What Protests Tell Us About Democracy in Latin America

Cipher Brief Expert View

Ambassador Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010. Prior to that, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (DAS) for the Western Hemisphere. He is now Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University.

View all articles by Ambassador Patrick Duddy

OPINION — Instability in Latin America fuels refugee flows, inflation and criminal activity, all of which affect U.S. interests. The Biden Administration’s virtual summit on democracy, which will taking place this month, provides a moment to consider what recent protests across Latin America mean not only for democracies there, but for conditions back home too.

Civil protest is an essential health-check for democracies, and government responses to recent protests in Latin America have been a mixed bag. Generally protests erupt out of dissatisfaction with the performance of those holding political power.  In authoritarian states, protests have had little impact on policy beyond drawing international attention. In more genuinely democratic countries, protest can shape political debate and force consideration of new policies.  Three recent elections in Chile, Nicaragua and Venezuela say much about the political circumstances on the ground in those countries and the impact of recent demonstrations.  

In the first, Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega was reelected in a process so obviously manipulated that virtually every major international organization condemned the outcome.  Having survived the mass protests prior to the pandemic (which state security forces ruthlessly repressed) and weathered widespread criticism from the international community and sanctions by the United States, Ortega seemed confident enough in his hold on power to schedule elections though he also incarcerated seven potential rivals.

The election was, in part, an act of defiance but it was also intended to preserve for Ortega and his wife, the vice president, a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy. According to the InterAmerican Democratic Charter, signed in 2001, being a functioning democracy is a requirement for full participation in the Interamerican system.  Nevertheless, Ortega took no chances.  He barred both international election observers and most international media, clearly intending to foreclose any close examination by neutral observers of the preposterously flawed process. 

Venezuela’s regional elections on Nov. 21 offer an even more discouraging example of a discredited, authoritarian regime underscoring its grip on power through an electoral process most observers characterized as neither free nor fair. The opposition, in desperation, after years of protests and having boycotted other recent elections, agreed to participate. Their hope was that by reengaging and showing some residual strength, the opposition could generate some optimism that the regime could eventually be nudged in the direction of restoring democracy.

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The regime participated understanding that, given its control of the voting rolls and process, there was little risk.  At the same time, internationally defrocked President Nicolas Maduro and his allies hoped that by seeming to make some concessions to the opposition, they could convince the United States and others to lift at least some of the sanctions imposed as the regime’s legitimacy dissipated over the last several years. Given the desultory level of participation in the voting and the significant irregularities noted by election observers from the European Union, it seems likely that both the de facto government and the opposition will be  disappointed.

Only in Chile did the popular unrest that roiled the country in 2019 and since, seem to have had a clear impact on the country’s politics. The first-round presidential election saw voters reject the candidates from the parties of both the current president and that of his predecessor. The two top vote-getting candidates emerged from parties that have not held power since democracy was restored in 1989.  This follows a vote in 2020 to redraft the country’s Pinochet era constitution, a key demand of the protest movement.  To this point, Chile’s political institutions have functioned precisely as intended. The country is probably in for more unrest in the future however, as the two candidates who will face each other in the run-off represented the furthest far right and far left options among the field of candidates for the presidency. The bottom line appears to be that while Chile’s democracy seems to be in good shape, the electorate is very deeply divided.   

Nicaragua, Venezuela and Chile are by no means the only countries in Latin America that have experienced recent, serious episodes of social unrest.  Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and others all have seen major protests – sometimes over social issues, sometimes in reaction to economic developments.  Brazil and Colombia both will hold national elections next year, and because both countries  are functioning democracies,  most observers expect the elections to be competently administered and the results respected – notwithstanding some concerns in Brazil about President Bolsonaro’s intentions.   

Developments in Nicaragua and Venezuela, however, should give policy-makers around the region and in Washington pause. Both have authoritarian governments.  Seeming to mirror Cuba’s political playbook, both have repressed dissent while insisting their electoral charades confirmed popular support for the status quo. Both have ignored criticism from the region’s democracies as well as the demands of domestic protesters.  Economic sanctions have not improved respect for human rights nor precipitated political liberalization. In fact, some argue sanctions have made life harder for ordinary citizens.  What to do – if anything?

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Neither the U.S., nor any combination of other nations in the region is advocating interventionism. Clearly, it is time for new thinking. It may be too late to do much for Nicaragua and Venezuela but helping other countries deal with the underlying causes of civil unrest would be in the best interest of democracies throughout North and South America. The challenge is to help nations wracked by civil discord to address greviances effectively and channel public dissatisfaction into the established political process in ways that strengthen the countries’ capacity to change in ways that do not make things worse.  This should be a priority concern for the United States, for reasons selfish and humanitarian. 

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Cipher Brief Expert View

Ambassador Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010. Prior to that, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (DAS) for the Western Hemisphere. He is now Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University.

View all articles by Ambassador Patrick Duddy

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