http://lap.sagepub.com Perspectives Latin American DOI: 10.1177/0094582X9402100402 1994; 21; 5 Latin American Perspectives James Petras and Steve Vieux America The Transition to Authoritarian Electoral Regimes in Latin http://lap.sagepub.com The online version of this article can be found at: Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com On behalf of: Latin American Perspectives, Inc. can be found at: Latin American Perspectives Additional services and information for http://lap.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts: http://lap.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions: unauthorized distribution. © 1994 Latin American Perspectives, Inc.. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or by razvan victor on February 12, 2007 http://lap.sagepub.com Downloaded from

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  • http://lap.sagepub.comPerspectives

    Latin American

    DOI: 10.1177/0094582X9402100402 1994; 21; 5 Latin American Perspectives

    James Petras and Steve Vieux America

    The Transition to Authoritarian Electoral Regimes in Latin

    http://lap.sagepub.com The online version of this article can be found at:

    Published by:


    On behalf of: Latin American Perspectives, Inc.

    can be found at:Latin American Perspectives Additional services and information for

    http://lap.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts:

    http://lap.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions:



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  • 5The Transition to Authoritarian ElectoralRegimes in Latin America

    byJames Petras and Steve Vieux

    President Carlos Menem of Argentina, during an independence-dayspeech on July 9, 1992, denounced student and teacher protesters of hisattacks on public education for their &dquo;exaggerated use of liberty.&dquo; He warnedparents that the demonstrations &dquo;could be taken over by subversives&dquo; andrecommended that they &dquo;be very careful about so quickly sending theirchildren to the streets, because they are more useful in the schools.&dquo; He thenthreatened that these student demonstrations could result in &dquo;another contin-gent of the Plaza de Mayo demanding their children&dquo; (Brecha, July 24,1992).This overt threat to turn loose the death squads against student protesterspoints to the authoritarian core of this electoral regime, not unlike others thathave emerged in the 1980s and 1990s throughout Latin America. The transi-tion from military to civilian regimes has brought the introduction of electoralprocesses, the establishment of elected parliaments or congresses, and, insome cases, greater individual freedom, but these regimes have continued tofunction within an authoritarian institutional framework and to pursue poli-cies totally at variance with democratic procedures. These regimes practicemany of the same institutional policies and political processes begun underthe military, and for reasons of substance and structure it is appropriate to callthem neoauthoritarian. We will discuss the structure and substance ofneoauthoritarianism and contrast them with those of contemporary masspopular movements. We will begin by outlining an alternative conception ofdemocracy, based on past and present political practices in Latin America,that can serve as a model for the formulation of criteria for evaluatingdemocratic and authoritarian tendencies in contemporary Latin Americanregimes.

    James Petras is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton andthe author of Latin America in the Time of Cholera (New York: Routledge, 1992), Democracyand Poverty in Chile (Boulder: Westview, 1994), and Mediterranean Paradoxes: The Politicsand Social Structure of Southern Europe (Oxford: Berg, 1993). Steve Vieux has recentlycompleted a dissertation in the SUNY-Binghamton sociology department and has published inMonthly Review, Nueva Sociedad, and Studies In Political Economy.

    LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 83, Vol 21 No 4, Fall 1994 5-20 1994 Laun Amencan Perspectives

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    Parallel to the neoauthoritarian electoral regimes are a host of LatinAmerican sociopolitical movements with a tradition of action for socialchange and democratization. In Peru during the 1960s, massive land inva-sions organized by peasant-led social movements created the impulse forfar-reaching land reforms under General Velasco. In Chile in the late 1960sand early 1970s, peasant unions and industrial councils initiated new formsof self-management extending and deepening civil societys role in theshaping of democratic politics. In the 1980s neighborhood groups and laborunions led the struggle against the military dictatorships only to see theircomprehensive conceptions of democracy (including income redistributionand new state structures) ignored by the ascending electoral political class.Popular assemblies in neighborhoods, in womens organizations, in villageand land occupations reflect a different concept of democracy, one in whichthe elected leaders respond to the majority of the electorate rather than tooverseas bankers and other unelected officials and in which they have noparallel military or coercive apparatuses looking over their shoulders. In theassemblies there is no rhetoric of fear; the dominant view is that everyone(military and civilians) should be treated equally before the law and thatbudget allocations should be distributed according to need rather than simplyto the largest investors.

    These movements may display departures from democratic practice intheir meetings and their leadership. Overseas funding agencies frequentlyintervene through NGOs in the politics of the poor to set agendas for funding.Electoral-political parties are always present to co-opt &dquo;militants&dquo; to roundup votes and pass on government policy. Local caudillos establish their ownentourages of power brokers and seek to perpetuate their rule. Despite theirfailings and weaknesses, however, when popular assemblies do not followthe rules of democratic etiquette they disintegrate and/or are replaced by newmovements that must renew their mandates by responding to the needs oftheir constituents. They lack the state apparatuses, mass media, and overseasbacking of the neoauthoritarian electoral regimes. As prototypes of demo-cratic political systems, the popular assemblies provide us with alternativeprinciples around which electoral policies can become a vehicle for democracy.

    Authoritarian state structures are incompatible with democracy. Statestructures should reflect the new popular political interests, not those of theprevious configurations of power. Unelected bodies such as the InternationalMonetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and the private banking consortiashould be systematically excluded from any role in the political system.

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  • 7Democratically elected bodies such as neighborhood, civic consumer, tradeunion, and other representative groups should establish the terms of thepolitical economy. Politics should be based on freedom from fear andencouragement of social organization and mobilization. Military and civilianofficials implicated in crimes should be tried by civilian courts independentof the military and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Equality beforethe law should be guaranteed to all. Human and social rights should becornerstones of the political system. The right to strike at harvest to reclaimusurped land and to defend ones body and health are central issues. Budget-ary allocations should strengthen the socioeconomic position of the majority,providing it with the material bases to engage in politics and social life. Elitepreferences should be subordinated to popular representation in the allocationof investment, production, and consumption.No theory of democratic representation can ignore the class character of

    state institutions, budgetary allocations, and influence on the process ofdecision making. There is no such thing as a democracy without adjectives;elections and electoral regimes reflect links to power structures. Democrati-zation begins with the state, moves toward the process of decision making,and ends in the manner in which budgets and allocations are constructed anddistributed. The crisis of these electoral regimes is not a &dquo;crisis of democracy&dquo;but a crisis of neoauthoritarianism responsive to overseas and domestic elites.The problem of democratization raises the basic issue of the essential differ-ence between the regime and the state. Contemporary Latin American elec-toral regimes are not democratic because they engender a civic culture inwhich decisions are not free of fear of the state. The culture of fear cultivatedby the political parties and elites marginalizes popular demands throughconstant reference to the danger of provoking a return of the military.

    Democracy invokes an active, organized, and independent civil societybased on social movements responsive to popular needs. Today in LatinAmerica electoral machines attempt to subordinate and disarticulate thesocial movements, to atomize the electorate, and to discourage politicalvision.


    Several key dimensions of decision making and political structure arecrucial in identifying authoritarianism in an electoral regime: (1) Decision-making structure: Do representative groups responsive to the electorate makethe key decisions, or do overseas and domestic elites shape the political

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  • 8economy? (2) Structure of power: Does the political system contain authori-tarian institutions that shape policy? (3) Civic culture: Are the laws appliedequally to all citizens, or is there a dual legal system in which some sectorsare above the law? Do elected officials act to reinforce citizen participationand to guarantee the exercise of civil rights, or are political threats employedto influence political choices and participation? (4) Social and human rights:Do workers, peasants, and other groups have the right to organize unions andengage in strikes, or are they prohibited or repressed by the regime? and (5)Public policy and budgetary allocation: Do decisions about policy and thebudget increase the capacity of the majority to meet basic needs, or are thesethwarted in favor of elite enrichment? By examining these five dimensionswe can determine whether the introduction of electoral processes has alteredthe basic authoritarian structures and policies of the previous military regime.


    The major decisions of contemporary Latin American electoral regimesaffecting the relations between public spending and debt payments, publicand private property, income policy, foreign trade, investments, and regula-tion have been in large part shaped by the international banks-the IMF, theWorld Bank, the International Development Bank (IDB), and the consortiaof private banks and senior finance and treasury ministers of the UnitedStates, Europe, and Japan. Intervening in the debt crisis, these foreign eliteshave been influential in effecting massive transfers of funds (over US $280billion in the 1980s) from Latin America to the North-much to the detrimentof all socioeconomic indicators and against the will of the majority of theelectorate. Moreover, practically all of the new policies deregulating andprivatizing the economy and transferring property and income from wages/salaries to investors and creditors have been created by executive decree,because they are contrary to the electorates needs and desires and to con-gressional opinion.

    The enormous expansion of executive power under the neoauthoritarianelectoral regimes is evident in the frequent delegation of legislative power tothe executive by parliament and the extraordinary expansion of the numberof decrees issued by executive fiat. In the years 1985-1989, for example, thePeruvian legislature conceded its legislative power to the executive on 30occasions, resulting in 207 decrees concerning the economy, state revenues,and many other matters. Between 1980 and 1989, the Peruvian executive infact issued a total of 2,114 decrees with legal force, while during the sameperiod the parliament passed 1,639 laws. One researcher who explored thismatter in Argentina during the Alfonsin and Menem governments after 1983

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  • 9reported a similar state of affairs. Alfonsin used decrees to deal with the mostimportant economic matters, ignoring the parliament almost entirely. Menemcontinued this tradition, even informing the parliament that if it failed to passdesired legislation quickly he would settle matters with a decree. In the caseof his proposal to limit strikes by public employees and institute compulsoryarbitration, a somewhat watered-down version of it passed the Senate butbecame bogged down for months in the Chamber of Deputies, where therewas strong opposition to it from trade unionists and many deputies doubtedits wisdom. Menem finally settled the matter by simply issuing a decreeimposing his original version. Lobbyists and interest groups, notably frombig business, themselves stress that it is the executive rather than parliamentthat is the locus of power. A political advisor to the Uni6n Industrial Argentinastated bluntly that &dquo;the parliament does not deal with any fundamentalproblem of the country,&dquo; adding that the best way to solve a problem was totalk with high-ranking executive officials in the economic or finance minis-tries (Pasara, 1993: 606-607; Epstein, 1992: 145-148).

    The expansion of executive powers, including decree power, is undemo-cratic in that it confiscates the policy-making powers of the parliament,minimizes the ability of parliament to call attention to and check executiveinitiative, and reduces the scope of public discussion. Such executive powersare also self-perpetuating; they can be used to shield the executive fromexposure and criticism. For example, Menem decreed the resignation ofRicardo Molinas, the head of a government investigative body charged withprosecuting corruption in the government, for seeking the testimony of a topMenem advisor (Human Rights Watch, 1991: 148-149). In one afternoonCarlos Menem signed over 100 decrees radically reversing 50 years ofArgentine history. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori signed his decreesprivatizing the economy in the military headquarters before dismissingparliament. Alejandro Foxley in Chile and Fernando Collor in Brazil bothmade policy through executive action. Elite-favored policies are imple-mented by executive decree, effectively undercutting rule by elected repre-sentatives in consultation with their electoral constituency.


    From Central America to Chile, the shift from military to civilian regimeshas been accompanied by continuity of the authoritarian state structures andpersonnel of the military dictatorships. The military, the courts, the civilbureaucracy, the central bank-all the key vantage points for exercisingleverage on the political system-have remained intact. The death squadofficials and their official protectors in the general command have been

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  • 10

    promoted and legitimated. Military budgets in Chile and Peru have eitherincreased or stayed the same. The same authoritarian teachers and curriculapersist in the police and military academies. Augusto Pinochet speaks out onany and all issues and has sworn to oppose any elected official who questionshis power or threatens to prosecute even the lowest-level torturer under hiscommand.

    Perhaps more carefully than any other Latin American dictator of the1970s, Pinochet subordinated the institutions of the electoral regime to themilitary apparatus and secured this subordination materially by means ofbudget constraints. He established a floor under the military budget byguaranteeing the military 10 percent of the proceeds of state copper sales withthe supplements necessary to reach a level of expenditure fixed in advance.In contrast to that of other state employees, remuneration of the military wasindexed to the cost of living. The militarys position was secured politicallyby means of special laws and the 1980 constitution. It was guaranteedrepresentation in the Senate and assigned political responsibilities at themunicipal level. The right of the president to select top military commanderswas strictly circumscribed; they were given a four-year tenure during whichthey could not be removed. The military was allowed an extraordinary degreeof autonomy, governing itself in such matters as training and promotion. Theresult of all this was the creation of a corps of like-minded bureaucratsendowed at once with special political powers and privileges and with controlover the instruments of coercion. The result has been close surveillance ofthe Aylwin regime by officials well placed to organize action against it if theysaw fit to do so. Unsurprisingly, the Aylwin government has done little tochallenge the legal or institutional heritage of the dictatorship (&dquo;Gastenmucho,&dquo; 1990; Loveman, 1991).

    The civilian governments have acquiesced to this power configuration andin most cases have sought to use the authoritarian structures to strengthentheir position against democratic social movements. Recently in Chile theAylwin government used the federal police to arrest 80 Mapuches attemptingto recover stolen lands; in Peru, Fujimori enforces his dictatorial powersthrough military massacres-just as did his elected predecessors Alan Garciaand Fernando Belaunde. In El Salvador, political assassinations of activistsby the same &dquo;paramilitary&dquo; forces linked to the military continue.

    The shift to electoral regimes in the context of the continuity of authori-tarian state structures has severely compromised any democratizing impulsein the political system. In any context of power, the authoritarian stateinstitutions exercise supremacy over the weaker electoral-regime politicians.

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  • 11


    A viable democracy depends upon citizens feeling free to exercise theirrights without intimidation by regime or state power holders. ThroughoutLatin America, regime leaders have bludgeoned social movements intosubordinating their demands to investor preferences by invoking the threatof the &dquo;return of the military.&dquo; In Argentina the Alfonsin regime and itsintellectual spokespersons have frequently compared popular human rightsadvocates and social movement leaders to military coup conspirators as&dquo;threats to democracy.&dquo; The political culture cultivated by the electoral-political class was one based on fear and insecurity in which only the politicalelites could decide when (if ever), where, and how to proceed with socioeco-nomic change.

    These electoral regimes have granted immunity to military and policeofficials involved in torture, homicides, kidnappings, and disappearances. InArgentina in 1989 and 1990 Menem pardoned the seven generals who hadbeen convicted of crimes stemming from the &dquo;dirty war&dquo; against the left andhalted all such prosecutions. A number of prominent police officers andintelligence agents who had escaped prosecution and kept their positions ofresponsibility because of amnesty granted by Menem and Alfonsin wereinvolved in a kidnapping ring that was exposed in the early 1990s. In Chilea 1978 amnesty law exonerated those responsible for the bloodiest period ofthe Pinochet dictatorship between 1973 and 1978. Those involved in humanrights violations after 1978 have been exonerated by the Supreme Court,which simply assigns such cases to the military courts, where nothinghappens. The human rights organization Americas Watch commented: &dquo;Per-petrators of gross and multiple violations of human rights remain effectivelyabove the law. Some, still on active military duty, retain positions of respon-sibility&dquo; (Human Rights Watch, 1991: 141, 164). All decisions were made inconsultation with the military and against majority electoral opinion. Ineffect, the political class violated the most elementary principle of anydemocratic polity: equality before the law. Despite the Rettig Report docu-menting over 3,000 human rights victims of homicide, the Aylwin regime hasproceeded in terms of a &dquo;two-law principle&dquo;; civilian homicides have beenprosecuted, military officials have been decorated and promoted, and 21political prisoners fighting for democracy against the Pinochet dictatorshipcontinue to languish in jail.

    The politics of fear and the dual legal system are characteristic elementsof a deeply entrenched authoritarian political culture, one in which repressivepress laws, antistrike legislation, and constitutions fashioned by the dictator-ship still define the contours of the political system.

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  • 12


    Despite the apparent extension and/or reinstatement of individual rightsunder the civilian regimes, abuses of human and social rights have been thenorm: under Presidents Cerezo in Guatemala, Duarte and Cristiani in ElSalvador, Beladnde, Garcia, and Fujimori in Peru, and Sarney and Collor inBrazil the military death squads and police have engaged in widespreadabuses of human rights. Scores of civilians are murdered each month inGuatemala, dozens killed or tortured in El Salvador. The murder of streetchildren has become commonplace in Brazil, and there is considerableevidence that these killings are either the work of off-duty or retired policeofficers or tolerated by the police. A public official reported 1,230 death squadkillings of youths between December 1990 and May 1991 in a slum of Riode Janeiro; 70 such deaths per month were reported from Sdo Paulo for 1991 1(Human Rights Watch, 1991: 148-149). Virtually none of the perpetrators areprosecuted. Many are praised and promoted by the civilian presidents fordefending democracy against &dquo;subversives.&dquo;

    Even more widespread has been the denial of social rights. Repressivelaws carried over from the military regime hinder peasant and rural workersfrom organizing in Chile; states of emergency are frequently declared inBolivia to repress strikes protesting privatization of public enterprises. Farmworkers in Chile are prohibited from striking during harvest season-the onlytime a strike would have any effect. In Argentina the military has been invitedto play a major role in internal security policy. In Chile an extensive systemof rewards has been established to encourage informing among formerrevolutionary activists. In Brazil in particular, the electoral regime hascoexisted with a determined violent assault on attempts by the rural poor toorganize and to occupy land. According to the estimate of one Brazilianhuman rights organization, 112 people were killed as a result of contentionover rural landownership in 1990-1991, and all these murders resulted in justtwo convictions (Human Rights Watch, 1991: 154). And in Peru wholesalemassacres of peasants and the militarization of two-thirds of the country havebeen promoted by electoral regimes. Electoral politics has little impact onhuman rights, particularly when free-market and other socially regressivepolicies are being enforced against the will of the majority.

    Perhaps no recent incident has more strikingly demonstrated the continu-ing power of the military throughout the region-its impunity, lawlessness,and contempt for the electoral regimes-than the macabre case of EugenioBerrios. Berrios had worked for the Chilean secret police agency, DINA,under the Pinochet dictatorship. A scientist and a member of the fascist groupPatria y Libertad, Berrios developed special nerve gasses for use by DINA

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  • 13

    and was thought to have poisoned numerous torture victims. More specifi-cally, he was accused of participation in the planning of the assassination ofOrlando Letelier and in the murder, after a torture session, of a Spanish lawyeremployed by the United Nations. When a judge ordered his arrest in 1992,Berrios fled Chile. His flight was assisted by the Chilean military andintelligence, which feared that he could destroy the story that MichaelTownley had acted alone in murdering Orlando Letelier. Three former DINAagents were also helped to flee the country. Berrios entered Argentina with afalse passport, where he stayed two to three months. Then, with the help ofthe Uruguayan military, he was transferred to Montevideo. During his seven-month stay Uruguayan intelligence, with the knowledge of the military,helped him elude Chilean detectives. At some point he became fearful for hislife. He escaped, fell into the hands of the Uruguayan military, and wasreturned to his captors. He then disappeared.

    The incident unraveled while President Luis Alberto Lacalle was inLondon, and he swore to &dquo;take the most drastic means necessary.&dquo; Upon hisreturn he was met with a solid wall of military opposition to any action againstthe officials involved. The head of the army assumed responsibility for anyactions of his subordinates. All the generals in the army united to announcethat they would refuse to replace the commander in chief if he was forced toresign. The president backed down, declaring that the Berrios case was aninternal Chilean matter and that he had &dquo;not detected any action which primafacie merited classification as illegal.&dquo;

    The Berrios incident suggests the persistence of Operation Condor, theinternational clandestine military network set up in 1975 by ManuelContreras, the head of DINA, in cooperation with the armed forces ofArgentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Paraguay. Its purpose was to rid the countriesinvolved of Chilean leftists by murdering them and to pursue enemies of theChilean dictatorship throughout the world. Today, the network apparentlystill enables the military apparatus in each country to defy local authorities,to escape prosecution, and to commit crimes with impunity in the othercountries. This means that the working relationships are still in effect that, inthe days of the dictatorships, led to such crimes as the assassination of theChilean General Carlos Prats during his exile in Argentina and the killing ofmore than 100 other exiled Chileans. Years of electoral democracy have yetto break up the network or to limit the extraordinary military prerogativesand autonomy that it requires.

    The Berrios episode also demonstrates the extent to which the militaryapparatuses have been able to establish a privileged extrajudicial status forthemselves and their civilian employees. Berrios himself was above the lawin Chile when it suited the interests of the military to keep him out of the

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  • 14

    hands of Chilean authorities. Then he was below the law when the Chileanmilitary decided he had to disappear. In short, he was anything but a citizen;his juridical status was entirely dependent upon the Chilean militarys calcu-lation of its own interest. Finally, Lacalle asserted that the clandestinepresence of foreign troops on Uruguayan soil and their involvement, aidedby Uruguayan intelligence, in the sequestration and then disappearance of aChilean citizen was an internal Chilean matter. This absurd commentamounted to a recognition of the right of Operation Condor to operate inUruguay, almost as if it enjoyed diplomatic immunity. As an editorialist inBrecha pointed out, the military now demands impunity no longer for crimesthat it committed during the dictatorships but for the crimes it commits todayunder the electoral regimes. The electoral regime apologizes for the behaviorof the military, minimizes its involvement, and denies the need for legalaction with regard to crimes committed by the military. The declarations ofimpunity after the dictatorships did not lead to a clean break with the past ashad been hoped. Impunity did not promote reconciliation but led to a spiralof fresh outrages and still more declarations of impunity (Brecha, June 11,June 18, July 2, 1993; New York Times, July 20, 1993).


    The policies of these electoral regimes reflect their profound class biases.Wage and salary policies led to precipitous declines in minimum urbansalaries in the 1980s and 1990s: 74 percent in Peru, 58 percent in Ecuador,50 percent in Mexico, 21 percent in Chile. In line with the neoliberalobsession with reducing the size of the state and its intervention in theeconomy, expenditures on social and other basic services were cut backsharply throughout the region. Per capita educational expenditures by 1985had fallen to 79 percent and per capita expenditures on health to 84 percentof their 1980 levels. Social security benefits of various kinds, such asretirement benefits, unemployment insurance, and disability payments,which had never in the best of times reached the majority of the population,suffered cutbacks in coverage and benefits over the course of the decade.These cutbacks had predictable effects, making government response tohealth emergencies such as the AIDS and cholera epidemics all the moredifficult. Where neoliberal policies were followed the most dogmatically theresults were devastating. In Mexico infant mortality increased from 40.4deaths per 100,000 live births ten years ago to 118.5 in 1992. More than 20percent of newborns showed symptoms of malnutrition. Cutbacks weretaking place throughout Latin America in the context of sharply higher urbanunemployment, an annual inflation rate which had jumped from 56 percent

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  • 15

    in 1980 to 473 percent in 1988, and steady growth of the informal sector.Meanwhile, multinational corporations and banks transferred record sums inthe form of interest, profit, and rental payments-US $281.5 billion over thesame decade (Grosh, 1990: 15; Inter-American Development Bank, 1991:188-189; Monge, 1991). In the 1990s, the number of Latin American billion-aires increased from 8 to 21 (Asami et al., 1991). There has been massivepublic corruption by elected officials in Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, and Peruinvolving hundreds of millions of dollars, and the selling off of profitablepublic enterprises at bargain-basement prices has occurred in Argentina, Peru,and Mexico. The Chilean regime refuses to investigate similar transactionsin the last years of the Pinochet regime.

    The content of policy reflects the tendency of these regimes to reinforceinequalities and immiseration while surrendering control over state policy toprivate elites. Regressive budgetary policy frequently contrasts with populistelectoral campaign propaganda, thus generating cynicism and rejection of thesystem as manipulative and responsive only to elite interests (as in fact it is).

    These regimes display none of the features associated with democratiza-tion. It is a fundamental error to confuse the transition to an electoral regimewith a transition to democracy. Rather, the change reflects new forms ofauthoritarianism rooted in the continuation of state institutions and linkageswith unelected elites and with elite-technocratic decision-making processesand policies. The increasing popular rejection of these regimes is not, there-fore, a rejection of democracy but a healthy public recognition of andopposition to neoauthoritarian structures and practices.


    The defense of neoauthoritarian electoral regimes is becoming an increas-ingly important feature of U.S. imperial policy in Latin America and through-out the world. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, various regimes(the most grotesque example being El Salvador under Duarte) were givenmassive economic and military aid in spite of the absence of the mostrudimentary civil rights and the ubiquity of death squads. At the same time,numerous &dquo;transitions to democracy,&dquo; for example, in Chile and the Philip-pines, were organized in order to maintain existing property relations andguarantee the coherence and continuity of the state apparatus. In addition tothese benefits these regimes provided a means of restoring order and defusingmass movements as the military dictatorships were increasingly underminedby their own economic failures and popular opposition. They proved adeptat co-opting leaders and splitting mass movements. At the same time they

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  • 16

    increasingly opened their markets and resources to investors from outside theregion, sold off valuable state assets, and obediently transferred massivefunds to pay down their debts.

    The complex motives for U.S. support of neoauthoritarian regimes areperhaps most clearly revealed in the U.S. response to the coup that overthrewJean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. Aristide is the exception that proves the rule.In contrast to Aylwin, Menem, and others, he pursued those who had violatedcivil rights in previous years. A judge who procrastinated in the prosecutionof a former Duvalier associate was jailed; when the judge escaped, theattorney general who had permitted it was jailed and the minister of justicesacked. In addition, Aristide attempted serious alterations in the militaryapparatus. He rebuffed U.S. attempts to get him to denounce attacks by hisfollowers on the Tonton Macoutes. He removed six top officers, includingfive generals on the general staff and the head of the most powerful armyunit. He had a dozen other top officers who had been close to Duvalierarrested. He brought the constabulary in the countryside under the jurisdic-tion of the Justice Ministry rather than the military. His final step, whichtriggered the coup, was to attempt to disband a key armored unit and replaceit with freshly trained and organized soldiers. In addition he encouraged massaction, responding to mass protests in June 1991, for example, by removingtwo ministers for not doing enough about unemployment and inflation. Hebelieved that his political revolution could not succeed without a socialrevolution (Latin American Weekly Report, January 7, February 28, andOctober 10, 1991; Slavin, 1991; DAdesky, 1991: 7-8).

    In many respects Aristide violated the established protocols of neoauthori-tarianism. He rebuffed outside, specifically U.S., interference in Haitianpolitical affairs. He tried to impose a rather thoroughgoing reorganization onthe military rather than bowing to its dictates. He took strong action not onlyagainst criminals from previous regimes who had gone unpunished butagainst officials who proved reluctant to apply the law to them. He took localjustice in the rural areas out of the hands of the military. Instead of usingofficialdom and the new electoral machinery to co-opt and split popularmovements, he relied on the popular movement to force officials to fall intoline with his program. Instead of singing the praises of the free market heproclaimed the need for a social revolution.

    While Aristide was in power, the U.S. State Department developed adetailed critique of his administration on human rights grounds and com-menced funding his opponents through the Agency for International Devel-opment (Chomsky, 1993: 210). When he was overthrown, it kept quiet aboutthe brutality of the new junta and shunned Aristide, all the while participatingin an ineffective and half-hearted Organization of American States embargo

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  • 17

    of Haiti. The Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. military funded,trained, and worked closely before and after the coup with the military thatoverthrew Aristide (Aristide and Richardson, 1994). It is highly likely thatthey were not only privy to the events leading up to the coup but encouragedit as a means to replace Aristide with a more pliant electoral figure (seecomments and analysis by Ben Dupuy in Orenstein, 1993: 13). The U.S.government continued its military training programs in Haiti while express-ing pro-forma opposition to the coup. An effort was made to replace Aristidewith a former World Bank official favored by the State Department and U.S.business, Marc Bazin. This ploy failed to elicit any internal or internationalsupport and was replaced by a strategy of pressuring the military to acceptthe return of Aristide as head of the government and pressuring Aristide toaccept the existing state institutions and a prime minister acceptable to thelocal oligarchy and international bankers. The military high command re-sisted, however, and the United States was forced to support an embargo topressure the military elite to sacrifice regime control to save the state. At notime has the U.S. government called into question the structure and role ofthe military as an institution protecting elite interests despite the fact thatmilitary and paramilitary groups were murdering hundreds of poor peopleand grassroots leaders supporting Aristide.

    The case of Haiti is crucial for understanding the imperial meaning of theneoauthoritarian regimes in Latin America. Within imperial discourse, de-mocracy in these regions excludes mass organization, mass mobilization,defiance of external social and political forces, reorganization of the military,and prosecution of state criminals from previous regimes. Aristide broke withthe imperialist model of democracy by encouraging mass participation andremoving or at least challenging obstacles to that participation. In short, hisregime was a bit too democratic. The U.S. response was to denounce him asa human rights violator and to fund his opponents; in a more strategically andeconomically central country the response might very well be a sharper one.

    Support for neoauthoritarian regimes is not the exclusive preserve of theRepublicans; Bill Clinton was able to appeal on this basis to many of the U.S.neoconservative intellectuals who had earlier abandoned the DemocraticParty for Reagan and Bush. Many of the neoconservatives who came backto the Democratic Party were convinced defenders of &dquo;democratic global-ism&dquo;-intervention by the United States around the world as the savior ofdemocracy. Clinton has in fact made a number of appointments of neocon-servatives of &dquo;democratic globalist&dquo; persuasion to important foreign policypositions. The continuity of ideology and to some extent of personnel in thisarea reflects the proliferation of neoauthoritarian regimes. Where such aregime is in place it is a simple matter to justify intervention on behalf of the

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    (narrowly circumscribed) electoral regime in the name of the defense ofdemocracy.

    One of the chief signs that this ideological rationale for interventionabroad is gaining influence is the nomination of Morton Halperin as assistantsecretary of defense for democracy and peacekeeping. Halperin has arguedin the influential review Foreign Policy that the United States and the&dquo;international community&dquo; should abandon the principle of noninterferencein the internal affairs of other nations. Instead, &dquo;where a people have estab-lished a constitutional democracy, or ... are moving in that direction, theUnited States and much of the world community will resist internal effortsto undermine democracy.&dquo; Halperin goes on to argue that ideally the UnitedStates, the UN, and regional organizations will step in to &dquo;guarantee&dquo; consti-tutional democracy in a troubled country. He continues: &dquo;if requested, apermanent or open-ended presence of an international police force ought tobe provided to keep the peace and to prevent police abuse or even a militarycoup&dquo; (Halperin, 1993: 121).

    These formulations throw open the door to open-ended military interven-tion on behalf of neoauthoritarian regimes. They also permit intervention toprotect regimes that do not even pretend to be constitutional democracies; itis sufficient that the regime be &dquo;moving in that direction,&dquo; an easily satisfiedrequirement. In short, it appears that the defense of the endangeredneoauthoritarian regime may play an important role as a justification forimperial meddling and intervention now that the arsenal of Cold War ideol-ogy is exhausted.


    Contemporary Latin American electoral regimes fail to meet the basiccriteria for democracy. Procedurally and substantively the exercise of powerin them is authoritarian. In one case at least (Mexico), electoral fraud wasused to assume power. In all cases, rule by decree or executive initiativemarginalizes elected bodies from any deliberative process. The overwhelm-ing influence of unelected officials, domestic and foreign, denies the verynotion of self-government. The stark contrast between electoral campaignsbased on populist and nationalist appeals and the conservative neoliberalpolicies applied by elected governments reveals not only the gap betweencitizen concerns and the political class but the irrelevance of voting as a meansof exercising citizenship. Substantive politics as practiced by the electoralregimes revolves around implementing a neoliberal economic agenda highly

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    prejudicial to the vast majority of Latin American voters. The frauds, decep-tion, decrees, and other techniques of authoritarian rulership are functionallyrelated to the exigencies of serving foreign and domestic elites within theframework of electoral politics. In other words, the substantive politics of anelite economic strategy require emptying electoral politics of its democraticcontent. Free markets and democracy are incompatible; vacuous electoralsystems and neoliberalism under U.S. tutelage define what we describe as thecurrent transition to authoritarian electoral politics in Latin America. Ouralternative of popular-assembly-style democracy is neither utopian nor amodel extrapolated from other regions in different times but based on thetraditions and practices of a vast number of Latin American citizens excludedby the authoritarian electoral system and exploited by the &dquo;free-marketeconomies.&dquo; A transition from authoritarian electoral regimes to democraticpolitics would involve the transformation of voters into citizens with effectivepower over their leaders and with influence in policy debates. The transitionwould involve dismantling the authoritarian state and replacing it with publicauthorities responsive to a democratic electorate. Civil society, weakened bythe authoritarian state and free-market policies, needs to be strengthened byincreasing democratic control over the process of production and distribution,empowering workplace councils, peasant cooperatives, and neighborhoodassemblies. The pluralist political and economic rhetoric that legitimates theneoauthoritarian system must be systematically criticized and confronted asa preliminary step toward authentic democratic politics.


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    "Gasten mucho y quieran mas."1990 Pgina Abierta, July 23-August 5.

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    Grosh, Margaret1990 Social Spending in Latin America. Washington, DC: World Bank.

    Halperin, Morton1993 "Guaranteeing democracy." Foreign Policy 91 (Summer): 105-122.

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    Monge, Raul1992 "Expansividad, la desnutricin en Mexico: mas de la mitad de la poblacin, desegunda." El Proceso, August 3.

    Orenstein, Catherine1993 "An interview with Ben Dupuy, Aristides ambassador at large." Report on theAmericas 27 (July-August): 12-15.

    Pasara, Luis1993 "El rol del parlamento: Argentina y Peru." Desarrollo Econmico 32 (January-March):606-607.

    Slavin, J. P.1991 "Haiti: the elites revenge." Report on the Americas 25 (December): 4-6.

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