978, only Colombia, Costa Rica and Venezuela were democratic. By 1995, when the wave had swept across the continent, Cuba and Haiti were the only autocracies left. We cannot assume that Latin America is going to stay democratic, and current U.S. policy may be damaging rather than stabilizing democracy in the region.

Luis Schenoni is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at the University of Notre Dame

Scott Mainwaring is Jorge Paulo Lemann professor for Brazil studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School