Emilio Faulkner is a third year IR student in the Department of War Studies. Due to his Honduran heritage, he is motivated to take on the position of Latin America Editor for IR Today. He also believes Latin America is often understudied and disregarded in the study of IR. He is therefore excited to have the opportunity to fill this void and explore the region’s role in international affairs. As well as Latin America, his academic interests lie in the concepts of Grand Strategy, Statecraft and the recent re-emergence of major power rivalry on the global stage.
With Christmas celebrations out of the way and new year’s resolutions decided but likely already failed, IR Today is back in 2023. Yet, unlike us, politics, especially in Latin America, never stops. Even for a region constantly dominated by trouble and strife, the events of the last month and a half in Peru and Brazil have been profound, encapsulating the deep state of division and polarisation engulfing the entirety of Latin America today.
The region was thriving not long ago, experiencing in the early 2000s what many considered the “Latin American decade.” With the strengthening of local economies came the growth of democracy and a general sense of contentment and optimism for the future. But as the saying goes – ‘it’s the hope that kills you.’ Latin Americans enjoyed their period of growth and prosperity, but China’s slowing economy and the decline of the ‘commodity boom’, vital to Latin American success, pushed the region back into a period of hurt and suffering. Recessions were accompanied by the return of contempt for democracy and the rule of law, perpetuated by the sudden and deathly arrival of COVID-19. This has resulted in the proliferation of social tensions and unrest region-wide, triggering crises of a severity not long seen in the region.
The events in Peru from December into January are representative of these trends. A President attempting to illegally dissolve Congress to remain in power. A country which has had 6 Presidents in 5 years, with a Congress completely detached from its citizens. Another, newly-sworn in President Boluarte, heavily tied to her predecessor, without a mandate to rule and who refuses to trigger widely-called for early elections. A new President who has called and extended the state of emergency in Peru, set on maintaining power at any cost, even if it means sending 48 of those she is meant to represent to an undeserved, early grave.
Then, in January, with all eyes set on developments in Peru, in a Trump-inspired moment, Bolsonaro supporters stormed the Brazilian Congress in the capital of Brasilia. If the election in October between Lula and Bolsonaro already encapsulated the divide in not only Brazil, but also the rest of the Latin American region, this has taken it to another level. Protesting is, in theory, the right of all democratic citizens. Yet, storming Congress with the aim of forcefully overturning the result of a fair election with no evidence or even legitimate suspicion of fraudulent activity, is unfortunately a symbol of the waning state of democracy in the region today. Not inexistent, but very quickly unravelling at the seams.
However, the events of the last month and half are not isolated occurrences. As strong, imposing Latin American countries, focus and media attention may be strongly centred on Peru and Brazil, but this anti-democratic turn is a perpetuating phenomenon in the stream of Latin American political affairs. Where is the coverage of El Salvador? Its President, Nayib Bukele, has previously referred to himself as “the world’s coolest dictator”. What about Mexico? Its President, Mr Obrador Lopez, has cut funding to independent regulatory agencies, criticised journalists for speaking against his party and disbanded the federal police, handing the responsibility for national security to the military. Nicaragua is essentially a dictatorship. The facts speak for themselves.
Therefore, I ask you what is democracy? To Latin Americans, democracy is a joke. A joke, which for a period brought success, growth and happiness, but which today, due to the ineptitude, self-interest and corruption of its leaders, brings disappointment and sarcasm. What is the person living in the Palacio del Nariño, the Colombian President’s official home, really going to do for me or my family? This is what people are asking themselves. What is the point? By 2020, inquests by the Latinobarometro already highlighted this Latin America-democracy disconnect. Only 49% of respondents declared support for democracy and only a mere 25% were satisfied with it. 73% of respondents believe their countries are governed purely by the elite. Transparency International even found that 50% of Latin Americans believe elected officials to be corrupt. These statistics highlight the increasing sentiment of division between those in power and those they are supposed to aid and represent. Evidently “democracy is being tested in a manner it hasn’t in years” in Latin America and following never-ending experiences of corruption, economic decline, raging homicide rates, and politicians’ complete disregard for the interests and priorities of their people, Latin Americans have reached or are at least extremely close to reaching the end of their tether.
I maintain from previous articles that Latin America has an opportunity to thrive and become important in the current international system. It must realise its chance to turn problems into opportunities, but it must also quickly accept that it is undoubtedly its own worst enemy. Leaders continue to blame colonial histories for the troubles of present-day Latin America. However, the region can no longer use these excuses. While the atrocities of the colonial rule remain relevant, they can no longer be used to justify such poor governance. Unfortunately, as evidenced by recent events in Peru and Brazil, this an issue for the entire Latin American Region, with these constant failures having led to a state of full-blown anger and disdain against democracy. If Latin America is to grow and succeed, the public must gain trust and connect with those above them. Latin America needs stability – the only way to achieve this is by unifying its people, but in a region in which division is normal and encouraged for political purposes, the return journey looks particularly steep and untraversable.