Latin America perhaps exhibits the largest number of unfulfilled promises and shattered dreams. Ever since Mr Columbus decided to take a Caribbean cruise the region has staged authoritarian governments of every sign ( right, left and in between). Oppression has been the rule; inequality the daily life and capped development the stymieing reality.
The 1990s however seemed to promise an end to this collective suffering. Everywhere in the region democracy began to flourish. Beginning with Chile and ending with Central America, the cause of freedom appeared to have won a protracted battle with authoritarianism. By the time President George H.W. Bush was inaugurated only Cuba was a dictatorship. The Initiative of the Americas aimed at sealing the triumph of freedom with economic progress so that there would never be a setback.
25 years down the road however, the region is clearly drifting into authoritarianism once again. And this time the door to despotic rule has been opened by democratic institutions not coups d’état.
To be sure, suffocated by poverty, inequality, crime induced violence and social stalemate, the people have ceased to support traditional parties to seek other options which are deemed not be free from links to powerful interests responsible for the status quo. Political outsiders are thus calling the electoral shots everywhere. And this is particularly visible in Central America and Mexico where outsiders occupy today the presidential palaces.
President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has benefitted from this trend and perhaps is the most outspoken and defiant of all heads of state in Central America.
Mr Bukele came to power as a disruptive Millennial who would crack all resistance to reform and set El Salvador onto a path of development and renewed democracy. Expectations on his performance were high to the point of getting a cheering accolade from investment funds.
His mandate quite clearly was to break the straight jacket of corporativism to release the country’s economic potential and to strengthen rule of law so as to successfully face the gang induced violence punishing 40% of the population.
Attaining the first goal demanded an open economy that would foster competition — which is an unknown concept to the country’s business establishment.
The second, to strengthen political institutions in particular city halls congress and courts. Instead Mr Bukele seems to be in a rally to bring down the authoritarian hammer against congress and the courts; reach back door deals with the least competitive among business leaders; weaponize the army .. and … negotiate with organized crime!
All these measures spell democratic havoc.
And as Mr Bukele’s strategy progresses, copycat regimes will beginning to sprout throughout Central America aggravating the horrific social conditions that drive migrants to the United States.
And while the U.S. is not interested in receiving more immigrants, it will most probably do nothing to stop the authoritarian wave as long as the newly minted despots accept to hold on people who seek a better life north of the Rio Bravo.
Locally these newly minted caudillos will not find resistance either.Most business consortia in Latin America derive their success from government intervention either restricting trade and competition or granting credits and soft loans.
Civic society is feeble and the institutional framework is completely intervened by the executive branch of government.
We will thus most probably watch how Mr Bukele and his followers in the region dishevel democracy.