The Use of Democracy as a Justification for Anti-Democratic Actions

Governments in Latin America have had a long history of oligarchic characteristics. A culture that is so strongly based on familial ties has seen this translated into positions of power in which particular families have remained in government for extended periods of time. In the fight for independence against Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, elites of European origins were able to dominate political positions and continued to rule under the racist notion that non-white Latin Americans could not govern themselves. The United States continued to use this notion in relation with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 to justify unilateral intervention in Latin American affairs in the name of spreading democracy. The Monroe Doctrine allowed the United States to use religious, racial, and other cultural differences between the United States and Latin America to legitimize intervention under the pretext of spreading western culture. This action functioned as one of the first measures of U.S. imperialism in Latin America and U.S. anti-democratic actions to promote democracy.

With time, governments and governing styles in Latin America changed. The United States exercised its influence in the region by aiding various leaders and parties seeking to be democratically elected. The U.S. continued this covert leverage in Latin American politics when leftist movements began to rise in the western hemisphere. In 1954, the United States Central Intelligence Agency administered an operation to remove the democratically elected left-leaning President of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenez, who ruled with the support of the country’s Communist party. Even though Guatemala had come to its own decision through a representative election, the United States refused to accept the democratic outcome due to ideological differences and instead backed a military dictatorship. The United States continues to be critical of Latin America’s past marked with dictatorships, even though the U.S. so willingly supported their rise to power.

The United States extended its control in Latin America during the Cold War in the name of combating communism. The heightened fear of communism in the western hemisphere motivated the United States to take more drastic actions in order to contain leftist ideology to the East. The U.S. presumed that if one country in Latin America fell to communism, than many others would follow, fulfilling the domino effect. The U.S. initially supported Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, who served as the U.S. backed military dictator between 1952-1959. However, as Batista lost control of the Cuban people the U.S. distanced itself in order to protect its global reputation. After the Cuban Revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro, the United States exercised intervention through the orchestration of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. This invasion, which failed miserably, denied the sovereignty of Cuba in the name of democracy. This action pushed Castro and the leftist movement in Cuba closer to the Soviet Union and gave legitimacy to other leftist movements in Latin America that thrived on anti-imperialism and nationalistic sentiments. 

In the 1970’s, the United States supported the military dictatorships that arose in response to leftist governments, including that of Augusto Pinochet that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. After the Dirty Wars, the exposure of U.S. support of anti-communist dictatorships through Operation Condor, placed global pressure on the United States to respect human rights. Even though these regimes began to fall in the 1980’s, the corruption that is so ingrained in dictatorships and authoritarian governments has remained in Latin American politics, even after the region's transition to democracy. This corruption takes the form of bribery or illicit campaign finance, disregarding term limits, and installing political friends in high positions of power. With the transition to democracy, we begin to see a pattern in the use of democracy as a justification for unconstitutional actions by democratically elected presidents. 

The concept of using democracy to justify anti-democratic and unconstitutional actions has been coined as “democratic blending” by Jose Mauricio Gaona, who defines it as “an illusory sense of constitutional authority designed to disguise dictatorships” (Gaona 2018). Gaona argues in his 2018 journal, “Democratic Blending: The New Model of Dictatorships in Latin America,” that democracy is used by authoritarian governments as a way to claim a status of representative government while a repressive regime maintains power. Gaona uses the examples of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Venezuela to support his central argument that these dictatorships, as he labels them, use “democracy as a tool to legitimize authority, consolidate power, and repress their citizens” (Gaona 2019). Gaona supports this through examples, including Daniel Ortega’s presidency of Nicaragua and his move to reform the constitution, in order to allow him to stay in power longer. Gaona states, “Ortega’s government successfully promoted a constitutional reform process, enabling him to run for three consecutive terms while reducing the number of votes required to be elected.” (Gaona 2019). He further maintains that Nicaragua’s opposition is minor and that Ortega’s administration has subdued the resistance of student groups that have vocalized antipathy. Gaona’s argument here calls into question the point at which we begin to define a government as a dictatorship. Who has the authority to label a government a dictatorship? And when do we know when a government has transitioned into a dictatorial government?

Historically, dictatorships stem from an authoritarian rule of government in which state powers are strong, and personal freedoms are limited. Dictatorships are often characterized by the suppression of public liberties, control of the press, and aggressive punishments against opposition. Dictatorships sometimes use military force or secret police as a fear tactic in order to incite panic among the people and remain in power. Dictatorships can vary in their level of oppression, leaving some dictatorships remarkably repressive. Pinochet in Chile and The Dirty War in Argentina have a continuous reputation of their overt violence and vast number of desaparecidos, or people that were disappeared and assumed murdered by the state. Peru and Bolivia’s current administrations have both recently taken on what we would consider unconstitutional actions, but does that make their governments dictatorships?

Evo Morales has been the president of Bolivia for 13 years now, beginning his time in office in 2006. Since coming into office, his administration has received a positive reputation domestically and internationally. Under his presidency, Bolivia has seen economic growth, a reduction of poverty, and a decrease in foreign influence in its domestic politics. Though his reputation is favorable, Morales has been criticized for less than democratic actions. Morales has repeatedly reformed the constitution in order to extend his time in office. When he initially took office in 2006, the Bolivian Constitution permitted presidents to serve two terms, however not consecutively. Morales was able to change this in 2009, allowing him to run for a second and third consecutive term. In 2016, Morales held a referendum that would permit him to run for a fourth consecutive term, which was denied by a 51.3% majority of the Bolivian people (Toro 2019). However, Morales appealed to the courts and was permitted to run regardless, causing domestic and international backlash. In the wake of the recent elections, the question remains, is it just for Morales to run as a presidential candidate in 2019 after the Bolivian people rejected his referendum to run for a fourth term? 

Constitutional term limits act as a tool of democracy in order to prevent the sustained political power of one individual. The turn of power to others, parties and people, diversifies the perspectives of the government and allows for a more representative government. While extending, reforming, and overriding term limits is without a doubt unconstitutional, does it give legitimacy to the label of a dictatorship? Gaona uses the breach of constitutional term limits to justify calling Ortega’s administration a dictatorship. However, by that logic, this would mean that Morales’ government would also be deemed as a dictatorship. Would Gaona use the same rationale when referencing U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's three terms in office? While Morales’s actions are certainly unconstitutional, can they be justified due to constant economic and social progress that Bolivia has achieved under his rule? Or does Morales’s refusal to turnover power forego the label of democracy and levy the classification of an authoritarian government?

Additional questions about Gaona’s argument are raised by Peru’s recent political crisis. For the past few months, Peru has struggled with a constitutional crisis that has called into question the power of both the executive and legislative branches of government. President Vizcarra dissolved Peru’s Congress, after it refused to pass his proposed anti-corruption reforms, rendering its power ineffective. This action has been widely criticized as a violation of executive power. The Peruvian congress followed with a vote to suspend the president for a year and swore in a new president. With Congress and President in conflict, legitimacy over their actions has been questioned. Vizcarra’s initial move can be criticized as a rash decision similar to Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and his coup of 1992. In this comparison, it is imminent to include that Fujimori also dissolved Peru’s judicial branch, thus allowing him to monopolize power. Vizcarra, on the other hand, claimed to be giving the power back to the citizens of Peru by calling for early elections next January, that would elect a new congress in place of the current one that Vizcarra claims to be extremely corrupt. However, the Peruvian constitution does not grant the president the power to determine new or early congressional elections. Does this thus make Vizcarra the latest Latin American dictator? If so, what should we make of a recent poll showing that “only 28% of Peruvians say they are satisfied with democracy and almost 60% of them say they would support an unconstitutional presidential coup against the National Congress” (Tardáguila 2019)? If democracy is supposed to respond to the people, how then, can Vizcarra’s unconstitutional effort to reinstate, new, uncorrupt congressmen be characterized as a dictatorial act?

As different as these cases may be, they all raise the question of whether it is acceptable to try to achieve democracy through undemocratic means. Is that not what the United States thought it was doing when it supported right-wing military juntas during the Cold War in order to prevent the spread of communism, which they believed could not lead to democracy? In the book, The Condor Years, John Dinges criticizes hypocrisy in the U.S. support for right wing dictatorships, stating, “U.S dictated support for dictatorships, whose methods were profoundly at odds with American democracy and moral values, and they struggled to square loyalty to policy with basic common sense ethics” (Dinges 215). Given this past, the United States’ current stance towards Latin American presidents such as Evo Morales is hypocritical at best. To support anti-democratic actions and then denounce modern-day unconstitutional actions, like extending term limits, perpetuates the vilification of Latin American leaders who are trying to oust corruption from their domestic politics.

Could this charge also be leveled at Latin American scholars such as Gaona? After all, he insists that, “21st century dictatorships in Latin America are increasingly ‘democratic.’ In their various forms and stages, these carefully engineered and gradually implemented regimes do not reject, but are actually using democracy as the most effective way to legitimize their authority and justify their brutal repression” (Gaona 2019).  By calling these present day Latin American governments “21st century dictatorships,” Gaona is, in a way, equating these current administrations with the overtly repressive military dictatorships of the 1960’s-1970’s that waged the disastrous Dirty Wars against their own people. On the other hand, Gaona may be right in highlighting the phenomenon of democratic blending, in the sense that not all dictatorships satisfy some form of “dictatorship checklist”. In sum, it is so easy to look back on history and point to the atrocities that have been committed and label it as a dictatorship. Of course, we need to be critical of governmental actions, but if we point to the sporadic unconstitutional actions of current Latin American governments and cry “dictatorship”  aren't we perpetuating the ongoing stigmatization of Latin American governments? Does this not take us right back to the age-old idea that Latin Americans cannot govern themselves that prevents the legitimization of these governments? 



  1. Jose Mauricio Gaona. (2018 Jun12). "Democratic Blending: The New Model of Dictatorships in Latin America". Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved Thursday, October 31, 2019.
  2. Anthony Faiola. (2019 Oct 22). "Protests, arson, looting in Bolivia as opponents accuse Evo Morales of trying to steal election". The Washington Post. Retrieved Thursday, October 31, 2019.
  3. Christine Armario. (2019 Oct 4). "Peru plunges into political crisis, bringing dark days for a dynasty". Associated Press. Retrieved Thursday, October 31, 2019.
  4. Cristina Tardáguila. (2019 Oct 16). "Less than a third of Peruvians are satisfied with democracy — and misinformation makes it worse". Retrieved Thursday, October 31, 2019.
  5. John Dinges. (2005 Jun 1). "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents". Retrieved Thursday, October 31, 2019.

About Author(s)

mia.bristol's picture
Mia Bristol
Mia Bristol is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursing a double major in Political Science and Spanish with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. During summer 2019, Mia completed research on the use and accessibility of contraception in the University setting in Manizales, Colombia through the Seminar and Field Trip by the Center for Latin American Studies. Mia intends to graduate Spring 2020 and pursue a career in foreign affairs. This is her first year as an intern for Panoramas.