The Year of Living Democratically

Competing definitions of democracy go head-to-head in Latin America in 2006

By: Jonah Gindin—In the Name of Democracy, a project of Pueblos En Camino

Late on the night of December 18, Evo Morales became South America's first indigenous President. No less frightening for his detractors in the United States,, he is an open admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Evo is the most recent in a long line of left-leaning Presidents to be elected in Latin America, and with ten Presidential elections scheduled for 2006 there may be more to come. In Latin America the “dominoes” seem to be falling again. By this time next year, the political landscape could look very different.

What is at stake is the definition and reality of democracy. Is democracy just a code word for US interests, or is democracy the expression of people’s aspiration to control their own lives? Both the US, with its strategy of “democracy promotion,” and the people’s movements, with their own ideas about democracy, will have something to say about these questions in 2006.

“The Cold War is Dead. Long Live the Cold War.”

Latin America's growing “leftward shift” reflects , beyond the election of some left and center-left Presidents, the radicalization of the citizens who voted for them. Nonetheless, there is a wider gulf between this radicalized citizenry and their elected leaders in some countries than in others. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated that the US has “good relations with people across the political spectrum in Latin America,” (At the right end of Rice’s spectrum is Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe Velez, at the left end Chile's Ricardo Lagos, and Brazil's Lula da Silva). Yet, genuinely Left governments cannot possibly be on good terms with the empire, which demands that they sacrifice their sovereignty for the sake of multinational corporations, and even social democratic leaders are essentially hostages. Large economies such as Chile and Brazil are susceptible to US financial institutions, threats of sanctions, and other expressions of economic pressure. Poorer countries, like those of the Caribbean and Central America, are even more vulnerable. Absent from Rice's spectrum are countries like Cuba and Venezuela, whose domestic and foreign policies challenge US hegemony.
This week’s Economist (December 17, 2005) expressed its own worries about the Bolivian election, noting: “Unlike Brazil's Luiz Inácio da Silva and Uruguay's Tabaré Vasquez, Mr Morales is not a leftist who has made peace with democracy and capitalism, offering change without upheaval.” Morales' commanding electoral victory aside, the Economist reveals a widespread assumption: that democracy and capitalism are one and the same, or at least compatible. Morales' support for decriminalization of coca leaf production, and for increased state control over the oil and gas industry has lead many in the establishment to conclude that he is anti-capitalist, and therefore—according to this logic—undemocratic. But, for those who believe democracy entails active participation in the decision-making process and people's control over resources, democracy and capitalism are inherently antagonistic.

Understanding the assumptions behind many mainstream definitions of democracy is crucial to understanding—and resisting—US policy in the region. In his National Security Strategy speech in 2002, for example, President Bush declared: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” Those who do not accept ‘free enterprise’ as part of the package are undemocratic by Bush’s definition.

Over the past two decades, the US developed a new strategy of foreign intervention. While in some countries, like Colombia, Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, the US continues to play a very direct and aggressive role, it also increasingly uses the façade of ‘democracy’ and rarely supports authoritarianism unapologetically. This is a change from the Cold War period, when the US would support authoritarian regimes (like Pinochet in Chile) on the grounds that these were ‘protection’ against ‘totalitarianism’. This shift in emphasis from support of dictatorial governments in favor of ostensibly democratic ones does not involve an equivalent shift in the interests governing US foreign policy. The US is flexible in pursuit of its interests. As movements for democratization in the 1980s and 90s gathered force around the world in concert with gathering opposition to neoliberal economic policies, US policymakers were forced to reevaluate their authoritarian strategy.

Capitalism with a Democratic Face

The Philippines and Nicaragua were early examples (or victims) of the new strategy, called ‘democracy promotion’ by its proponents.

Though democracy is often conceived of as a political form based on popular sovereignty and participation, its most commonly understood meaning is a thoroughly streamlined version. The process by which this definition of democracy has gained near-universal acceptance in mainstream Western circles is beyond the scope of the present article, but certainly bears careful scrutiny. Sociologist William I. Robinson refers to this form of democracy as “Polyarchy,” a system in which a small elite rules by confining mass participation to leadership choice in controlled elections.

Polyarchies—a form of restricted democracy that accommodates capitalist principles in otherwise threatening contexts—permitted the US to make a relatively smooth transition from supporting dictatorships in the Philippines and Nicaragua, for example, to supporting democratization movements in those same countries. As it turns out, limited “democracy” often serves US interests more effectively than authoritarianism. US democracy promotion activities have nothing to do with genuine democracy. At best, the US is exporting an even more limited version of its own deeply flawed democratic model. At worst, democracy promotion is merely a smokescreen for the economic and physical violence of US imperialism.

In the Philippines and Nicaragua, the US began financing ostensibly pro-democracy groups, facilitating their rise to positions of power out of proportion to their numbers or the strength of their ideas, within broader democratization movements. Selected Philippine and Nicaraguan NGOs and political parties received financing (direct and indirect) from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and sister organizations that allowed them to create a much higher profile than their leftwing competitors within the democratization movements.

What is the NED? According to Alan Weinstein, who helped draft the legistlation that established it, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” In his catalogue of US foreign interventions Killing Hope, William Blum adds: “NED, like the CIA before it, calls what it does supporting democracy. The governments against whom the financing is targeted call it destabilization.”

When the dictatorships ended, these pro-US elite groups were well-placed to take power, as the examples of Corazon Aquino (Philippines) and Violeta Chamorro (Nicaragua) illustrate. The replacement of dictatorships in Latin America with polyarchies brought with it the widespread implementation of neoliberal economic reforms.

A Line in the Sand

Latin America is radicalizing, and it’s largely a product of the economic havoc wreaked upon the region’s majority poor by the US model, the so-called “Washington consensus,” and all the Washington consensuses before it.

In the coming year, there will be ten Presidential elections in Latin America. The concentration of elections in a single year and the very real possibility of movements and parties antagonistic to the US project winning makes the 2006 Presidential election cycle unprecedented. Haiti, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela all feature strong left-leaning candidates that could potentially pursue autonomous policies once in office. If even half of these candidates are victorious, Latin America’s political map would be completely redrawn, and no amount of obfuscation could hide such a resounding rejection of US-promoted economic policies.

To avoid this, the US is depending on “democracy promotion” to subvert this explosion of genuine democratic suffrage and self-determination. Governmental and quasi-governmental institutions such as the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the NED are already funneling grant money and technical expertise to friendly civil society groups, NGOs and political parties in an attempt to steer elections away from the left.

Yet, as the Bolivian people demonstrated on Sunday, this strategy is hardly perfect. If polyarchy failed in Bolivia , it was not for lack of trying. According to independent journalist Reed Lindsay writing in a recent issue of NACLA's Report on the Americas (available here), in Bolivia: “evidence abounds that…the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars to rebuild discredited political parties, to undercut independent grassroots movements, to bolster malleable indigenous leaders with little popular support…under the banner of ‘democracy promotion.’”

Democracy promotion failed in Bolivia precisely because its inherent limitations were incapable of absorbing the Bolivian peoples' demand for change. After overthrowing two Presidents in the past three years, Bolivians have given Evo Morales the strongest mandate in Bolivian history.

In the 19th century when Britain became the region’s preeminent imperial power, they ruled in much the same way the US does today. Britain exercised hegemonic control through a series of commercial treaties backed by the Royal Navy. “As British foreign Minister George Canning put it in 1824: ‘Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly she is English.’”

Like the British, then, US hegemony in the region has often successfully convinced Latin Americans that they are “free.” But when Latin American’s rise up and expose this “freedom” for a sham, the “Royal Navy” is never far away. Thomas Friedman’s well-worn declaration in his 1999 “Manifesto for the Fast World,” is as good a description of US policy in Latin America as there is. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.” In Latin America the hidden fist is often a local proxy. “Democracy,” is a rhetorical tool for free market proselytizing, but that’s it. Just to elect a leader with an alternative vision cost Bolivians several hundred lives over the past three years—and many more before that.


The ten countries with Presidential elections in 2006 can expect to be targets of intense US (and Canadian) “democracy promotion” aimed at assuring they do not dare to assert their sovereignty. The Bolivian example proves that this strategy can be defeated—democratically. As North Americans, this strategy is being applied in our name: Latin American democracy is under attack by our governments, by private corporations and NGOs based in Washington and Ottawa. In active rejection of US and Canadian imperialism we are launching the In the Name of Democracy campaign to investigate and expose US “democracy” promotion in the region during the 2006 Presidential election cycle. Exposing this strategy is a full-time, long-term goal: we need all the help we can get! To send leads or research, email us at, or visit us at

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