Present Political Problems of Three Latin American Countries:
Latin American countries have experienced different trajectories, which have made their political transitions very unique, and have also influenced and contributed to the present political problems of each particular country. As a result of these problems, most of Latin American countries’ political and social stability are now in great disorder. Three interesting cases worth exploring are the ones of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. These countries have all been victims of authoritarianism, caudillsm, weak party systems, constitutional problems, corruption, and other factors that together derive their current political situations. Therefore, in order to comprehend their present political conditions and their effect on society we need to analyze the different trends of their transitions to democracy and how these have influenced their current political situations.
First, lets consider the Colombian case. It is important to recall that Colombia was able to achieve its transition to a final democracy after surpassing one of the most dramatic periods of its history, which was very notorious for its violent era popularly known as “La Violencia.” After being governed by civilians for many years, Rojas Pinilla overthrew the government in the 1950’s and lead Colombian politics with an autocratic regime until 1957, when Liberals and Conservatives signed an agreement make a coalition government (Frente Nacional) and overthrow Pinilla from power. Ever since, the two democratic parties had shared governmental power until 1974 when Colombian first presidential elections took place. In other words, Colombian real transition to democracy was initiated in 1957; however, its democracy was not established until 1974. However, it is very significant to acknowledge that the democratic rule in Colombia has been difficult to sustain because of the influence of violence and corruption from the Guerrilla movement, Paramilitary groups, and drug trafficking lords.
In addition, Colombia’s political system has been different from other Latin American countries in the sense that it has a long history of partidist politics, usually fair and regular elections, and the respect for political and civil rights. Colombia has had two traditional predominant parties–the Liberals and the Conservatives-that have competed for power since the mid-nineteenth century and have rotated frequently as the governing party. Moreover, Colombia’s conservative Roman Catholic Church traditionally has been more influential than the military not only in electing presidents and influencing elections, but also in the political socialization of its population.
Additionally, the Colombian military has become somewhat more assertive in national security decision-making as a result of the growing and more unified Guerrilla insurgency and the increasing terrorism from drug traffickers. However, Colombia has had a long tradition of military subordination to civilian authority. On many occasions during the 1970’s and 1980’s military leaders attempted to challenge civilian authority and failed as the incumbent president dismissed them.
At the same time, a contradictory feature of Colombia’s long democratic tradition has been its high level of political violence that started on the 1940’s and its has continued until today. This violence includes left-wing insurgency and terrorism, right-wing paramilitary activity, and narcoterrorism. Consequently, Colombia currently leaves under a constitutionally authorized state of siege invoked to deal with civil disturbances, insurgency, and terrorism. For instance, as a result of the violence in Colombia, during the mid-1980’s there was this political atmosphere in which the government was losing control over the country’s rampaging violence. It was perceived that even if the Guerrillas laid down their arms, violence by narcotics traffickers, death squads, and common criminals would continue to bring terror to the political and social arenas.
The nation’s violent legacy has been attributed in part to the elitist nature of the political system. The members of this traditional elite have competed bitterly, and sometimes violently, to achieve power and control of the government, through the two main parties; the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, which became the Social Conservative Party in July 1987. Unlike their counterparts in other Latin American countries, Colombia’s Christian democratic, social democratic, and Marxist parties were always weak and insignificant.
In addition, Constitutional amendments and the evolution of Colombia’s political culture reinforced its highly centralized and elitist governmental system. The elite managed to retain control over the political system by designating representatives of the middle class, labor class, and the peasantry.
Furthermore, the Guerrilla insurgency has been only the most visible dimension of a far deeper problem confronting the Colombian political system: the progressive erosion of the regime’s legitimacy as a result of its failure to institutionalize mechanisms of political participation. Likewise, there is also the legitimacy problem reflected in rising levels of voter abstention, mass political apathy and cynicism, as well as in the declining rates of voter identification with either of the traditional parties.
On the other hand, we have the case of Venezuela. Similarly to Colombia, the Venezuelan transition to democracy started with the signing of an agreement. In this case, it was the “Punto Fijo” agreement, signed in 1958 by the two most prominent democratic parties AD and COPEI. As a result of this accord, the two parties consolidated their power and as a result of a joint effort along with some members of the military, were able to establish a democratic rule, putting an end to military power. Ever since 1958 until very recently, the democratic parties were able to dominate the Venezuelan government. However, as the major countries of Latin America worked their way out from authoritarianism through “transition” to democracy, and hopefully toward democracy’s consolidation, Venezuela, has moved in the opposite direction. Since its democratization, its political arena and social peace remained stable for many decades until the end of 1980’s. At the beginning of 1989 Venezuela’s democratic order was shaken by the disaffection of its citizens, the decay of the two main political parties and state institutions, attempted coups, and the impeachment and removal of the president, Carlos Andres Perez, in 1993.
Moreover, looking it from a regional perspective, Venezuelan politics has been working backwards in the last decade. Instead of consolidation of democracy, it has been, however, a continuous decay and decomposition of political parties and state institutions, which has been the result of bad administration, corruption, lack of education among other factors. As a result, Venezuelan citizens started loosing faith on the people that were in charge of the country, as well as their bureaucratic institutions. In addition, instead of a military withdrawing from government, the armed forces have been coming out of the barracks to popular claim.
It is hard to believe how a country with such an immense amount of wealth was not able to maintain its position, its political and social stability, and its general development. The reality is that it is not the country’s fault, but the people who were in control of its wealth. This mismanagement of the country’s wealth resulted in the decline of its political institutions, in economic inflation and in popular discontent. In addition, other reasons for the Venezuelan political problems are compounded by the elements that were critical to the origins and long term stability of the political system, namely, strong parties, low social conflicts in a “managed” civil society, and a dominant State economically sustained only by its oil revenues.
Additionally, the party systems’ crisis and decay were worsened by rigidities deeply rooted in the state structure. The collected and disbursed petroleum revenues made the country a major source of employment, consumption, production, and credit. However, it also represented a major source for corruption. A large State is not necessarily powerful and autonomous, and it may be usual that it does not use all its resources for the betterment of the entire society, but to benefit a small portion of it. Hence, the immense size and the extensive role of the Venezuelan State has been beneficial for powerful interest groups in the sense that they can have access to policy making and public funds. Throughout the years, those revenues have been misused and have created an incredible instability in the whole Venezuelan system.
Furthermore, given the fact that the president has always been more powerful than the Congress, interest groups have sought to influence the executive branch. As a result, the State does not have the technical capacity or political inclination to carry the policies and interest groups and party elites have achieved total control over the State.
Finally, Venezuelan crisis can be visualized as a case where the transition has remained stagnated. Therefore, a new order of politicians is struggling to be born because the old older remained very strong and is unwilling to die. New leaders, such as Hugo Chavez (current president) have been able to emerge. Chavez is now the result of decades of bad administrated politics, a political crisis with a hopeless and desperate society looking for a drastic change, a rejection of the old political parties. Thus, he is now responding to the popular call for this new political and popular leader. He is now trying to establish a new constitution and has taken the whole power in his hands to, as he says, bring an end to the past rigid institutions and powerful elites who have had total control over the country, and start a new successful Venezuela.
Lastly there is the Ecuadorian case. When analyzing Ecuador’s transitions to democracy, we find a significantly different trend from the other two Andean countries just studied. Although Ecuador commenced its transition to democracy with four successive democratic elections from 1948 to 1960, it was not until the 1980’s that the country really experienced a relative political stability under a democratic rule. In fact, in its real dimension, it was not until Ribadeneyra was elected president in August 1984 that the re-establishment of democracy in Ecuador appeared to be affirmed. Nonetheless, the nation had only a formalistic and ritualistic democratic tradition, as Roldós himself had concerned shortly before taking office.
Indeed, Ecuador has been shaken periodically since 1984 by bitter conflicts between the executive branch on the one side and the unicameral legislature and the judiciary on the other. These clashes were particularly pronounced during Febres Cordero’s polemical administration. His authoritarian rule also provoked military mutinies and even his brief kidnapping by rebellious troops. Although battered, Ecuador’s democratic system survived, and Febres Cordero transferred power to his long-time rival, Rodrigo Borja Cevallos, in August 1988. Whereas Febres Cordero, a millionaire businessman from Guayaquil, had advocated a free-market economy, strong executive control, and close alignment with the United States, Borja, a social democrat from Quito, adopted a mixed economy, a pluralist government, and a nonaligned foreign policy. In his first two years, Borja succeeded in softening the impact of his predecessor’s legacy of political, economic, and social crises.
Despite a decade of civilian democratic rule marked by three peaceful transitions of governments, the political system remained vulnerable. The transition to a third democratic government in 1988 provided little reason to believe that the fragile democratic system in Ecuador had been strengthened, nor that the historic pattern of instability had been fundamentally reversed or modified.
The destabilizing conflicts among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government resulted primarily from the peculiarity of Ecuador’s institutional structure. For example, the judiciary system, despite of being independent, lacked the authority needed to serve as an effective check on the abuse of presidential powers. Although the Supreme Court of Justice carried out many judicial duties normally expected of a nation’s highest court, it did not rule on constitutional issues. This was a major problem.
In addition, the traditional, deep-seated division between the liberal, trade-oriented, tropical Costa and the conservative, agrarian-oriented Sierra also helped explains Ecuador’s bitter infighting over political and economic affairs. This fundamental division putted the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, the country’s principal economic center, against the highland capital of Quito. The enmity between citizens from Guayaquil and citizens from Quito was reflected in the alignment of the country’s sixteen registered political parties, in the 1988 elections.
Furthermore, another major source of political conflict was the rivalry among provinces and regions for central government attention in the form of development projects, principally road construction. Finally, although Ecuador’s political parties and its free and partisan press participated in a lively and contentious democratic political process, parties suffered from factionalism, weak organization, lack of mass participation, and blurred ideologies, as well as from the competing influences of populism and militarism.
As a result of the combination of these facts, together with an incredible amount of corruption from the last three administrations and the bank owners, an internal and external debt, and a lack of confidence from investors, Ecuador is now facing the worst economic and political crisis in Latin America. The last presidents are now exiles since they were engaged in a lot of corruption. In addition, there is a very weak multipartidism and a continuous confrontation between the legislative and the executive branches. Moreover, in order to pay the incredible external dept and please the IMF requirements, the government froze the people’s savings accounts and used them. In addition, there is an incredible hyperinflation and many government workers, teachers, and other social workers are in strike, as they are not being paid. Thus, we can say that currently there is a great discontent from the Ecuadorian people that is bringing much pressures to the government, as the whole country is in a stage of emergency that results from past and current political and economical factors that create instability and should be fixed.