Among the difficulties that American observers are faced with when trying to assess Brazil and Latin America politics is the rather different – sometimes even the opposite – concepts of some crucial issues. For example, a Latin American liberal is someone who defends free market economy, individual freedom, the rule of law, private property and in many ways, as in morals, religion, education, can be said to be comparable to an American conservative.
What in the United States is known by the term liberal is a social democrat in Latin America, one who defends more government expenses, welfare state, state owned enterprises in some ‘strategic’ areas of the economy, limitation of private property rights and governmental interference in people’s private lives – all in the name of ‘social justice’ and other distributive reasons.
Usually Brazilian liberals call themselves, as I do myself, liberal-conservative to distinguish them from both reactionaries – those who want the reversal of history to a ‘glorious’ past – and libertarians.
Perhaps the greatest mistake occurs with the very concept of democracy. Americans take for granted that democracy always includes the other rights that they are used to enjoy, namely those assured to the people by the Bill of Rights.
Thus, they usually accept at face value that in other parts of the world, to be a democratic country, it’s enough to have free elections, division of powers among three branches, freely elected Legislative and Executive and a somewhat autonomous Judiciary.
It has not been observed that in many other countries – and this is the case of Latin America – the governing class pays only lip service to anything else beyond elections, which turns elections themselves into vicious processes.
American policymakers assume that all countries in Latin America are living under democratic governments since the end of military interventions of the seventies and eighties – democratic in the American sense of the word, of course – and thus, they are not able to see that in those countries democracy often means populism and violation of the individual rights, particularly private propriety rights, in the name of ‘social’ needs, not as defined in those countries’ Constitutions, but by the rulers themselves with the support of the masses.
Under populist governments, ‘democracy’ is stretched to its limits as it is submitted to frequent and degrading changes. Neither the rule of law nor the protection of minorities, rather the tyranny of fortuitous majorities and the annihilation of minorities.
The source of that misunderstanding should be more thoroughly investigated in the minds of Americans. This article is not the place to go deep into such an investigation; rather my intention here is to address this issue in a more synoptic way hoping to stimulate the readers’ curiosity.
I can devise at least three main broad themes to be addressed: firstly, the lack of knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese heritage and the radical differences vis-à-vis Anglo-Saxon heritage that dominates the scene in the United States of America. Secondly, a feeling of guilt for having supported the various military interventions that in recent past interrupted the rise of the same populist powers in the region.
Thirdly, as a consequence of the latter, an otherwise inexplicable blindness to what is really happening in the region; much because of that blindness Latin America is submerging in populism again, going at fast speed back to the seventies and finally to the achievement of those years’ goal, namely, a communist society.
Democracy and Populism
In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’
The Grand Inquisitor
The nature of what is called democracy in the region can be defined by the fact that the majority of Latin American voters adhere to a populist view of the relationship between society and state. People expect the state to solve their basic problems: jobs, housing, food, health, education, being these factors constitutionally-described as rights.
For example, the Brazilian Constitution defines health as ‘a right of all citizens and an obligation of the State’, a laughable absurdity that theoretically permits any citizen to sue the State whenever he/she catches a cold!
Another absurd was the already amended proviso that limited interest rates at 12% per year, which obviates any bank or commercial operations, if respected, which was obviously not the case. In these societies, the citizenry expects to live at government expense and under full protection.
Tyler once said that ‘[democracy] can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury…’
This is already the case in most Latin American countries, embodied in the election of Lula, Chávez, Morales, Kirchner, Bachelet, among others. However, the more distribution the more submission. Individual rights, most of all property rights, are crushed for ‘social reasons’.
Property is no more an absolute value but rather a relative and ever changing one. Invasion of properties by ‘social movements’ – the usual disguise for terrorists and guerrillas – are not only tolerated but stimulated by populist governments.
The rule of law turns into democratic rule of law, meaning really the rule of majority and as proprietors are minority their rights are constantly disavowed. By introducing the word democratic the expression loses its usual meaning, i. e., democracy submitted to the rule of law, and turns it into its opposite: the rule of law subdued by democratic decisions.
A great deal of this situation derives from the patterns of the colonization that differs radically from the Anglo-Saxon tradition. By the time of the American Revolution, while England had a Parliament to which the King had to refer to, Spain and Portugal were submitted to absolutist monarchies and when Latin American countries became independent the vacuum of power was filled by different kinds of caudillos who thought themselves as kings – and behaved accordingly.
Once again Brazil was in worst shape than the other countries for its independence from Portugal was proclaimed by a Portuguese Prince son of the King of Portugal that recommended to him to ‘put the crown on your own head before any unscrupulous Brazilian does it!’ His own son, the almighty Emperor, substituted the almighty King and nothing really changed but the flag and the anthem.
Juan Bautista Alberdi, author of the only liberal Constitution in Latin American history, the Argentinean Constitution of 1853, summed up the difference between national independence and individual freedom in simple words:
“The Nation is free as far as it does not depend on foreign countries; but the individual is devoid of freedom because is dependent of the state in an ominous and absolute way. The Nation is free as far as it absorbs and monopolizes the liberties of all its individuals; but the latter are not free because the Government takes possession of all their liberties.”
Speaking of England and the United States, says Alberdi: “In both countries freedom didn’t mean only independence of a foreign power rather the independence of each citizen from the nation’s government (…) the liberty of the nation had as a limit the sacred freedom of the individual.’
A great deal of confusion derives from the fact that so many observers of Latin American political scene lack the knowledge of the meaning of democracy as described above. As a consequence, when policymakers discuss with rulers such as Lula they presume they are talking to a reliable leader that will abide to his word and treaties.
Nothing could be more wrong: this kind of populist leadership is closer to communist or fascist dictators than to democratic leaders of the free world. State Department officials, for example, have treated Lula recently as a reliable ‘friend’ of the United States.
Yes, that’s what he says while at the same time his government stimulates radical and violent anti-American movements, including financial support, along with various dealings and treaties with Chavez, Morales and Kirchner against the interests of America. Worst: against freedom and the rule of law in their own countries.
The very democratic principles are subverted and destroyed from within. The most usual method is to call a Constituent Assembly to make a new Constitution suited to the establishment of a more or less disguised dictatorship.
This was the method used by Chávez. Another as is the case of Lula, to use the traditional corruption of Latin American political class to another goal that is to make spurious alliances with other parties that become auxiliary parties constantly submitted to the hegemonic party’s blackmailing.
The time has come for American policymakers and political observers to take a deeper look into the grim reality of our countries instead of being satisfied with pleasant but deceiving appearances.
Heitor De Paola is psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, political and diplomatic analyst, and a columnist at www.midiasemmascara.org and was the Technical Organizer and General Coordinator of the First International Seminar on Liberal Democracy in Latin America. This article appeared originally in Mídia Sem Máscara.