Latin America


After almost two-hundred years of internal and external conflicts, economic misery and general misrule, people are beginning to recognize that democracy after all, is the least bad way of government. Counting about 500 million inhabitants, Latin America should aspire to a seat among the major powers. But at least in the near future, Latin America will continue to pull below its weight in world affairs.

A tumultuous history

While the holy alliance kept Continental Europe in an iron grip, the Spanish colonies in Latin America severed the ties with the mother country and embraced democracy modeled on the United States. In 1822 Brazil, too, declared its independence from Portugal under a Portuguese emperor. Visionary leaders like Simon Bolivar (1783–1830) and José de San Martin (1778–1850) envisaged super-ordinate federalist structures, but such initiatives were soon foiled by narrow-minded provincial interests (a Middle American confederation survived until 1838).

In the new-fashioned nation-states, democracy was promptly set aside as the political hurly-burly opened the door for a long line of military dictators. The meticulously worded constitutions were revealed as paper barriers which could be swept away by any opportunistic coup-monger; caudillismo became the dominant form of government in Latin America. But the democratic values never lost their appeal and were often paid lavish lip service.

The career of Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876) illustrates the instability of Latin-American societies. First he fought for Spain against the Mexican insurgents. Then he changed sides and 1822 lent a hand in placing Agustin I on the throne as Emperor of Mexico. Despite several setbacks, Santa Anna dominated Mexican politics between 1823 and 1855 (President 1833–36, dictator 1839 and 1841–45, President 1846–47 and 1853– 55). During this period, Mexico went through thirty-six changes of government.

Democracy in ascendance

The history of Latin America reflects the difficulty of engaging conceited politicians in a long-term plus-sum game. Usually the short egoistic perspective gets the upper hand and the logic of zero-sum play reigns supreme. The deficit in bad conscience, inherent in Catholicism, had unfortunate political consequences.

Plainly, the peoples were not prepared to underpin a democratic regime. Poverty, the lack of education as well as class conflicts made them into easy prey for demagogues and populists. Dictatorial order often felt better than an equally corrupt democratic disorder. The elite and the Catholic Church, for their part, were not prepared to forgo their old colonial privileges. The outcome was a condition of latent civil war where far-sighted and constructive efforts regularly ran into the ground. Bolivia and Ecuador are still balancing on the verge of credible democracy. Despite its oil billions Venezuela is going downhill, while Colombia is laboriously climbing out of the narco-political swamp.

Centuries of centralized colonial rule precluded local democratic learning; neither were the democratic traditions of the mother countries anything to brag about. Latin America had to start in the kindergarten of democracy, guided only by distant models. After almost two-hundred years of internal and external conflicts, economic misery and general misrule, people are beginning to recognize that democracy, after all, is the least bad way of government. The collapse of reality socialism has certainly contributed to this insight. Cuba in the end became a discouraging example, except for reborn populists like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Unexpectedly Brazil has become the standard bearer of Latin American democracy and prosperity.

After numerous twists and turns, democracy has gained a footing in South America though many countries still live under the threat of relapses into authoritarian rule or revolutionary follies. Even so there is a fair chance for democracy all over Latin America. Nowadays the military juntas and dictators are conspicuous by their absence, even if only a few countries can be accepted as stable democracies. Every country has to pass through its own painful learning process.

Pulling below its weight

Brazil with its close to 200 million inhabitants is the uncontested number one of Latin America. But Brazilians speak Portuguese which could be a problem for the Spanish speaking countries, with Mexico (106 millions) and Colombia (43 millions) in the van. The situation is further complicated by Mexico’s membership in NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area), dominated by the United States. A seemingly inexhaustible stream of irritants precludes the acceptance of USA as the guiding political light in the region.

OAS (Organization of American States) was founded 1948 as a loose umbrella organization; only Cuba was excluded at a later stage. The United States has repeatedly attempted to improve the economic relations. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is the latest initiative. Talks started 1994 but have gone nowhere. Instead, bilateral deals have been concluded with Chile, Peru and the Dominican Republic among others. The treaty with Colombia is presently held up in Congress and other negotiations are pending. Mercosur, a free trade area comprising Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, was established as a counterweight but has been floundering.

Counting about 500 million inhabitants, Latin America should anyhow aspire to a seat among the major powers. In international forums, Brazil has assumed the position as spokesman for the third world, for instance in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and in the G20 group of the largest less developed countries. (Confusingly it also plays a prominent role in the G20 group of major economies.) Even so it is difficult to see how the country could establish itself as a major power without the support of all Latin America. UNASUR (UNASUL is the Portuguese abbreviation), the Union of South American Nations is aiming at an extended free trade area but exists largely on paper. As it is, Latin America will continue to pull below its weight in world affairs.