Latin America: Farewell to the Chiefs (11/98)

"Everyone has the right to take part in the government of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives … the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be universal and equal suffrage."
-Article 21, Universal Declaration
of Human Rights

Shouts of "democracy" and "the dictatorship is going to fall" rose from the throng of 2000-some students, workers, and professionals gathered in front of Peru’s Congress. Inside, legislators rancorously debated a proposed referendum on President Alberto Fujimori’s bid to run for a third term before the resolution was defeated by his Change 90-New Majority party, which dominates the House of Representatives. When the results were finally announced, the crowd surged in collective anger and frustration at the corruption of their country’s democratic institutions. More than 200 riot police responded with violence to disperse the crowd.

"This Congress is a porquer’a [filthy and worthless]," said Paulo, a university student, as he fled the stampede. Standing not far away, I watched in horror and awe as protesters were pushed, beaten, and tear-gassed out the front gates of the Congress grounds and onto a traffic-packed Lima street. But what came to be known as "the dark night for Peru’s democracy" really began at least 5 years before, when Fujimori pulled a self-coup, dissolving Congress and rewriting the constitution so he could stand for a second-term. Ironically, he included his own Achilles heel – a referendum provision.

Thanks to his neoliberal, dictatorial governing style and introduction of "Fujishock" – a cutthroat economic policy to eliminate hyper-inflation along with subsidies and "get-tough on terrorism" policies – the president handily won re-election in 1995. (Of course, access to government coffers for the campaign couldn’t have hurt, either.) Next, in fine Orwellian doublespeak, the president’s ruling coalition convinced Congress to pass an "authentic interpretation" bill in 1996, making way for him to stand again in the year 2000. The president’s logic: since he was first elected in 1990 under the old constitution, he has only run once under the new one.

Last year, a constitutional tribunal ruled against Fujimori’s bid, but reversed its decision after the president replaced three of its judges. Since then, the Democratic Forum, a citizen’s group formed two years ago to spearhead the referendum campaign, claims to have collected 1.4 million signatures. But Peru’s election’s board (also dominated by Fujimori cronies) ruled in late August that the referendum must first gain congressional approval before moving ahead.

Referendum supporters and opposition politicians argue that Congress had no right to rule on the issue. Democratic Forum leader Fernando De la Flor calls the government’s actions an affront to citizen-based democracy and "a violation of Peruvian’s fundamental rights."

The campaign has support from a broad cross-section of Peruvian society, including the Catholic Church, women activists, labor organizers, business groups, and both the opposition and mainstream media. At the time of Congress’ fateful vote, polls showed about 70 percent supporting the referendum. Afterward, protests galvanized the country to a point not seen since the "decade of terror" during the 1980s and early 90s – when the Maoist-aligned Shining Path terrorized any organization perceived to have competing left-wing sympathies – and led to a government crackdown on "terrorism," which continued the harassment, imprisonment, and assassination of citizens’ organization members.

Painful Transitions

Perhaps it’s a small consolation to Peru’s frustrated voters, but they’re not alone. Brazil’s Congress modified its constitution last year, allowing current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to run again. With a right-of-center coalition behind him, Cardoso easily trounced Left candidates who failed to present a unified front, becoming the first president in Brazil’s modern history to be re-elected. Allegations are flying that Cardoso may have bribed congressional representatives to attain the two-thirds vote needed to change the constitution.

The Dominican Republic, which only recently scrapped re-election after decades of strong-arm rule, is reconsidering the decision. Meanwhile, rumors circulate in Bolivia that President Hugo BanzŽr is considering the idea, despite a wave of popular and union-organized protests against his autocratic government. Banzer’s governing style shouldn’t come as a surprise; he took office last year after heading the country’s military dictatorship from 1971-78.

Still, despite the seemingly depressing state of Latin America’s democracies, a few recent developments offer a glimmer of hope. In July, for instance, dismal popularity ratings (less than 20 percent) presumably led Argentina’s President Carlos Menem to change his mind about forcing a third term. First elected in 1989, he found it easy to convince his Peronist party-controlled Congress to make a constitutional change allowing re-election as his six-year term was ending.

Just days after the heartbreaking defeat of Peru’s referendum campaign, Panamanians voted against President Ernesto PerŽz Balladares’ re-election bid by a nearly 2-1 margin. The president’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) worked for more than a year on the campaign, approving a constitutional change this May allowing re-election and then putting the question to the people.

Like most other Latin American countries, Panama’s constitution is designed to prevent the concentration of political power. The reality has been quite different and protesters feared a "civilian dictatorship" was evolving from the ashes of Gen. Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship (overthrown by a US invasion in 1989).

Structural Adjustments

Providing leaders don’t renege on their promises to honor the people’s wishes, the cases of Argentina and Panama could mark the beginning of the end for the region’s newest generation of "caudillo-style" governments. Arising out of Latin America’s wars of independence in the 19th century, rival generals known as caudillos retained power throughout the region by subverting their newly emerging democracies and ruling by military populism. Operating under the guise of democratic institutions, much like the liberator Simon Bolivar’s first generals, today’s caudillos combine charisma with populist-rhetoric while retaining power over state institutions like the military and judiciary. Although most of the region’s constitutions are infused with ideals of the French and American revolutions, including checks and balances against authoritarianism, the new caudillos are subverting democracy while pacifying their northern trading partners with the appearance of civilian rule.

Balladares, along with Fujimori, Cardoso, and Menem, has argued that instead of subverting democracy, re-election gives the power to the people in legitimate votes. But this simplistic reading of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ignores the complex reality facing Latin America’s fragile democracies.

Coletta Youngers, a senior researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, says the desire to keep incumbents in office is "the result of very weak democratic systems, where you have elected populists or authoritarians – as in the case of Fujimori – in office, and where the system of political parties is crumbling."

But even if predictions that the region is slowly moving away from re-election are correct, they remain small consolation for much of Latin America, plagued with a lengthy history of despotic military rulers, economic hardship, and weak democratic institutions.

"Constitutional reforms and referendums [to prevent re-election] are a start, but the real problem goes beyond political structures," says Juan Carlos Guerrero, a Peruvian-born political science graduate student studying in Mexico. Without a tradition of democracy or education on democratic ideals and basic concepts of human rights, he says, Latin America can’t achieve real democracy.

I’ve heard this argument before from academics, development workers, and activists – and not just in Peru. Illiteracy and lack of access to knowledge are threats to democracy globally, a "Universal Human Right" problem of its own. Article 26 of the UDHR says everyone has the right to education, and goes on to add that "education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Tide of Distrust

We’ve come full circle to the same bottom line, from women’s health rights to indigenous land claims and now to democracy. If the majority of the world’s people aren’t informed of their rights, how can these rights be protected?

Juan Carlos, who lost countless companeros to prison or worse during Peru’s "years of terror," replies calmly, "That is what we have to work for – to educate and inform the people." Then, with a touch of sadness, "But I really don’t know where this is all going to end up." He laments the lack of faith in the region’s democratic institutions, stunted by coups, military governments, economic instability and, perhaps most important, the lack of a real political base in local communities.

This phenomenon is also evident in the low voter turnout in countries like the US. But south of the US border, most of the region’s leaders force voter participation through electoral cards, which must be updated at each election. Without authorized documentation proving they have exercised their "democratic right," citizens become personas non grata. They can’t open a bank account, get a driver’s license, or buy property.

Such authoritarian practices, which ignore the problems underlying voter disillusionment, don’t ensure real participation. A community health representative and farmer from a politically-isolated part of Peru’s Cajamarca province explained why his community voted for Fujimori’s party in 1995: His campaign gave out free bags of rice and hoes. After joking about "Peruvian-style democracy," he added seriously, "Still, the people have to eat and usually no one gives them anything."

Such sentiments of disillusion indicate a rising tide of mistrust with so-called democratic institutions across Latin America – especially in rural zones isolated from centralized urban governments. Struggling to make ends meet, people demonstrate their frustrations through voter apathy. But the emergence of small, yet determined, pockets of public protest – from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas to the coca growers unions in Bolivia – suggest that new forms of local, community-based democracy are emerging, albeit with difficulties.

To the Barricades

Whether Latin Americans are rising in protest or exchanging their vote for a bag of rice, the message is the same: Something is rotten in the region’s democracies. At times, the view from inside is so depressing that trying to remain optimistic leaves me feeling more than a bit naive.

Before Peru’s referendum vote, one US foreign correspondent admitted he was "bored" with the topic. "Nothing’s going to change, so I wish we could just get this thing over with," he said cynically.

Nevertheless, curiosity led me to the Congress that evening in late August. Watching the crowd, at first seething with expectation, and later expressing years of pent-up rage, I wondered if those who march in defiance of repression are planting the seeds for later generations. Or, is the same vicious circle – military rule followed by civilian caudillos and uprising – merely repeating itself?

A former journalist and union organizer, who was forced by economic necessity to drive a cab after years of struggle, put it cynically: "Human rights – oh yes, our famous human rights. In this country, we have human rights for some, but not for others." While maneuvering through Lima’s thick rush-hour traffic, he peered at me through wise eyes and added, "Our only hope for salvation lies in our youth."

His tone brought back scenes from the evening of those who didn’t succumb to either violence or cowardice: My friend Ram-n, an activist and political science graduate student, who reached down to help a fallen stranger despite tear gas and blows from riot police; Luis, a local photographer who stayed behind to document police violence when the guards closed the Congress gates; and Paulo, a newfound friend who grabbed my hand several times, steering me clear of the rush. I crouched in a doorway with another US journalist as protesters surged past, pursued by Blade Runneresque police replicants. As we clung together, I felt as though we were in a strange and frightening urban forest, watching students hurtle pieces of urban debris back at the relentless line of police clones who herded them down narrow side streets.

The same thought kept racing through my mind: "How much more repression, corruption, and violence can people take? How far they can they be pushed before the system changes?" Then the stampede passed, leaving us dazed and stranded on a deserted, unlit street in the city’s historical center, wondering if the night, like Peru’s pursuit of democracy, had ever really existed. v

Stephanie Boyd is the associate editor of Latinamerica Press, a weekly alternative news publication based in Lima, Peru.