When the Arab Spring took hold in the Middle East, some people made comparisons between the events in the Middle East and the situation in Latin America. Some of these comparisons considered whether Latin America is ripe for similar uprisings, while a few sketched out the similarities (and discrepancies) between the revolutions in the Middle East and the historical implosion of authoritarian regimes in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s.

It’s surprisingly hard to point out a thorough list of dictatorships in Latin America. Part of the problem of pointing out dictators is the way in which they came to power, stayed in power, or retained partial power outside of formal office. The idea of an “authoritarian regime” is a bit more flexible because it is open to those governments who, as an example, may have come to power through fixed elections rather than a military coup, yet followed particular strategies in support of a state agenda, usually at the expense of some portion of the population. Another problem in gauging forms of governance include definitions of governance. What is a democracy, and what does democratic governance entail, exactly? Established democracies vary in their implementation of democratic practices, with parliamentary democracy that maintains a monarchy in Great Britain, representational democracy and pluralism in the US, incorporation of democratic socialism through much of Europe; in reality that most systems are a blend of many elements of liberal democracies. The election of government officials is a key component to democracy, but elections me be unfair, corrupt, rigged, etc. Indices of “freedom” and “democratic governancestruggle to accurately depict the nature of governance around the world, but even the most measured index cannot factor every bit of information into the analysis.

That said, there were numerous dictators and authoritarian regimes in place in Latin America through the second half of the 20th century, building on a long and complicated tradition of caudillismo. The most notorious of these were perhaps Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Only in the last few days has Brazil begun a truth and reconciliation commission and Uruguay removed a military amnesty. This is but one way in which the repercussions of these regimes are still pronounced in Latin America.

The widespread repression in Latin America had distinct roots in different places. Yet there were similar tensions throughout the region, notably the sense that communism was a pressing geopolitical issue that was undermining the core traditions in the Latin American republics. Not only did the national governments and militaries present this rhetoric as a key motivation for their actions, so too did the US articulate that concern as a basis for its actions in the region – from the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Chile, to support and training for brutally repressive dictators. Similarly, when these regimes yielded to democratic pressures, there was a cogent regional sense that the threat of communism was less pressing – and the regimes collapsed within about a decade of the collapse of the USSR. There are a lot of correlations there that are not causes, but it is clear that regional perceptions and goals shifted, along with US support and demands.

The region has gone through a profound transition, yet it is still an incomplete transition. The implications of caudillismo predated the 20th Century, and they have outlasted the regimes of that era as well. It’s worth noting that as recently as 2009, the Honduras military removed a democratically elected president at the behest of the National Congress. The openness and fairness of elections is still questionable in many countries. Significantly, the institutions like the police and military that carried out authoritarian rule remain intact through much of Latin America, along with some officials, which can make democratic transitions more difficult and tenuous. Generally speaking, much of Latin America today experiences a blend of democratic and authoritarian governance, where elections occur but with glitches or limitations, where civil society is more open but not fully so, where the military tends to stay removed from politics but only because they have no need to intervene, and so forth.

My first response to the role of the military in Egypt’s revolution was of dismay; unfamiliar with the traditional role of the Egyptian military, I did not expect a smooth transition from military governance. Initially, the Egyptian military gave indications that it was committed to a transition to civil governance, yet in recent days there are murmurs that the Egyptian military may be reluctant to yield power after all.

This is where I think the lessons from Latin America are most relevant to the Middle East – as an example of the successes and pitfalls of democratic transitions. The democratic transitions in Latin America tended not to be the result of revolutions as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which may be why the institutions of the authoritarian regimes remained. Especially in the case of Egypt, but also in other cases where key figures defected to the opposition, some portion of the old regime are likely to remain in the new governments. The military is likely the most significant of these, and in Egypt the military is linked with the economy and development. (I heard this during the revolution that removed Mubarak, and a brief search pulled up this article that seems to support that claim, although it’s a bit outdated.)

The question becomes, then, is it possible to restructure a countries institutions so that they do not perpetuate a way of doing business that is rooted in authoritarian practices? Are there people who are able to fill the jobs of government who are both qualified and unaffiliated with the previous regime? What do you do with the members of the old regime, and is there a role for them in the new government? Iraq’s current government tried to restructure with these questions in mind, but the government seems in key ways to be unsuccessful in creating meaningful institutions in a wartime environment. Hopefully the experience of hard-won revolution will overcome some of those barriers, but only if the institutions are rooted in newly empowered civil societies.

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