Dexter Boniface

Archive for the ‘Bolivia’ Category

Bolivarian Populism and Democratic Governance: A Poor Record

In Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela on June 21, 2011 at 8:13 am

The recent election of Ollanta Humala as President of Peru has once again raised the spectre of Hugo Chavez’s brand of Bolivarian Populism spreading to yet another South American country. Similarly, the recent release of a secret diplomatic cable outlining a pact between Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and Chavez has rekindled fears that Venezuela continues to exert powerful influence in Central America. Critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez frequently claim that his brand of left-wing populism is incompatible with democracy. In this blogpost, I examine some preliminary evidence in support of this claim.

Source: Arnulfo Franco / AP

The Bolivarian Blueprint

I use the term “Bolivarian Populism” to denote a particular process of political change exemplified by Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez and imitated to different degrees by other left-leaning Latin American presidents, especially Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) as well as Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Manuel Zelaya (Honduras). This process of political change typically begins, first, with the election of a political outsider who rails against the traditional political party establishment. Once elected into power, the president next calls for the creation of a constituent assembly to re-write the country’s constitution, a process inevitably marked by substantial partisan conflict (particularly between the president and the legislative and judicial branches of government), increased social polarization, and often a serious breakdown in the rule of law. The new constitutions, approved in more or less democratic plebiscites (or, in Nicaragua’s case, modified by dubious procedures), typically enhance the executive’s power by reducing checks and balances and abolishing presidential term limits. Once the new constitution is in place, finally, the president holds new elections to refresh their mandate. This pattern is particularly evident in Venezuela under Chavez (elected 1998, new constitution 1999, new mandates 2000, 2006 and possibly 2012), Bolivia under Morales (elected 2005, constituent assembly 2006-2007, new constitution and mandate 2009, and possible future mandate in 2014) and Ecuador under Correa (elected 2006, constituent assembly 2007, new constitution 2008, new mandate in 2009 and possibly 2013).

The Decline of Freedom

Chavez and other followers of “Bolivarian Populism” frequently claim that radical changes in political structure are required to make their countries more democratic. Yet recent data from Freedom House (an NGO specializing in measuring freedom around the world) suggests that the results of such changes are typically just the opposite. As the chart below indicates, aggregate measures of political rights and civil liberties have dropped (in some cases precipitously) during the tenure of all five of the leaders most closely associated with Bolivarian Populism. Although the Freedom House data is not a perfect measure of democracy (it is, more precisely, a measure of freedom), the gradual decline in political and civil rights in these countries is unambiguous. The decline has arguably been most striking in Venezuela, a case that has been extensively documented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Source: author's computations based on Freedom House data published in 2011.

The Rise of Corruption 

In addition to championing democracy, the Bolivarian Populists often rail against the endemic corruption of their societies and advocate radical political changes as a key part of the solution. Yet recent evidence from Transparency International (an NGO specializing in measuring perceptions of corruption around the world) suggests that the results of such efforts have been disappointing. In the most recent 2010 survey, for example, Venezuela was found to be the most corrupt country in all of Latin America, followed by Paraguay, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia. The results, as Andres Oppenheimer has argued, are not all that surprising. Indeed, as Transparency International’s Alejandro Salas has noted, “In countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, government leaders have shattered the system of checks and balances. And when there are no watchdogs, you tend to have more arbitrary allocations of funds, and fewer transparent bids for government contracts” (quoted by Oppenheimer).


Although the evidence I have presented here is far from definitive, and the standards by which we should measure the success or failure of the “Bolivarian Revolution” are hotly disputed (a more complete analysis would need, minimally, to include a wide variety of socioeconomic data), recent data support the claim that Chavez’s style of Bolivarian Populism has consistently undermined democratic governance in Latin America.


Elections in South America in 2009: Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay

In Bolivia, Chile, Elections, Human Rights, Uruguay on January 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

Chile Votes  (Dec. 11, 2009; Jan. 17, 2010). The Chilean election pitted moderate conservative businessman–and self-made billionaire–Sebastián Piñera against the Concertación candidate and former president (1994-2000) Eduardo Frei. Chile’s wildly popular incumbent, Michelle Bachelet, was ineligible for immediate re-election. Piñera led the way in the first round of voting (Dec. 11th) but failed to secure an outright majority. A united left might have posed a challenge for Piñera, but Enriquez-Ominami (MEO), a charismatic socialist who finished in third place in the first round of voting, was slow to endorse Frei, stating “Eduardo Frei and Sebastian Piñera are too much alike.” Piñera went on to defeat Frei with 52% of the vote in the run-off election on January 17th.

Chile: Human Rights in the Spotlight. As in Uruguay (see below), human rights issues have  come to the fore during the election. On the eve of the first round vote, a Chilean court charged several Pinochet-era officials with the murder of former president (1964-1970) Eduardo Frei Montalva, father of the current candidate of the same name (Piñera’s campaign questioned the timing of the indictment). Piñera is expected to favor reconciliation over prosecution. It remains to be seen if Piñera will uphold Chile’s “post-Pinochet moral legacy.”

Bolivia Votes (Dec. 6, 2009). By virtue of Bolivia’s new constitution (approved in Jan. 2009 after a bitter internal struggle), President Evo Morales became eligible for a second five-year term (he was elected to his first term in 2005).  Morales easily won re-election  with 63% of the vote. Furthermore his party, Movement Toward Socialism, won a strong majority in both houses of Congress.

Uruguay Votes (Oct. 25, 2009; Nov. 29, 2009). The first round of Uruguay’s presidential election featured three main candidates: Pedro Bordaberry of the Colorado Party (and son of a former Uruguayan dictator), former President (1990-1995) Luis Alberto Lacalle of the center-right National Party and ex-Tupamaru guerrilla José “Pepe” Mujica of the ruling and left-leaning Broad Front coalition. In the first round of voting, the mercurial Mr Mujica got about 48 percent of the votes compared to 30 percent for Lacalle.

Mujica wins. The second round of voting took place on Nov. 29. Mujica carried the day with over 50 percent of the vote. He is expected to continue the moderate left policies of current President Tabare Vazquez. He will take office on March 1, 2010.

Uruguay: Human Rights in the Spotlight. The Uruguayan election takes place amid a series of landmark prosecutions for human rights abuses that occurred during the 1973-1985 military regime. Gregorio Alvarez, the last of Uruguay’s dictators, was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison for his participation in the murderous “Operation Condor.” Candidate Pedro Bordaberry’s father, Juan Maria Bordaberry, is currently under house arrest on similar charges (the 81-year old Bordaberry was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison). Furthermore, the Supreme Court recently ruled that an amnesty law passed in 1986 (and reaffirmed by plebiscite in 1989) is unconstitutional. Voters went to the polls in October to decide if the amnesty should be rescinded, but only 42 percent supported the measure.