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Democracy's demise in Latin America: Ecuador on brink of a 'perfect dictatorship'

If voters approve Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's proposals in the May 7 referendum vote, he will be allowed to designate judges and magistrates, and the remaining independent media will come under his authority. He will have established a 'perfect dictatorship' in Ecuador.

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The 2010 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, used the term “perfect dictatorship” to describe Mexico’s political system under the absolute control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for most of the 20th Century. That term also fits the current governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia – and now Ecuador – like a glove.

Even though Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa is the most powerful president that Ecuador has had since the early 20th Century, he is still determined to gain full control of the two institutions over which his sway is incomplete: the justice system and the media. For that purpose, he has called another plebiscite, the third during his term in office. If voters approve his proposals in the May 7 referendum vote, he will be allowed to designate judges and magistrates, and the remaining independent media will come under his authority.

If Mr. Correa’s ballot questions are passed, he will have established a “perfect dictatorship” in Ecuador – disguised under the cloak of constitutional and popular legitimacy.

Democracy is disappearing in Latin America

Elements that are essential for a democratic regime have disappeared in many Latin American countries: checks and balances, an independent justice system, freedom of the press, alternating political power, accountability, and competitive elections.

Given these governments’ violations of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the Organization of American States should sanction them or at least cite them for their antidemocratic conduct. However, the OAS organization and its member states have preferred to look the other way, just as the international community did for so long in the case of the abuses that occurred under dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

The colorful personality of President Hugo Chávez, along with Venezuela’s oil wealth, may explain the attention that country has received from the international press. That attention might also explain why little has been said about how democracy and liberty have been infringed on in Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.

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In the case of my country, Ecuador, perhaps people thought that Correa would not emulate Mr. Chávez since he has a university education, including graduate studies in Belgium and the United States. However, during the four years of his administration, democratic institutions have been gradually diminished to the point of vanishing.

Correa’s grab for absolute power

Correa refused to take the oath stipulated by the Constitution when he took office before the National Congress in early 2007. Then, in violation of another constitutional provision, he called for a plebiscite that would authorize him to convene a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. In order to prevent the Congress from blocking that arbitrary proposal, he orchestrated the removal of opposition legislators, whom he replaced with his supporters.

When the Constitutional Court invalidated that outrageous abuse of power, its magistrates were physically removed from the premises and then removed from their posts.

The Constitution then inspired by Correa sought to concentrate power with the president of the republic and to reduce the powers of Congress, especially its role of government oversight and its involvement in the designation of government authorities. Many of these authorities now report to the executive branch. The Constituent Assembly also gave the president his way by approving a regulation allowing two consecutive reelections, one in which he has already enjoyed victory.

Despite having a custom-made constitution, Correa has repeatedly disregarded its provisions. He has put radio, TV, and newspapers at the service of his government; intimidated the independent press; weakened the organizations of civil society; divided the indigenous peoples; manipulated election processes; and deterred all forms of opposition.

Those who criticize such arbitrary actions are taunted with insults and subjected to smear campaigns and legal proceedings, including multimillion-dollar lawsuits. If the rulings turn out to be favorable to him, Correa will make a fortune.

A veiled form of dictatorship

Traditionally, Latin American dictatorships were the outgrowth of a military coup that ousted a constitutional president and substituted a military caudillo or junta composed of generals. In order to avoid sanctions by Western democracies in an era in which democracy has become a universal value, Latin American autocrats have invented a veiled form of dictatorship, following in the path of the European fascists of old.

With the pretense of legitimizing this course, they hold plebiscites that are won through the control of advertising and propaganda, the manipulation of voters, and sophisticated election frauds. If Correa wins the upcoming plebiscite, Ecuador will become a twin of Chavez’s perfect dictatorship in Venezuela.

Osvaldo Hurtado, who served as the president of Ecuador from 1981 to 1984, has written over a dozen books, two of which have been translated into English: “Political Power in Ecuador” and “Portrait of a Nation: Culture and Progress in Ecuador.”

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