Latin America: Walking into the Abyss with eyes wide open


Carlos Arturo Villagrán Sandoval

Universidad Rafael Landivar of Guatemala

Between 2018 and the first part of 2019, Latin American states continued to experience the effects of longstanding regional phenomena and trends that present a deterioration of their state-institutions and democracy. In the face of these challenges, societies in the region have found it difficult to find a solution to the problems that these phenomena present. This post will give a brief exposition of three of these phenomena and trends that present constitutional challenges for the development of democracy and rule of law in Latin America. The first is the continuing rise and preservation of populist leaders, and consequent limitations on fundamental rights. The second phenomenon is the rampant corruption in the region and its effects on the deterioration of public institutions, particularly courts. The third is the backlash against international organisations and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights by a new right-wing bloc of countries.  This post will not delve into the situation of Venezuela, since the IACL blog has already presented us with an enlightening symposium on its case and situation.

In regard to the continuing rise of populism, Latin American societies continue to elect outsiders in a bid to move away from traditional politics. This is partly a response to the endemic corruption and violence in many Latin American states. The promise of a ‘strong hand’ against violence and corruption has led to the election in 2018 of Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil and Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, while 2019 has seen the rise of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador and Laurentino Cortizo in Panama. Similar rhetoric features in the campaign promises of many presidential candidates in Guatemala, which goes to the polls on June 16, 2019. Populist leaders, like Evo Morales of Bolivia, have manipulated the legal system through their influence over the courts, to allow for potential re-election, despite constitutional term limits. If re-elected, Morales would follow in the footsteps of Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, in 2016, and Juan Orlando Blanco of Honduras, in 2017, who were elected despite having re-election bans. In addition to this disregard for constitutional limits, many populist leaders in the region have shown intolerance to media freedoms and freedom of expression. In Honduras and Nicaragua during 2018 and 2019, executive and public forces have systematically attempted to shut down critical voices from not only the media, but also from human rights groups and activists. 

In relation to the phenomenon of corruption and its effect on the deterioration of public institutions, the Odebrecht scandal has exposed the corrupt ties of many Presidents in the region. Oderbrecht is a large Brazilian firm found to pay bribes and finance electoral campaigns all across the Latin American region in order to secure rights for large infrastructure projects in many states -including: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Panama and Peru-. In Peru, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in 2018 over corrupt links with the Odebrecht, and former President Alan Garcia took his own life after an investigation revealed links between him and the same company. In 2018, also in Peru, the media exposed a series of links between judges and criminal organisations. The public outrage and civil society protests led President Vizcarra to hold a referendum asking the people what constitutional changes they desired to counteract the corruption in Peru. Similar reforms to limit presidential powers and reform the structure of judicial and legislative bodies is also being sought in Panama, where stark corruption problems were exposed after the arrest of former President Ricardo Martinelli in 2018.

The final trend that this post analyses is the region’s new backlash against international organisations and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. With the rise of populist leaders, Central and South America has seen the rise of a new line of nationalism. Guatemala provides an interesting example. In January 2019 the executive decided to terminate unilaterally its agreement with the UN which created the International Commission again Impunity (CICIG). The CICIG had revealed several high-level corruption scandals that led to the resignation of the President and Vice-president in 2015. However, when its attention turned to corruption scandals involving the family of new President Jimmy Morales, the President began to wage a personal vendetta against the CICIG. This vendetta led to the derailment of a much-needed reform of the judiciary, an attempt to expel the Commissioner of the CICIG, public attacks against the UN, and, finally, the early termination of the CICIG agreement. Similarly in Honduras, the international mission against corruption (MACCIH) has also suffered backlash, with parliamentarians creating new obstacles for MACCIH’s mission to fulfil its purpose. In South America, with the rise of a new right-wing group of states, executives from the region, led by Chile, have expressed their willingness to limit the powers of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This trend replicates the vocabulary seen in Europe in 2018, with its Copenhagen Declaration. Such backlash against the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and regional systems is not new. In 2012-2013, left wing states, led by Ecuador and Brazil, sought to limit the powers of the Inter-American Commission, which ultimately led to the creation of a new statute for the commission and stricter delimitation of its powers.

Despite the Oderbrecht scandal, Central American pro-democracy protests, arrests of many former presidents and the creation of specialised missions to tackle corruption within many states of the region, Latin American societies have tried, but not yet succeeded in promoting constitutional reforms to restrict presidential powers, promote healthier democratic processes, and strengthen judiciaries. New leaders seem fixated on centralizing power and are less tolerant of criticism. Corruption and impunity continue to foster inequality and violence that, in extreme cases, has led to the mass exodus of people from their home -states, as seen with the Central American migrant caravans. International support and intervention to expose the human rights violations of current leaders is regarded with resentment, but without it, the status quo is likely to continue. 

Carlos Arturo Villagrán Sandoval is a Lecturer at Universidad Rafael Landivar of Guatemala.

Suggested Citation: Carlos Arturo Villagrán Sandoval, ‘Latin America: Walking into the Abyss with eyes wide open’ IACL-AIDC Blog (1 July 2019)