Although the pandemic circumstances have aroused a new set of global challenges and enhanced many old ones, it has not extinguished regional differences. Comparative analysis lenses help understand regional historical particularities and their impact on transnational and international interactions and relations. And this is how Dr. Britta Weiffen analyses Latin American democracies in this insightful interview. Moreover, she addresses the Brazilian current leadership potential in South America and how the current national government’s positions impact Brazil’s role in international organizations.
I do not have enough words to thank Dr. Britta for the willingness to talk to us, as well as to Tiago Leme, who conducted the interview. Finally, I once again profoundly thank the BRaS-Blog team. It’s a catchy must-read!
Anna Paula Bennech
Interviewee: Dr. Britta Weiffen
Interviewer: M.A. Tiago Alexandre Leme Barbosa*
Brigitte (Britta) Weiffen is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. From 2015 to 2020, she held the Martius Chair for German and European Studies at the Department of Political Science, University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil. She earned her Ph.D. in 2009 at the University of Tübingen. Her research agenda has included democratization and crisis of democracy in comparative perspective, human rights and transitional justice, international and regional organizations, regional security, and Latin American politics and international relations.
Political Science is increasingly concerned about the survival and quality of democracy. In South America, the deposition of Evo Morales in Bolivia, the impeachment of Martín Vizcarra in Peru, and the massive wave of protests in Chile denote political unrest and, in some cases, political crisis. How can these factors reflect on the future of democracy in the region?
In the past few years, almost every country in the region was affected by massive anti-government protests; contestations around elections; the interruption of presidential mandates due to impeachment, military interference, or pressure from the streets, often followed by unpopular interim governments; and high levels of polarization. These events happened against the background of persistent ‘defects’ of democracy, such as insufficient protection of political rights and civil liberties, the problematic behavior of executives that characterize the presidential systems of the region, the military presence in public and political life, and a sustained high level of socioeconomic inequality, which transforms into political inequality. According to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) data, the region’s democracies have seen an erosion of political liberties, the protection of individual freedoms, and checks and balances between institutions over the past ten years. Declines were particularly pronounced in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Paraguay. Furthermore, the Latinobarómetro population surveys show that confidence in political institutions, such as the parliament, the executive, the judiciary, and political parties, is at its lowest level in decades. While these developments are in sync with a worldwide resentment against liberal democracy, they are, of course, particularly worrying in a region with a turbulent history of political transitions back and forth between democracy and autocracy.
The OAS condemned the 2019 Bolivian elections as fraudulent, although many experts disagree with the Organization’s opinion. In the U.S. elections, Donald Trump refused to accept his defeat and even asked to “stop the count.” In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has insisted that electronic voting machines are fraudulent and advocated in favor of paper voting. He even said that there were frauds in the 2018 Brazilian elections (when he was elected) and the U.S. elections. How should international organizations act on the stability of democratic regimes when the political elites themselves conspire against the rules of the game?
In the early 1990s, there was a democratic consensus among OAS member states and a strong resolve to promote and protect democracy in the region, leading to the adoption of election monitoring routines and instruments to defend democracy, most importantly, the possibility to suspend a member state in response to unconstitutional interruptions of the democratic order. However, as international organizations like the OAS are inter-governmental, they reflect the interests of the member states’ governments, who also have privileged access to the instruments to protect democracy. Therefore, it is much more likely that these instruments will be invoked in reaction to violations directed against a government than in situations where the government itself commits violations. In addition, since the 2000s, the region has seen increasing contestations about what democracy means and should look like, confronting concepts such as representative vs. participatory or liberal vs. social democracy, which has created an additional obstacle for applying instruments for the protection of democracy.
Elections in the region were widely regarded as free and fair for most of the time since the 1980s. The growing number of controversial elections and allegations of electoral fraud in recent years is, therefore, another warning signal for the state of democracy in the region. One possible conclusion that international organizations, such as the OAS, could draw from this would be to reform and strengthen the instrument of election observation. However, given the politicization of decision-making in Latin American regional organizations, the adoption of reform proposals is unlikely at this point. Providing meaningful election observation and monitoring in the future might then require disentangling it from the political struggles within international organizations, for example, by establishing an independent election monitoring body.
Like other Latin American countries, the military dictatorship in Brazil ended in the 1980s. However, the crimes committed by the Brazilian civilian-military regime were never punished, and the Truth Commission only happened in 2014. The current president, Jair Bolsonaro, not only exalts the regime’s torturers but has already verbally attacked the National Congress and the Supreme Court. What are the possible consequences of civil society’s failure to confront the military past by judging those responsible for the military regime?
First of all, according to Patricia Hayner’s widely accepted definition, truth commissions are official, state-sanctioned mechanisms; thus, it is not only civil society but also the post-transition governments that are to blame for the failure to confront the military past. The mode of transition is an essential factor here. The Brazilian transition was a gradual relaxation of authoritarian rule ‘from above,’ which, according to some researchers, was initiated by the military as early as 1974. In contrast, a clear-cut democratic transition where the authoritarian regime breaks down or gives in to reform pressure ‘from below’ is more likely to put the successor regime in a position where it can prosecute and punish those responsible for human rights crimes. Of course, the lack of pressure from civil society at the time of the transition played a role in the Brazilian case as well. The fact that the number of repression victims was comparatively low (in relation to population size) and repression sites scattered over a large territory might explain why it took longer before human rights and victims’ organizations could form and articulate their demand for transitional justice.
As a consequence, accountability for human rights violations under the dictatorship remains a fringe issue in the public debate in Brazil to this day. While previous governments’ various transitional justice mechanisms imply an acknowledgment of the human rights violations committed under the civilian-military regime, there is no shared societal assessment of this period. Reinforced by the current president’s statements, significant sectors of the population maintain nostalgic military dictatorship views. Moreover, the concept of human rights itself is highly politicized and often vilified as a cause promoted by the radical left rather than a universal value buttressed by international law.
In “Reorganizing the Neighborhood? Power Shifts and Regional Security Organizations in the Post-Soviet Space and Latin America”, one of the conclusions points out that security organizations would be created for other reasons besides being a response to security threats. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has been characterized by its criticism of international organizations, namely the UN and the WHO. How can the disagreement on the role of multilateral organizations affect countries’ position in the international system?
Regional organizations in South America have entered into a severe crisis in recent years. UNASUR, considered an auspicious integration project after its foundation a little more than ten years ago, has effectively dissolved. Other regional organizations are also in bad shape, including the Venezuelan-led ALBA, the Andean Community, and Mercosur. The Bolsonaro government’s lack of interest in regional cooperation and its unwillingness to provide regional leadership are important constraints that have reinforced regional organizations’ decline. On the global level, the Brazilian government’s criticism of international organizations, such as the UN and the WHO, gave the international community the impression that Brazil has become a somewhat unreliable partner. Compared to Brazil’s previous protagonism in international organizations, its current stance can only weaken the country’s position in the international system.
In the mentioned paper, we argue that power shifts frequently drive the foundation and transformation of regional organizations. Given the current pushback against multilateral and regional institutions, it seems plausible to think that power shifts cannot only act as a driver but also as an “underminer” of regional cooperation. The withdrawal of Brazil from its previous leadership role – which is not solely attributable to Bolsonaro but already began during the Rousseff government and gained speed under Temer – has indeed undermined regional cooperation in security and other sectors, exemplified by the demise of UNASUR. The lack of regional coordination and cooperation on trans-border challenges (such as new security threats, the Venezuelan migration crisis, or most recently Covid-19) leaves the region less efficient at handling these problems and also stands in the way of finding a common position and articulating common interests of the South American region on the global stage.
Considering the elections, for instance, of Joe Biden in the United States, Arce in Bolivia, Alberto Fernandes in Argentina, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, how do you evaluate Brazil’s conditions to exercise leadership in South America?
After a phase of elections or interim rule of conservative, right-wing governments espousing neoliberal ideas, of which the election of Jair Bolsonaro was the apex, an inverse trend, once again in favor of more progressive positions, has recently been brought about not only by the elections of Fernandez in Argentina, Arce in Bolivia and Biden in the United States, but also by mass protests against the center-right governments of Piñera in Chile and Duque in Colombia in 2019-20, and against interim president Merino in Peru in November 2020.
Relations between South American countries have long been characterized by what Andrés Malamud has called inter-presidentialism – meaning that regional cooperation thrived only at times when the largest countries in the region had ideologically like-minded presidents. In line with Malamud’s observation, relations between the ideologically divergent Argentinean and Brazilian governments are actually at an all-time low. As previously mentioned, Bolsonaro also lacks the political will to exercise leadership in South America. Given the current political constellation, a renewal of regional cooperation under Brazilian leadership is thus unlikely in the near future.
* Tiago Alexandre Leme Barbosa holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences from the Federal University of Grande Dourados (UFGD), a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). He has experience in the area of political parties and political elites. Currently, his main research interest is new parties in South America. E-mail: email@example.com