Perhaps no term used recurrently in the public space was so outraged that it was not only emptied of content but lost all meaning to refer to reality. Today people want to confuse democracy with the right to vote, one of the few rights left to those at the bottom, in order to believe that they are participating in an election, knowing that their condition will not change radically.
The term democracy is used interchangeably in theoretical and political debates, but its illusory nature and lack of historical and empirical foundations are deliberately omitted in order to privilege, above all, a perspective of a duty to be, of aspiration, which is unlikely to be realised.
As an ideology, the notion of democracy is used as an instrument to legitimise the structures of power, domination and wealth. Even more so when, since 1968, capitalism has been thoroughly questioned by the middle classes in the face of unfulfilled promises after 200 years of practices and experiences derived from its civilising process, points out the Mexican Isaac Enríquez Pérez, in El carácter fetichista de la ideología de la democracia (The fetishist character of the ideology of democracy.
Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations and former assistant secretary of the United Nations, points out that reports of the death of democracy are greatly exaggerated, but if it fails to demonstrate that it can deliver better concrete results, risk losing young people.
“Addressing the growing disillusionment with democratic governance and some of its fundamental principles among younger people means restoring confidence that the system can deliver safer streets, more housing, better education and health services, more affordable food and energy, says Malloch.
French intellectual Alain Touraine points out that democracy today is more often defined in terms of what it liberates from arbitrariness, the cult of personality or the reign of the nomenklatura than in terms of what it builds or the social forces on which it relies.
The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano argued that “Democracy is a luxury of the North. The South is allowed the spectacle, which is denied to no one. And it doesn’t bother anyone much, after all, that politics is democratic, as long as the economy is not. When the curtain spills out, once the votes have been cast at the ballot box, reality imposes the law of the strongest, which is the law of money”.
“This is the natural order of things. In the south of the world, the system teaches, violence and hunger do not belong to history, but to nature, and justice and freedom have been condemned to hate each other,” he added.
“Democracy is not only for voting, but also for eating, educating and healing”, said Raúl Alfonsín, the first democratic president after Argentina’s last military dictatorship, in his inaugural speech in 1983. The very high unemployment, 40 % poverty, education and public health in crisis, are not imperfections or lack of maturity of the democratic ideal. It is a bourgeois democracy, where there are competing class interests, but where those at the bottom (almost) always lose.
Is the freedom of political choice, a prerequisite for democracy, sufficient to consider democracy to be consolidated, and is democracy then reduced to mere procedures? Is it possible to define democracy without considering its aims and thus the relations it establishes between individuals and social categories, or to limit democracy to the possibility of taking part in elections?
The Council of Europe points out that there are so many different models of democratic government that it is sometimes easier to understand the idea of democracy in terms of what it is definitely not: it is not autocracy or dictatorship, where one person rules; and it is not oligarchy, where a small segment of society rules. Properly understood, democracy should not even be “majority rule”, if that means that the interests of minorities are completely ignored.
The United States advanced the art of turning its wars of conquest into civilised ways of organising the world and ordering it in its own way. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (nato) and the European Union have it at the centre of their public discourse: democracy and human rights. Everything is done, justified and imposed in the name of them and their defence.
But the reality shows another side: humanitarian interventions, the war against “terrorism”, against governments that the United States claims do not respect human rights, against those that Washington and its political and media echoes throughout the continent call “rogue states”.
The politics of fear and uncertainty has also established itself as one of the consequences that will have the greatest long-term impact. In a state of multidimensional warfare, control of our bodies and minds becomes a strategic objective. Fear becomes a powerful weapon of social control. The media and social networks affect the collective psyche, disrupt the social fabric and manipulate public opinion.
There are more than 500 international US military interventions since the founding of the United States in 1776, with more than half occurring between 1950 and 2017, and a third of the total after 1999, reports the Military Intervention Project at Tufts University.
There is also an extensive list of the use of U.S. military force between 1798 and 2023, according to the Congressional Record. It is difficult to estimate the number of times Washington has intervened, both militarily and otherwise, directly and indirectly, in Latin America with the goal of achieving “regime change”.
Historian John Coatsworth identified at least 41 cases between 1898 and 1994, one every 28 months for a century. The examples, especially in Latin America, show overwhelmingly that these interventions of all kinds have been against progressive regimes and helped install right-wing regimes, not a few of them among the most brutal in the world.
With the government of Salvador Allende, Henry Kissinger claimed to be preoccupied that the success of social democracy in Chile would be contagious… He was concerned that successful economic development, an economy that produces benefits for the general population and not just profits for private corporations, would be a success.
Kissinger thus laid bare the basic story of US foreign policy for decades. Noam Chomsky commented in 1994: ‘Everywhere, the same thing in Vietnam, Cuba, Guatemala, Greece, Nicaragua; it was the same preoccupation: the threat of a good example’.
Reviewing the various stages of oppression, from the direct colonialism of the European powers, to the economic subjugation of the first half of the 20th century, which was responded to by the first popular movements in Latin America, the military coups against popular governments and the imposition of neoliberalism did not come by magic: it required US funding and direction.
As popular resistance to its policies advanced, neoliberalism abandoned its democratic disguise and showed that it was nothing more than an authoritarian project that sought to hide behind the disguise of the rationality and anonymity of the market. And it had two stages. One, before 11 September 2001, when the discourse and practice were oriented towards the militarisation of politics and the criminalisation of social protest.
The subsequent stage was marked by the traumatic attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon, and gave rise to a new US strategic doctrine in September 2002, setting in motion the principle of “pre-emptive war” after the words of President George W. Bush Jr: “this is a war between good and evil, and God is not neutral”.
And the wheel turns again: after neo-liberalism has been imposed throughout the region, new popular and national movements are beginning to emerge with other names and protagonists. In addition to the coups consummated, there has been a destabilisation of a clearly pro-coup nature against other progressive rulers, such as Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, who are suffering relentless political persecution by the judiciary.
Luis Arce, who restored democracy in Bolivia after the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez, had to fight against the sedition of ultra-right sectors that combine racism and separatism with the violent defence of their class interests.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro faces a ruthless lawfare operation (the use of judicial and legislative machinations to depose leaders who are inconvenient to the interests of the oligarchies and US and European transnationals), as well as direct threats from retired high-ranking military officers and attempts on his life.
In Guatemala, President-elect Bernardo Arévalo denounced that his country is living through a coup d’état that “is being carried out step by step, through spurious, illegitimate and illegal actions in different instances, whose objective is to prevent the inauguration of the elected authorities – President, Vice-President and deputies” of the Seed Movement in Congress.
Although Mexico seems oblivious to these attempts, the reality is that in barely four months there have been two coup attempts, both of which were quickly defused by their own promoters when they realised that they had no chance of success due to the overwhelming social support enjoyed by the federal government.
In May, the ultra-conservative National Action Party (PAN) faction in the Senate asked the Supreme Court to impeach President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and on 23 August, Supreme Court Justice Luis María Aguilar Morales presented his peers with a bill that would do the same.
With guns and/or robes
The same people who used to finance coups d’état now finance judicial coups to impose neoliberal policies in Latin America. We no longer need military coups, now we have to get judges educated in commissions and forums,” said former Argentinean president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a recent victim of lawfare and a thwarted assassination attempt.
Judges, judge not according to rights and codes, but according to interests that are always against the popular majorities,
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador acknowledged the progress that has been made in the consolidation of democracy in Latin America, but warned that there are still risks of a return of fascism, military intervention and the risk of oligarchic groups overthrowing popularly elected governments.
He pointed out that these operations now take the form of “technical or media coups d’état”, in which the corporate media manipulate information in order to maintain the plundering regime that has enriched them. One need only take a quick look at the events of the recent past to see that this is a real and lurking danger.
Since 2002, different configurations bringing together the armed forces, parliaments, judiciaries, business leaders and the media have overthrown Hugo Chávez (Venezuela; returned to power within 48 hours thanks to popular mobilisation and the loyalty of some members of the army), Manuel Zelaya (Honduras, 2009), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay, 2012), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil, 2016), Evo Morales (Bolivia, 2019) and Pedro Castillo (Peru, 2022).
When the state reduces its presence in education, health and the exploitation that impacts on climate change, there is a void, which is filled by drug traffickers: they are the ones who build the schools – to socially control the population – that the state does not build because they have to apply the adjustment policies of multilateral organisations.
An article published in Russia by Pyotr Romanov, who is very close to the international policy of his country’s government, expresses an official wish in the form of a question: “Is South America separating from North America? To explain South America’s “new independence” from the US, the author mentions the electoral victories won by the centre-left in various countries on the continent.
Those who promote the shrinking of the state and adjustment policies throughout Latin America are the same people who afterward talk about fighting the drug traffickers, as if this war could be waged with repression from a Ministry of Security or the militia, and not with access to work, health, education and progress.
The reality of recent decades shows that some governments, lacking resources and renouncing the regulatory power they should have to preserve the quality of life of their citizens, end up authorising anything in search of income and resources.
And when someone comes to invest, they demand their own conditions, and the less they invest in environmental safety, the more profitable any venture becomes. The lack of regulation and state presence to control how mining and oil exploitation is carried out means losing sovereignty and handing over the region’s large mineral deposits to transnationals and investment banks.
There is no doubt: the disappearance or reduction of the state, far from bringing security and wellbeing, brings other things.