Photo: Moises Castillo for AP via World Politics Review
The United States has historically intervened in Latin America and the Caribbean through technical and financial support to institutions aligned with its foreign policy objectives. From the Cold War pledge to contain communist expansion, to the spread of market economy, and the Global War on Terror, the United States has viewed democracy promotion as inextricably linked with its interests. The region has been a particularly important field for democracy assistance, changing throughout different presidencies in accordance with each administration’s strategic foreign policy goals.
While democracy promotion often dovetails with the United States’ economic and security agenda, it is sometimes counterproductive when it affects the interests of non-democratic U.S. allies. Analysts have long raised questions about the legitimacy of U.S. democracy assistance and the efficacy of exporting Western-style democratic systems of government. Flawed democracies have repeatedly accused the United States of foreign interference in the case of non-governmental organizations dependent on international financial aid. Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, to name just a few, have enacted legal frameworks to coerce activists, academics, and other non-political actors involved in processes of democratic construction.
In recent years, there have been significant changes to the United States’ goals and its approach to democracy promotion. Since 2014, successive administrations have often prioritized reduction in migration over democracy promotion, particularly in Central America. In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the United States developed a mitigating policy to provide aid to countries experiencing significant migration waves. The assistance provision was twofold, to control migration while attempting to improve people’s livelihoods. Through a series of programs aimed at climate change, prosperity, economic security, and governance, the strategy intended to build conditions strong enough to prevent periodic surges. The immigration crises in Central America, the connection to climate change, and its impact on the economy in the region have become a cyclical problem, aggravated during the Trump administration after the decision to cut financial assistance. These programs failed to deliver sweeping changes, resulting in an increase in unlawful border crossings as well as a relapse in good governance reforms in the region.
The Trump administration generally distanced itself from traditional democracy assistance, showing interest in cultivating closer relations with foreign leaders without consideration of their democratic credentials. In this respect, Trump’s diplomacy signaled a break from the trend of the previous four administrations, and the America First agenda was a more pragmatic approach.
Meanwhile, the authoritarian turn in Latin America only worsened, first in Venezuela, then in Nicaragua, exacerbating the declining performance of democracy in the region. Rigged elections, corruption, and human rights violations downgraded both countries to the level of illiberal regimes. The common practices of using sweeping powers to overturn the constitution by legislating via a controlled judiciary, along with political persecution and repression as a form of social containment over a vulnerable population—especially during the pandemic—have aggravated the situation.
The Trump administration responded first in the form of sanctions, later escalating with the suggestion of a military intervention in Venezuela. The Nicaraguan regime has received the same sanctions treatment, without further threats beyond isolation. The shortcomings of the Trump administration’s policy not only resulted in the weakening of the Venezuelan opposition’s opportunities to establish a negotiated path to free and fair elections, but also escalated internal disagreements. In Nicaragua’s case, the situation has escalated. The Ortega regime continues to abuse its power, criminalizing the opposition and eroding democratic institutions with its recent arrests of presidential candidates.
Moreover, the current sanctions policy is proving to be inadequate in preventing further erosion of democratic norms. On the contrary, neither Venezuela nor Nicaragua show signs of regime fracture or a democratic opening. There is clearly a need to unlearn the current policymaking framework and restart the process with a bold and more pragmatic approach for the restoration of democracy in Latin America.
The failures in exporting American democracy call for the reframing of democracy promotion as a strategy. While democratization, i.e. transforming an authoritarian state into a democratic one, is important, so is sustaining democracies that are already in place. Venezuela and Nicaragua both democratized in the 20th century, and only after a lengthy period of apparent stability did the current regimes emerge. We should be wary of countries that might take the same path in the near future, particularly in El Salvador with President Bukele’s latest judiciary power grab.
A strategic response must consider both the domestic landscape and the international community’s policy goals. Any multilateral effort should involve local actors, promoting a broad network with a focus on supporting internal capacities and encouraging funding opportunities, along with training.
The crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua represent a particular challenge since these are cases of de-democratization. The dismantling of democratic institutions requires a different set of policies considering this is not a democracy-building effort so much as a reconstruction or recovery mission. One of the most important lessons we should take from this experience of democratic deconsolidation is that the region, and the United States in particular, cannot afford to wait for Latin American democracies to completely collapse before acting. The consolidated democracies of the Western Hemisphere must commit to every effort in protecting and restoring democracy in vulnerable countries in Latin America. The Biden administration has indicated its backing for democracy promotion instead of interventions, signaling its preference for concerted efforts through multilateral diplomatic initiatives, such as the ongoing negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. The reframing should also include other regional actors like the Organization of American States. If the Biden administration develops a combined regional strategy, it could represent a renewed opportunity for transition from the deterioration to the restoration of democratic institutions in the region.
María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Valencia College and Secretary of the Section on Venezuelan Studies of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).