Armando, you have been working on democratization; democratic decay, populism and authoritarianism; and the role of global powers such as Russia and China in Latin American politics. Let’s begin with democratic backlash. How would you assess democratic decay in Central and Latin America globally?
Latin America is a veritable melting pot of identities, processes, and socio-economic and political structures, where you cannot apply any simplification. Four decades after the deployment of democratic transitions, our region has accumulated progress, stagnation, and, more recently, setbacks.
On the continent, the recovery of democracies (during the 1980s) did not come hand in hand with the construction of robust and inclusive welfare states; rather, it coincided with the expansion of neoliberal adjustment policies. The middle class grew in several countries, but without eliminating unbearable levels of poverty and inequality. Notable social and economic inequalities were maintained and in some cases—classes, regions, nations—they widened. But the status and mechanisms for exercising citizenship were also strengthened. The fight for human rights became a powerful regional movement, which brought together diverse activists with common agendas in diverse contexts.
In recent years, the subsequent end of the commodities boom, the resulting economic recession, and the adjustment and debt policies adopted by various governments contributed to the current situation of economic stagnation and social anger. This discontent, added to the growing deterioration of a democratic institutionalism that does not seem to effectively channel multiple citizens’ demands, seems to be the origin of the popular mobilizations that took place in several countries in 2019 and 2020. The situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the processes of impoverishment, autocratization, and the state’s inability to respond effectively to demands and fulfill citizen rights.
In Latin America, political support for liberal democracy has been declining systematically over the last decade. While ten years ago, approximately two out of every three Latin American citizens argued that “democracy is the best system of government beyond its problems,” in 2018 that proportion fell to 48%—the lowest level since the beginning of the century. This is the main reason for two confluent phenomena: the first is an authoritarian political culture, which beyond conjuncture, shows a permanent disaffection with the democratic model; the second is a rejection of the functioning of existing democracies, not a break with the regime as such. The first of these trends is clearly illiberal.
The latest report from Freedom House (2021) shows that, in addition to marking the fifteenth consecutive year of decline of global freedom and revealing that countries with democratic setbacks are more than those showing improvements, COVID-19 and state responses to the pandemic worsened the situation. Even in countries with democratic systems and liberal leaders, people were ready to accept reduced freedoms in the name of the fight against the virus. And the seduction of illiberal imaginaries increased.
Despite the formal validity of a majority framework of democratic order and rule of law, Latin America is a kaleidoscope of types of regimes and openness to civic participation. In countries such as Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay, we find cases of high democratic regime, combined with adequate levels of state capacity. Brazil and México are nations where a democratic political system coexists with populist governments, coinciding with a very diverse civil society. Central America—and other Caribbean countries and the Andean zone—have fragile democracies, with institutions of low capacity facing health emergencies and formally opening civic spaces, but with systematic and variable violations of citizens’ rights.
On the other hand, we have a completely autocratic and, therefore, coherently illiberal subsystem in the region. Nicaragua and Venezuela have a hybrid regime, combined with variable levels of state capacity (high in the repressive way, low in the provisional way) and social mobilization, within a repressive environment of space and civic rights. In Cuba, we have the only regional case of a closed autocratic regime with high state capacity. Haiti represents a failed state, with almost no state capacity. This shows the survival (and potential expansion) of socio-political orders adverse to the institutions, rights, and ways of life of an open society with political pluralism in Latin America.
You have been doing an in-depth study of Russia’s influence in Venezuela. Would you speak about a convergence of narratives and alignment of interest, or about a genuine “influence” of Russia over Venezuela’s ideological transformations? What are the domestic components and those that are “imported”?
I will develop this in an upcoming article, the result of research I developed this year to explain the convergence of Russian and Venezuelan political discourse around the Venezuelan crisis. In summary, I would say that there is a confluence of common interests and ideological factors, which converge within an illiberal scheme. Let me explain. Following Kurt Weyland and several colleagues, I consider ideology as a factor among many others (including resources, opportunities, and pragmatic interests) for autocratic influence and cooperation. But, as you have shown in previous research, illiberalism operates a flexible and encompassing ideology of autocratic regimes opposed to democracy in the post-Cold-War world. In this case, there is illiberal synergy between Russian conservative nationalism and Venezuelan leftist Bolivarianism.
So, we can analyze how two autocratic allies, Putin’s and Maduro’s regimes, cooperate through propaganda projection and media coverage to defend their respective political positions and public legitimacy—Venezuela as a gateway to the Latin American regional space and market and also as an ally of Russia against the U.S. In specific areas, as researchers Iria Puyosa or Victor Mijares have shown, media cooperation, internet control, and military and diplomatic support have been fundamental. And in those camps, the revisionist agenda (and illiberal values) of the Kremlin, opposed to the global liberal order, have boosted the positions of the Maduro regime.
How does that fit the notion of “sharp power” developed to discuss Russia? And where do you see similarities and differences with China’s presence in Latin America?
China and Russia have begun to expand into education, science, civil society, and culture in the region, also advancing on the public opinion in a broader sense. Through the increasing expansion of Chinese and Russian disruption, individuals and groups of Latin American illiberals can sublimate their aversion to the West and to capitalism, and also find an umbrella that matches their hierarchical and authoritarian vision for society. At the same time, this new alliance will provide more resources and access to global power.
China and Russia have paid close attention to their own version of soft power—the sharp power—which is not so different in its forms, although it is in content, to that of the Western countries of the 20th century. Russia is a geopolitical power with significant military, intelligence, propaganda, and information resources, but it is declining economically and demographically. Therefore, it must bet on a more aggressive presence, unlike China, which is betting on buying—with financial muscle, investments, and diplomacy—a broader and more systematic presence in Latin America.
As a Cuban scholar in exile, could you address the question of a leftist illiberalism? I am interested here not in the authoritarian aspects of communist (current or former) countries such as Cuba, but on the current new left in Latin America. Would you say it is illiberal, and what does that mean concretely? Which forms of liberalism are they challenging? Economic liberalism seems obvious, but what about political liberalism in the sense of pluralism of opinions?
The field of the production and dissemination of ideas, images, and information reveals such illiberal progress. In Latin America—and other parts of the West—universities and cultural institutions are increasingly populated by a type of left-wing hegemony, in its multiple tribes, accompanied by an amorphous and passive center, which leaves it to the fundamentalist segments to impose a lexicon and agenda. Certain traits—obsessive anti Americanism, dogmatic egalitarianism, ideological overrepresentation, and illiberal propensity—delineate, in the Latin American sphere, the identity and projection of much of this intellectual field closed to illiberal ideologies.
The first problem is our relationship with the regional hegemon that I’ve called obsessive anti-Americanism. We have conceived of the United States as the primary source of our misfortunes and a threat to our identity. However, unlike what would have happened to a European or South Asian intellectual threatened by Russian or Chinese despotism, here there is a more complex legacy. Our imperial neighbor is both a vibrant and veteran republic. If we were to suffer domination from Beijing or Moscow, perhaps we would understand the crucial difference and the emancipatory opportunity that such dualism entails.
Ideological overrepresentation is alien to the demographics of the country. The regional population is not reducible to any one ideology, even a predominant one. Periodic polls—Latinobarómetro or Latin American Public Opinion Project, among others—show a Latin American citizenry extraordinarily divided in terms of values, affiliation, and vote. However, public overrepresentation presents the entire academy as “progressive,” with which the regional intelligentsia would not be particularly democratic, as it does not correspond to the identities and heterogeneous interests of the population for which it speaks, including its popular sectors.
A third point is a certain vision and justice, which I identify as dogmatic egalitarianism. With Latin America being the most unequal region on the planet, our intellectuals claim the great banner of social equality. But the predominant approach around it is usually that of an equality erected in absolute value and opposed to political freedom, reduced to the clientelist forms of compassionate and market-focus statism, and opposed to a redistributive justice based on complex rights and policies. Interestingly, several European right-wing populisms defend similar ideas in an ethnic key.
At last, the systematic public behavior of much of the intelligentsia in Latin America reflects a preference for revolutionary rather than reformist politics. The criticism is not directed at the oligarchic deficits of liberal democracy, but at its very foundations. This illiberal propensity is revealed in its questioning of the institutions and processes of the liberal democracy: to privilege supposed “participatory” democracy over “representative” democracy; to hold populist leaderships “connected” to the masses, who do not know and criminalize the opposition; and to reduce the political dispute to a Schmittian struggle between “The People” and perverse “neoliberalism,” which actually encompasses all critics of illiberal rules, from conservative politics to leftist autonomous social movements.
You have been looking at the role of civil society and the academia in resisting or embracing illiberal values. Do you see them as weak link or as robust fortress of liberal values?
In Latin America, there is a conservative socio-political sector whose ideas are overrepresented in private centers, religious groups, media conglomerates, and some public entities of right-wing governments. But the political, media, and social-civil networks of Latin American conservatives do not show an intellectual muscle that is in tune with their enemy twins on the left. At the present time, those who seem to enjoy greater regional articulation, a strengthened presence in public opinion, and even financial and intellectual support from the U.S. and Europe are the anti-liberals of the left.
While the promoters of illiberal ideas—their representatives and agendas in the scientific, academic, and cultural worlds—seem to grow successfully, those who oppose them find themselves disintegrated, fragmented, isolated, and, in many cases, without institutional support. But most importantly, they lack common strategies, deprived of symbols and discourses of collective articulation. The academic and cultural world suffers from having spaces co-opted by defenders of the authoritarian model, either by militant conviction or because they reproduce the bases of a common sense to interpret reality. And now that illiberalism is spreading more and more across the ideological spectrum, if you review the leftist discourse of ideologues Evo Morales and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but also the visions of right-wing populists such as Jair Bolsonaro or Nayib Bukele, you can detect those common elements.
Think of academic freedom, one of the axes of civic space. The state is certainly primarily responsible for guaranteeing academic freedom. But it’s not the only one that can affect it. In the region, powerful business interests operate with little regulation, which favors a growing commodification of the process of production and dissemination of knowledge. Various criminal actors—whether or not they collude with politicians—also bring violence to the heart of academic communities. Finally, the activism (mostly from the radical left) of the academy can also attack freedom within it, from the overrepresentation of speeches and the cancellation, within intellectual debates, of other ideologies and peoples linked to these.
Spaces born in the heat of the exile of intellectuals and the need to renew the ideas of the time, such as the Latin American Council on Sciences Social (CLACSO), were transformed into spaces of reproduction of a type of illiberal discourse with increasingly hegemonic vocation, identified with leftist populism and the so-called socialism of the 21st century. Networks, such as the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), have maintained a more open and plural character, but also accuse the presence of discourses (postcolonial, decolonial, etc.) that see liberal democracy, the market economy, and the open society as mere colonizing constructs of an “Imperial West.”
Confronting illiberalism requires comprehensive strategies. On that path, possible actions in civil society and public space can go, among others, to identify activists, young leaders, officials, and academics to form networks of democratic reflection, solidarity, and advocacy. These include: 1) supporting featured personal profiles—for its diversity of ethnic origin, class, of gender and others, as well as for their professional quality and managerial capacity and leadership—to compete and move forward against its competitors identified with authoritarian projects; 2) stimulating investment, public and private, in resource excellence by training humans in medium and upper education systems, seeking inclusion and upward social mobility, breaking the often-self-referential dynamics of the regional elites; 3) supporting persecuted academics, scientists, and people from the world of culture or imprisoned in non democratic countries, and denouncing their authoritarian counterparts before the international community; 4) installing an agenda of coordination and cooperation with foundations and institutions, both governmental and non-governmental as well as European and North American, so that they do not support militants of authoritarianism; 5) and, last but not least, confronting in public debates against illiberal discourses and ideologies to support and promote in the media fresh faces, recognizable and popular that act as spokesmen for a democratic ideology.
Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program, so I cannot refrain from asking each of our interviewees their vision of the concept. Does illiberalism appear to you as a legitimate concept to be dissociated from the widely used notion of populism, and, if yes, how and why?
Illiberalism is a broad phenomenon, encompassing ideology, psychology, and everyday life in different landscapes, groups, and subjects. In your own formulation, it rejects multilateralism in favor of the nation-state and defends a model of leader and people, without intermediary institutions. It promotes protectionism, although it implements neoliberal reforms. It privileges an essentialist definition of the nation, that prevails today in Latin America, within a statist and mercantilist conception that neglects (borders inside and outside) the intrinsic value of defending a democracy of citizens. But perhaps—and it is my consideration—I could admit broader contents, just to differentiate it from populism.
For its part, populism can be studied more in the fields of history, sociology, and political science, as a specific way of understanding, through the endogenous (Leader-Mass) and exogeneous (People-Enemy) polarities; exercising, through decisionism, mobilizing, and conflicting; and, to a lesser extent, structuring, in movement forms rather than in stable institutions, modern politics. It is a phenomenon located halfway between (degraded) democracy and nascent authoritarianism.
The links are obvious, but I believe that illiberalism is broader than populism—a phenomenon related to political modernity—in conceptual terms and in its concrete socio historical expressions. If you analyze, for example, the rhetoric of Islamic regimes (Iran), conservatives (Russia) or revolutionaries (Venezuela), the phobia against liberalism is a central element. And none of them is, per se, a populist government. Their ideological configurations, their social bases, and their political structure are different. But everyone is suspicious of the Rule of Law, representative government, checks and balances, and political pluralism, for example. Not to mention the official documents of the Chinese Communist Party, which condemn various liberal principles as threats to national security and the cohesion of “Chinese civilization.”
We cannot forget that liberal and democratic principles (notions of human rights and popular self-government, for example) after 1945 constituted the basis of the founding discourse of the United Nations. I believe that the potential for theoretical development and empirical application of the research agenda on illiberalism is still enormous.
Dr. Armando Chaguaceda is a Cuban-Mexican political scientist and historian, whose research examines democratization and democratic decay, the forces of populism and authoritarianism, and the role of global powers such as Russia and China in Latin American politics. He is a Mexico country expert for Varieties of Democracy, an international research initiative based at the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, which seeks to conceptualize and measure democracy in all countries of the world. He has taught at various universities, including la Universidad de Guanajuato (2014–2019), la Universidad Iberoamericana (2016), la Universidad Veracruzana (2013), El Colegio de Veracruz (2009, 2014), and la Universidad de la Habana (2003–2008). He has coedited and coauthored a number of books, including The Social Sciences in Authoritarian Contexts: Academic Production, Censorship, and Repression in the Post–Cold War Period (with Horacio Vives, 2018); Constitutional Change in Cuba: Politics and Law (with Rafael Rojas and Velia Bobes, 2017); and Democracy in Latin America: Between Ideal Utopia and Political Realities (with Alex Caldera, 2016). During his fellowship, Dr. Chaguaceda plans to examine the influence of Russian sharp power in Latin America in the post–Cold War era, as well as explore the ideological synergies between the political projects of Moscow and Caracas with respect to democracy, human rights, and international relations.