The new generation of Latin American autocracies

Similarly to Plato's assertion on the autonomy of ideas, in Latin America, dictatorial drives hang over the subcontinent, waiting to be seized by perspicacious opportunists

Chavez and Castro are at the forefront of Latin America's new autocracies
Fabio Rafael Fiallo
On 15 March 2012 10:40

A proposition that has not ceased to fertilize the philosophical debate since antiquity relates to Plato’s assertion on the autonomy of ideas. In Plato’s view, ideas have an existence of their own and, consequently, are independent from and antedate those who formulate them. This assertion inspired the 20th century German philosopher Gottlob Frege, who argued that scientific theories tend to stroll around in the air, waiting to be seized (or “caught”) by some perspicacious thinker who will make them known to the public at large.

By observing the fateful evolution of Latin American politics, something similar can – regrettably – be said with respect to dictatorial drives, namely a ruler’s will to impose his political designs irrespective of whether people like it or not.

History shows indeed that such drives hang over our subcontinent, in quest of any occasion to edge out democracy and establish their domination. Circumstances evolve, political actors change, ideologies come and go, but the dictatorial drives pursue unrelentingly their nefarious objectives, adjusting to every political context, mutating like a chameleon.

Yesterday we had Somoza, Trujillo, Batista, followed by Pinochet and military juntas in Argentina and Brazil (the list is not comprehensive). Now it’s the turn of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa, the Kirchners too, who, together with the thus far perennial Fidel Castro, do or try to do whatever they deem fit to perpetuate and deepen their grip.

The beast changes of look, of name, of ideology, walks from one country to the next and from one extreme of the political chessboard to the other. The degree of repression varies in function of the correlation of forces, with Fidel Castro beating all records in terms of duration in power, number of political prisoners (500,000 according to the NGO Freedom House) and political assassinations through summary trials of a Stalinist type. Yet their swipes are of the same kind, and so are the ravages and suffering they bring about.

However different these regimes may appear to be, they share one common, essential feature: for all of them, the adversary is corrupt by definition, sold out to sinister foreign interests. The opponents are not regarded as rivals to compete against within the framework of institutions that guarantee the respect of minorities; they are, instead, enemies to annihilate, to remove from the political arena as soon the balance of power allows doing so.

Yesterday, whoever dared to denounce the violations of human rights used to be called “an agent of subversion”or something of the kind. Today the vilifying labels of “lackey of the Empire”(i.e. the US), “member of the oligarchy”and “mercenary”are epithets in vogue to denigrate and hound those who attempt to exercise the right to dissent.

The non-respect of the separation of powers (executive, legislative, judicial); the steady elimination of the institutional mechanisms of checks and balances; the arbitrary closure of media channels and imposition of astronomical penalties against the independent press; the hunting of opposition leaders; the harassment and imprisonment of those who might represent a challenge or an alternative to the regime in place; the constitutional reform aimed at enabling the incumbent to remain in power beyond the duration stipulated by the law; electoral fraud and rigging –the vast panoply of the murky, repressive methods of the Latin American dictatorships of the past, is back with force through the new brood of autocratic regimes which Castrochavism has given birth to.

The Castrochavist republics cannot boast of laudable performance, to say the least. After having occupied, by mid-20th century, an honorable third place among Latin American nations in terms of per capita income, the Cuban economy has for decades been in chronic paralysis, living on financial drips from its accomplices (first the Soviet Union, then Hugo Chavez) and on the generous remittances sent by Cubans in exile to their parents in the island.

Venezuela has taken a similar path. While Hugo Chavez squanders the country’s petrodollars (which he lavishly distributes among proselytes and buddies, both in his country and abroad), agricultural production is foundering, the inflation rate is the world’s highest bar Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the crime rate reaches levels similar to those registered in cases of civil war, and private investment, both national and foreign, is fleeing in stampede in search of less hostile environments.

Aided by the rise in world prices of primary commodities, Argentina has registered high rates of economic growth. And yet, because of an uncertain and aggressive policy climate, capital flight is slowly but surely becoming a national sport, which bodes ill for the country’s economic future. In addition, as inflation figures are not of the liking of the Kirchneristas in power, the government has decided to tinker with those figures so as to blur the magnitude of the price increases in essential consumption goods. As was the case in the former dictatorships, if the truth collides with the interests of the ruler, then the truth ought to be hidden or proscribed.

Be that as it may, Latin America is not an exception as regards the influence of dictatorial drives. Europe, too, fell prey to the same devastating spell: the Nazi-fascist pest and the red totalitarianism wreaked havoc in the Old Continent till not long ago.

Thus, in the same manner that Europe managed to defeat the demon of totalitarianism after having tested the two variants thereof, so Latin America can, and ultimately will, chase away the curse of the two variants of autocracies and dictatorships that have impaired freedom and prosperity in more than one corner of that region.

Fabio Rafael Fiallo is a Dominican-born economist and author and a former official of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

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