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Caudillo-style Democracies are Not the Same as Democratic Republics

By Pedro Camargo

26.11.05 | Latin America has proclaimed its hemisphere as full democracies (with the clear exception being Castro’s Cuba) for over twenty years. In fact, Latin America today is tragically under the sway of several democratically elected caudillo style presidents with major powers given (or grabbed) from their administrative branches, with scant institutional control, accountability, transparency, advise and consent, and even less budgetary oversight.

As we have seen with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, all erstwhile democratic structures have been high-jacked, leaving a decidedly undemocratic state-run machine. With great ease, Chavez has packed his courts and Congress, has eviscerated free speech by the public and the media, and obliterated any real public discourse or oversight. Venezuela is not an operating democracy in any sense.

This tragedy has been assisted through the very weak governance structures in Venezuela, which are typical of all Latin nations that ignored institutional anti-caudillo brakes, resisting all underpinnings of contract or rule of law. Without transitioning from nascent democracies (which routinely elect corrupt actors) to sustained rule of law-based governance, Latin nations cannot function as democratic republics. Without rule of law, these are shallow or false front democracies which fail to deliver the promise of any safe and secure future for its citizens.

In error, we have hastily blessed caudillo democracies, which are not democracies at all but rather haciendas run by caudillos who, if they chose to so act, easily morph in to democratically elected major or minor dictators, because their own constitutional systems either permit power consolidation by the few on a grand scale or have failed to install power checks. Both instances apply in Venezuela today with similar 'constitutional reforms,' a la Andres Bello, being installed in numerous Latin countries to ease the flow toward 'Bolivarian-style democracy.' Few leaders historically avoid the temptation to seize profiteering state powers.

In our haste to bless these flawed democracies, we ignore the on going effects of the central strong man and the effects of caudillism plus the tragic lack of democratic capacity-building for local citizens, as the overarching state inevitably bears down or restricts its own development. Poverty and loss of development (aka jobs) escalates as quality of life deteriorates. Whether the central 'government' installs a military-fascist control, a 'socialist' system, or perpetuates a mercantilist-state unionized system which abhors free trade, it is irrelevant to the caudillo as long as his reigns (and cash flow) are consolidated. Today all Latin caudillos retain primacy while skating just under the radar of even the IMF and multinational observers by simply retaining slightly central bank assets, often barely meeting de minimum obligations, if at all.

To function as a democratic republic a nation must 1) actively embrace rule of law, 2) upend the current trend for governments to control media either by partial ownership or buy ins for political control, 3) cease the decriminalization of all criminal acts through upper and lower court rulings under the current craze to install courts by NGO rule -not justice, graduating to enforceable free speech and free media, true advise and consent with separation of powers -including an independant military- between all governmental entities. This is the only sustainable definition of democratic republics in the full sense. Today, most Latin nations call themselves democratic republics and tragically, are not.

Ten years ago, all Latin nations felt as if the glass were half full and rising. Today, most Latins feel the glass is half full and sinking. The deleterious effects of the caudillo or strong man, in the very person of Hugo Chavez, cannot be underestimated. With scant job growth, less educational opportunity, less competitiveness for any business community, and additional restrictions, Latins are indeed every bit as depressed as their economies are today. Hugo Chavez offers a seductive, quick hand out which neither sustains nor delivers confidence in the future. Such political bribes by Chavez only erode confidence in each nation in any clear vision for growth, opportunity and sustainable tomorrows. When nations claim the bulk of the gross national product from combinations of oil and or mineral sales coupled with remittances (funds sent home to needy family members while their best and brightest earn real money in free, competitive functioning democracies), one must grasp the concept that the Latin democracies are not functional democracies at all but caudillo-style mercantilist states on the verge of one more neo-communist quick fix that will once again destroy an entire generation if enabled. While we find it passing odd that Latin nations extol the happy news that their direct foreign investments are soaring, the increases are due solely to their own young persons who have fled to make a living in nations which are cleaner, have rule of law, have functioning democractic institutions and enforceable legal codes. It is noteworthy that few ex pats are fleeing to Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, China, Syria, or Rhodesia to earn their wages to send home as remittances. Indeed they are not. If Latins want to secure stable futures for their own families, they are well advised to commence installing the very competitive and legal edge that is so attractive to their own bright young people for without the tenants of democratic republics, their own will have no future -only the chains of the state-run monster who dictates their very lives.

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