The Evolution of Coup d’Etats in Latin America

Posted on December 9, 2009

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Recent events in Latin America, particularly in Bolivia and Honduras, once again cast light on political governance in the region. This theme is not new and its features certainly not surprising given the history of the region and its culture of caudillos. Although a few countries have matured somewhat politically, the coups and revolutions of the past seem to have been replaced by devious politicking by means of ‘constitutional reforms’. The effects, however, are still the same with erosions and corruptions of society – culturally and economically – that encourage widespread distrust. If the region wants to achieve true development, perpetual ‘constitutional reforms’ will be an obstacle.

The likes of Messrs Chavez and Morales are, however, correct on one point. It is in the interest of the region to empower and include the poor and indigenous populations in the political as well as economic processes. Yet, it is doubtful whether scaremongering and deep factionalism with chants of anti-imperialism will achieve this. It risks merely turning the tables – the formerly oppressed are now oppressing. Indeed, it is true that many questionable leaders have been elected by the popular vote (manifested again in Bolivia) but that does not grant them a carte blanche of unconditional powers. Bolivia, for example, is likely to see more uncertainty and instability as presidential term limits are under threat following the re-election of Morales.

Admittedly, existing presidential term limits might not be optimal in themselves and they might even be culturally wholly out of place in Latin America. But removing them could make the situation worse as it undermines political credibility. Term limits might conceivably have found inspiration in the US but one must then take into account how they emerged there from a deeper political culture. George Washington, for example, did not step down after two terms because of constitutional demands but because his conscience told him it was simply the right thing to do. This point illustrates one of many requirements for true development: the cultivation of responsible and virtuous political leadership, not cleverly drafted constitutions (although these can be helpful). As has been all too often shown, these latter can easily be overturned.

The example of Honduras raises a question about the role of foreign countries in this quagmire, with the actions of the American president appearing deeply questionable and those of his Brazilian counterpart close to deplorable. Playing realpolitik in trying to outflank Mr Chavez in his criticism of the ousting of the Honduran president, Mr Zelaya, in June 2009, might seem like a wise move by the American administration. But it means the diplomatic battle is carried out on Chavez’s playing field and with his premises. Mr Obama needs to realise that so-called coups are nowadays veiled in more sophisticated political and juridical processes. This, if anything at all, is what external leaders should address. For if small nations – like Honduras – are so obviously afraid of Chavez-style governance other countries must stand up for them, even when they make mistakes.

Certain principles are always worth defending and, as Thomas More would have told us, they might even be worth perishing for.

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Posted in: Latin America