Farewell to the Chiefs
Resistance and despair in Latin America's "fragile
by Stephanie Boyd
Toward Freedom magazine, November 1998
"Everyone has the right to take part in the government
of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives
... the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority
of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine
elections which shall be universal and equal suffrage." -Article
21, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Shouts of "democracy" and "the dictatorship
is going to fall" rose from the throng of 2000-some students,
~ workers, and professionals gathered in front of Peru's Congress.
Inside, legislators rancorously debated a proposed referendum
on President Alberto Fujimori's bid to run for a third term before
the resolution was defeated by his Change 90-New Majority party,
which dominates the House of Representatives. When the results
were finally announced, the crowd surged in collective anger and
frustration at the corruption of their country's democratic institutions.
More than 200 riot police responded with violence to disperse
"This Congress is a porqueria [filthy and worthless],"
said Paulo, a university student, as he fled the stampede. Standing
not far away, I watched in horror and awe as protesters were pushed,
beaten, and tear-gassed out the front gates of the Congress grounds
and onto a traffic-packed Lima street. But what came to be known
as "the dark night for Peru's democracy" really began
at least 5 years before, when Fujimori pulled a self-coup, dissolving
Congress and rewriting the constitution so he could stand for
a second term. Ironically, he included his own Achilles heel-a
Thanks to his neoliberal, dictatorial governing style and
introduction of "Fujishock" -a cutthroat economic policy
to eliminate hyper-inflation along with subsidies and "get
tough on terrorism" policies-the president handily won re-election
in 1995. (Of course, access to government coffers for the campaign
couldn't have hurt, either.) Next, in fine Orwellian doublespeak,
the president's ruling coalition convinced Congress to pass an
"authentic interpretation" bill in 1996, making way
for him to stand again in the year 2000. The president's logic:
since he was first elected in 1990 under the old constitution,
he has only run once under the new one.
Last year, a constitutional tribunal ruled against Fujimori's
bid, but reversed its decision after the president replaced three
of its judges. Since then, the Democratic Forum, a citizen's group
formed two years ago to spearhead the referendum campaign, claims
to have collected 1.4 million signatures. But Peru's election's
board (also dominated by Fujimori cronies) ruled in late August
that the referendum must first gain congressional approval before
Referendum supporters and opposition politicians argue that
Congress had no right to rule on the issue. Democratic Forum leader
Fernando De la Flor calls the government's actions an affront
to citizen-based democracy and "a violation of Peruvian's
The campaign has support from a broad cross-section of Peruvian
society, including the Catholic Church, women activists, labor
organizers, business groups, and both the opposition and mainstream
media. At the time of Congress' fateful vote, polls showed about
70 percent supporting the referendum. Afterward, protests galvanized
the country to a point not seen since the "decade of terror"
during the 1980s and early 90s- when the Maoist-aligned Shining
Path terrorized any organization perceived to have competing left-wing
sympathies-and led to a government crackdown on "terrorism,"
which continued the harassment, imprisonment, and assassination
of citizens' organization members.
Perhaps it's a small consolation to Peru's frustrated voters,
but they're not alone. Brazil's Congress modified its constitution
last year, allowing current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso
to run again. With a right-of-center coalition behind him, Cardoso
easily trounced Left candidates who failed to present a unified
front, becoming the first president in Brazil's modern history
to be re-elected. Allegations are flying that Cardoso may have
bribed congressional representatives to attain the two-thirds
vote needed to change the constitution.
The Dominican Republic, which only recently scrapped re-election
after decades of strong-arm rule, is reconsidering the decision.
Meanwhile, rumors circulate in Bolivia that President Hugo Banzer
is considering the idea, despite a wave of popular and union-organized
protests against his autocratic government. Banzer's governing
style shouldn't come as a surprise; he took office last year after
heading the country's military dictatorship from 1971-78.
Still, despite the seemingly depressing state of Latin America's
democracies, a few recent developments offer a glimmer of hope.
In July, for instance, dismal popularity ratings (less than 20
percent) presumably led Argentina's President Carlos Menem to
change his mind about forcing a third term. First elected in 1989,
he found it easy to convince his Peronist party-controlled Congress
to make a constitutional change allowing re-election as his six-year
term was ending.
Just days after the heartbreaking defeat of Peru's referendum
campaign, Panamanians voted against President Ernesto Perez Balladares'
re-election bid by a nearly 2-1 margin. The president's Democratic
Revolutionary Party (PRD) worked for more than a year on the campaign,
approving a constitutional change this May allowing reelection
and then putting the question to the people.
Like most other Latin American countries, Panama's constitution
is designed to prevent the concentration of political power. The
reality has been quite different and protesters feared a "civilian
dictatorship" was evolving from the ashes of Gen. Manuel
Noriega's dictatorship (overthrown by a US invasion in 1989).
Providing leaders don't renege on their promises to honor
the people's wishes, the cases of Argentina and Panama could mark
the beginning of the end for the region's newest generation of
"caudillo-style" governments. Arising out of Latin America's
wars of independence in the 19th century, rival generals known
as caudillos retained power throughout the region by subverting
their newly emerging democracies and ruling by military populism.
Operating under the guise of democratic institutions, much like
the liberator Simon Bolivar's first generals, today's caudillos
combine charisma with populist rhetoric while retaining power
over state institutions like the military and judiciary. Although
most of the region's constitutions are infused with ideals of
the French and American revolutions, including checks and balances
against authoritarianism, the new caudillos are subverting democracy
while pacifying their northern trading partners with the appearance
of civilian rule.
Balladares, along with Fujimori, Cardoso, and Menem, has argued
that instead of subverting democracy, re-election gives the power
to the people in legitimate votes. But this simplistic reading
of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
ignores the complex reality facing Latin America's fragile democracies.
Coletta Youngers, a senior researcher at the Washington Office
on Latin America, says the desire to keep incumbents in office
is "the result of very weak democratic systems, where you
have elected populists or authoritarians-as in the case of Fujimori-in
office, and where the system of political parties is crumbling."
But even if predictions that the region is slowly moving away
from re-election are correct, they remain small consolation for
much of Latin America, plagued with a lengthy history of despotic
military rulers, economic hardship, and weak democratic institutions.
"Constitutional reforms and referendums [to prevent re-election]
are a start, but the real problem goes beyond political structures,"
says Juan Carlos Guerrero, a Peruvian-born political science graduate
student studying in Mexico. Without a tradition of democracy or
education on democratic ideals and basic concepts of human rights,
he says, Latin America can't achieve real democracy.
I've heard this argument before from academics, development
workers, and activists -and not just in Peru. Illiteracy and lack
of access to knowledge are threats to democracy globally, a "Universal
Human Right" problem of its own. Article 26 of the UDHR says
everyone has the right to education, and goes on to add that "education
shall be directed to the full development of the human personality
and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental
TIDE OF DISTRUST
We've come full circle to the same bottom line, from women's
health rights to indigenous land claims and now to democracy.
If the majority of the world's people aren't informed of their
rights, how can these rights be protected?
Juan Carlos, who lost countless companeros to prison or worse
during Peru's "years of terror," replies calmly, "That
is what we have to work for-to educate and inform the people."
Then, with a touch of sadness, "But I really don't know where
this is all going to end up." He laments the lack of faith
in the region's democratic institutions, stunted by coupe, military
governments, economic instability and, perhaps most important,
the lack of a real political base in local communities.
This phenomenon is also evident in the low voter turnout in
countries like the US. But south of the US border, most of the
region's leaders force voter participation through electoral cards,
which must be updated at each election. Without authorized documentation
proving they have exercised their "democratic right,"
citizens become personas non grata. They can't open a bank account,
get a driver's license, or buy property.
Such authoritarian practices, which ignore the problems underlying
voter disillusionment, don't ensure real participation. A community
health representative and farmer from a politically-isolated part
of Peru's Cajamarca province explained why his community voted
for Fujimori's party in 1995: His campaign gave out free bags
of rice and hoes. After joking about "Peruvian-style democracy,"
he added seriously, "Still, the people have to eat and usually
no one gives them anything."
Such sentiments of disillusion indicate a rising tide of mistrust
with so-called democratic institutions across Latin America- especially
in rural zones isolated from centralized urban governments. Struggling
to make ends meet, people demonstrate their frustrations through
voter apathy. But the emergence of small, yet determined, pockets
of public protest-from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
(EZLN) in Chiapas to the coca growers unions in Bolivia-suggest
that new forms of local, community-based democracy are emerging,
albeit with difficulties.
TO THE BARRICADES
Whether Latin Americans are rising in protest or exchanging
their vote for a bag of rice, the message is the same: Something
is rotten in the region's democracies. At times, the view from
inside is so depressing that trying to remain optimistic leaves
me feeling more than a bit naive.
Before Peru's referendum vote, one US foreign correspondent
admitted he was "bored" with the topic. "Nothing's
going to change, so I wish we could just get this thing over with,"
he said cynically.
Nevertheless, curiosity led me to the Congress that evening
in late August. Watching the crowd, at first seething with expectation,
and later expressing years of pent-up rage, I wondered if those
who march in defiance of repression are planting the seeds for
later generations. Or, is the same vicious circle-military rule
followed by civilian caudillos and uprising-merely repeating itself?
A former journalist and union organizer, who was forced by
economic necessity to drive a cab after years of struggle, put
it cynically: "Human rights-oh yes, our famous human rights.
In this country, we have human rights for some, but not for others."
While maneuvering through Lima's thick rush-hour traffic, he peered
at me through wise eyes and added, "Our only hope for salvation
lies in our youth."
His tone brought back scenes from the evening of those who
didn't succumb to either violence or cowardice: My friend Ramon,
an activist and political science graduate student, who reached
down to help a fallen stranger despite tear gas and blows from
riot police; Luis, a local photographer who stayed behind to document
police violence when the guards closed the Congress gates; and
Paulo, a newfound friend who grabbed my hand several times, steering
me clear of the rush. I crouched in a doorway with another US
journalist as protesters surged past, pursued by Blade Runneresque
police replicants. As we clung together, I felt as though we were
in a strange and frightening urban forest, watching students hurtle
pieces of urban debris back at the relentless line of police clones
who herded them down narrow side streets.
The same thought kept racing through my mind: "How much
more repression, corruption, and violence can people take? How
far they can they be pushed before the system changes?" Then
the stampede passed, leaving us dazed and stranded on a deserted,
unlit street in the city's historical center, wondering if the
night, like Peru's pursuit of democracy, had ever really existed.
Stephanie Boyd is the associate editor Of Latinamerica Press,
a weekly alternative news publication based in Lima, Peru.
Toward Freedom magazine
Toward Freedom is a bimonthly magazine that provides international
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