The terrible time of the strongmen

By Carlos Alberto Montaner*


The streets of Latin American have filled with people protesting heatedly against their governments. The protests rise against leftist governments (Venezuela, the worst of all; Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua, Argentina); centrist (Peru and Mexico); and rightist (Guatemala and Honduras). No doubt, others will be added to the lists.  

Those who walk the streets in Latin America complain basically about one, several or all of the following twelve motives: corruption, inefficiency, insecurity in the face of violent crime, the impunity of criminals, the subordination of the legislative and judicial powers to the will of the executive, the brazen change of rules to stay in power indefinitely, the violation of human rights, electoral fraud, control over the communications media, the lack of essential goods, the abuse of the rights previously granted to labor unions or native peoples, and the irresponsible plunder of the delicate ecosystem.

The phenomenon is grave. The general perception is that the region's presidents are awful administrators, which in part explains the relative secular backwardness. The social contract between the rulers and the ruled has been broken, and the latter are denying their consent to the former. As the Spanish saying goes, a pitcher can be lowered into the well so many times before it breaks. One straw can break a camel's back.

In the republican concept, we are all equal, we are obligated to obey the laws, we cannot write Constitutions or dictate laws at the whim of an abusive clique. Elections serve to organize the collective mechanisms for decision-making, not to legitimize some corrupt big shots. 

Likewise, we take it for granted that politicians and functionaries will earn their posts, gain responsibility and remain in office because of their merits, not their relations. We're talking about public servants who enter government to fulfill the mandate given to them by the society that has elected them. They were not selected to rule but to obey. That, at least, is the theory.

And the theory is not wrong. We Latin Americans have violated it to the point that it has failed. 

It has been violated by the bad businessmen who, in collusion with the rulers, split the revenues and bar access to any economic actors who don't have godfathers or refuse to engage in bribery.

It has been mocked by the guilds and labor unions that negotiate privileges with the rulers, knowing that they make it almost impossible for young people to enter the labor market.

It has been injured by certain religious people of all ranks, certain long-winded journalists, and some radical professors who condemn the quest for personal triumph, as if achieving economic success in life were a crime and a sin. The word profit comes from the Latin profectus -- progress, advance.

Of course the republican design works and is right. We see that in the list of the world's 20 most prosperous and free countries. Some are republics and others are parliamentary monarchies but all of them accept the basic norms of the Rule of Law begotten by the Enlightenment and perfected by the liberal revolutions.

Among those successful nations, some have liberal governments that renounced the anticlericalism of yore, while others have social-democratic governments that rejected the superstitions of Marxism. Some are Christian democrats who lack religious fanaticism, others are conservatives who abandoned the penchant for an iron fist and the excessive cult of order.

Sometimes they join coalitions, sometimes they diverge in politics but they always succeed each other democratically in the exercise of power. They are part of a same political family presided by tolerance, risen from the American and the French revolutions, although they are divided by an important -- though not vital or irreconcilable -- factor: the intensity and destination of the fiscal burden, which determines the size and responsibility that each group attributes to the State. 

I do not include in that lineage the communists, fascists and authoritarians of every ilk -- militarists, ultranationalists, religious fanatics -- because they don't believe in the virtue of coexisting with and accepting people who are different, or in respecting the pluralism inherent in every society, or in believing in the democratic alternation of governments, as shown by the unending trail of cadavers they leave behind in their efforts to retain power.

It's convenient for us Latin Americans to learn, once and for all, a very obvious lesson: the republican structure is very fragile and will hold together only if the societies are capable of producing governments that accept and obey the rules that give meaning and shape that that manner of organizing coexistence. Either they govern well or everything goes to hell on wheels.

When governments flounder, there is first a generalized sensation of failure; then come the caudillos, the authoritarian men in uniform, the enlightened revolutionaries, lording it all over our people, worsening all the ills that they had sworn to fix. That's the terrible time of the strongmen. 

*CAM is a journalist and writer. His latest book is the novel A Time for Scoundrels.