The image of a fortified Capitol, with some 30,000 security personnel on hand to protect the peaceful transition of power to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — not from a foreign enemy but from a domestic terrorist attack — demonstrates the main challenge facing the new administration.
Donald Trump has left the world’s most powerful country wounded and under threat of becoming a far-right dystopia. President Biden’s greatest challenge is not just to get a handle on a pandemic that has taken more than 400,000 American lives, destroyed millions of jobs and plunged the United States into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The president will have to repair the damage this brush with right-wing populism has inflicted on the country’s democratic institutions, and stave off its ideologues and enablers.
Mr. Biden knows this. His Inaugural Address noted the threat that American democracy has come under, and paid tribute to its resilience. But I hope that the new president also recognizes that this important task is not America’s alone. His attempt to heal America’s divisions must be part of an international project to restore democracy. And nowhere is that as important as in Latin America.
As a reporter I covered the rise of Hugo Chávez’s neo-authoritarian government in Venezuela in 1999. In the decades since, I have watched as dangerous variations of nationalist populism have taken root throughout Latin America. According to Marta Lagos, director of the polling firm Latinobarómetro, 2018 was the “annus horribilis” of Latin American democracy, marking the lowest level of support since it was first measured regionally, in 1995. Now, I hope that Mr. Biden can help turn the tide.
Protecting democracy is now a collective challenge, as the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed in Lima in 2001 makes clear. Promoting democracy in Latin America requires discarding the United States’ old imperial paradigms, which violated the basic tenets of international law and left our region riddled with scars. Repeating interventionist threats of the past in Latin America would be a gift to modern demagogues.
A new era of United States-Latin America relations must make the protection of democracy in the hemisphere a top priority. And Latin Americans should welcome this. A weak democracy is a threat to all nations in our hemisphere.
Among Latin America’s most notable victims of populism, whether from the left or the right, are Brazil and Mexico, the region’s largest democracies.
In Brazil, the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, a confessed admirer of the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985, has encouraged militias and keyboard warriors to attack his adversaries. Militias like “Brazil’s 300,” which attacked the Brazilian Supreme Court in June, are the South American counterparts of American paramilitary organizations such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters, which participated in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
These groups are ready to mobilize and create mayhem at the slightest encouragement from their leaders: Be it to defend the Republic from an alleged Democratic Party conspiracy, or to harass those who criticize Mr. Bolsonaro for his terrible handling of the pandemic in Brazil.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, also tends to exploit the emotional bond with his followers to incite them against his critics and to discredit the press.
Charismatic populist leaders like Mr. López Obrador and Mr. Bolsonaro — like, of course, Mr. Trump — rely on a politics of affect. They remove reason from public debate, reducing it to pure emotional reaction, fanaticism and radical loyalties. Behind this strategy lies an ill-concealed effort to instigate polarization. Its purpose is to discredit the facts and destroy the idea of truth to prevent a collective consensus on reality and to make power even more inscrutable. For example, Mr. López Obrador has attacked the independence of autonomous institutions that protect transparency in Mexico, such as the announced elimination of the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Personal Data Protection.
In the United States, the electoral authorities did not succumb to Mr. Trump’s threats, Congress withstood the authoritarian onslaught, and democracy, at least for now, lives to see another day. Mr. Trump, described by Americans as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history, left the White House through the back door, marking the end of his revolting reality show and hopefully the beginning of his descent into oblivion.
Yet the shadow that he cast over democracy in the United States is a warning sign for countries with weaker institutions and more obsequious congresses, like Brazil, Mexico and El Salvador, where the formula of nationalist populism maintains appeal: a mixture of disgust with corruption in the political and business classes, economic and social stagnation, and anti-immigrant sentiment.
As democracy breaks down, disappointed majorities continue to succumb to the populist spell, electing leaders who invariably promise to put an end to “rotten and corrupt leadership,” as Mr. Chávez promised, or “root out the corrupt regime,” as Mr. López Obrador said he would do, or, in Mr. Trump’s famous words, “drain the swamp.” And they are not the only ones, of course. There is no shortage of aspiring caudillos in Latin America.
To promote democracy south of the Rio Grande, Mr. Biden must first lead by example by re-establishing a functional democracy at home. Bridging the opportunity gap is an important step toward tackling rising social and racial gaps in the United States. Aside from the critical need to strengthen institutions, another important step to set an example in a region torn by polarization would be the restoration of civic values by encouraging social responsibility, from top to bottom, in public discourse.
This is what Mr. Biden said he wants to do, which is good, because the world is watching. He has put forth an immigration reform proposal that would legalize millions of migrants, in large part Latin Americans, many of whom work in some of the most demanding and essential sectors of the economy. He has also said that he will allocate substantial economic aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to prevent the most vulnerable from having to migrate from their countries; grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans who fled the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro; and promote broad collaboration on climate change.
All of these measures will improve relations with Latin America. But they will be wasted if the United States does not actively engage with Latin American countries to protect human rights, help fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law in the region. The United States, the hemisphere’s largest and oldest continuous democracy, can show its neighbors that the choice between nationalist populism and democracy is one of law and reason, not desperation and fanaticism.
Boris Muñoz (@borismunoz) is a senior staff editor in Opinion. This article was translated from the Spanish by Erin Goodman.
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