Has US prompted democracy in Latin America since 1970? Evaluate the experience of Chile and Nicaragua

“The promotion of democracy is inherently not imperialist; on the contrary, it is inherently revolutionary, progressive and wonderful! But…What the United States is promoting is not a democracy it is…Inherently imperialist”

(Robinson, 2005)

The essay question asks whether the United States has helped or supported the advancement of democracy in Latin America since 1970 and to assess the experience of two case studies. There is no doubt there was some attempt by the US to spread democracy in the region but, the form of democracy it has promoted or still promoting is questionable. The argument is that, the United States did not promote a genuine democracy, but undermined genuine democracy in the region. Although in recent times particularly after the end of the cold war the US showed some signs of promoting ‘low intensity democracy’ (Robinson 2006).

The aim of this essay is to show how the US contrary to its claim of democracy promotion, destroyed democracy and supported authoritarian regimes in the region, and how such policies negatively damaged the Latin American nations such as Chile and Nicaragua. The essay than continues to assess the experience of two Latin American countries namely Chile and Nicaragua.

“Democracy” is extremely challenging to define, and there is no agreed definition thus, this lack of agreed definition makes democracy a much contested subject. Academics have defined it differently. Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl suggest the following definition: “Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives” (Schmitter & Karl, 1996). Other scholars have define it as ” a system in which no one can choose himself, no one can invest himself with the power to rule and, therefore, no one can abrogate to himself unconditional and unlimited power” (Sartori, 1987, p.206) The differences between modern concept of democracy and Athenian democracy shows how complex is its meaning. “Classical Athenian democracy was based on the ideals of full political participation of all citizens” (Finley, 1973) In contrast citizens do not have full political participation in modern democracy; instead they elect people who would represent them and speak on behalf of them.

When the United States leaders talk about democracy promotion in Latin America, it looks as though they are promoting real democracy, what they are really promoting is what Robert A. Dahl called “polyarchy”. William Robinson describes ‘polyarchy’ as ‘a system in which a small group actually rules, and mass participation in decision making is confined to choosing leaders in elections that are carefully managed by competing elites’ (Robinson, 2006)

The promotion of democracy and freedom will ‘produce peace’, President Reagan declared in a speech he gave in London in 1982 (Doyle, 2010, p.21). He further declared that the US as a liberal democracy ‘exercises restraint and ‘peaceful intention in its foreign policy’ (ibid). Bush Senior similarly declared in 1990 that democracy and respect for human rights are being ‘reborn everywhere’ (ibid).Their declarations though noble and honourable are far from reality, and this is most evident in Latin and Central America particularly Chile and Nicaragua whereby the US rather than promoting freedom and democracy, undermined the very principles its leaders vowed to uphold.

The US has long being involved politically and economically with its Latin American countries. Its relationship with the region has gone through different stages, from military intervention and clandestine operations; to ‘benign neglect’. (Figueiredo, 2007, p.697) It has adopted democracy promotion policies that suited its national interest politically and economically rather than the interest of the people of Latin America (Smith, 2010). It did this by backing and supporting military dictatorships and dictatorial regimes all over Latin America (Azpuru & Shaw, 2010, p.252). The US democracy promotion can be categorized into two. Destabilising democracy and a ‘low intensity’ interest based democracy. Destabilising democracy was implemented before the end of the Cold War to prevent lefts and communist elements as well as unwanted democratically elected regimes taking power in Latin America, whereas ‘low intensity democracy’ was promoted after cold war to promote free market neoliberal economy for its benefit (Robinson, 2006)

During 70s the US democratization policy towards Latin America was not genuine. Rather it was one that not only supported dictators and authoritarian regimes, but one that was designed to undermine democracy itself. Peter Smith argues that the United States always stated that it’s a paramount importance to promote democracy in Latin America, ‘often invoking notions of hemispheric solidarity and the existence of a ‘Western Hemisphere idea’ (Smith, 2008, p.357) however this does not appear to have happened, as the policy of promoting democracy changed to policy of supporting authoritarian regimes, that are favourable to US economic and political interest (Atkins, 1999, p.141) which further undermined and destabilised many countries in the region.

The US has often spoken of its support for democracy promotion in the region, while at same time it has also been ‘criticised for inconsistency for supporting dictators and authoritarian regimes (O’toole, 2007, p.115) such as Pinochet of Chile, and for supporting and sponsoring insurgencies against existing governments such as Nicaragua. Before the Cold War, promoting democracy in the region was not United States objective, its main priority was economic and security issues (Keen & Haynes, 2004) particularly the fear of the spread of communism in the region that. Robert Pastor (2001) argues that, there are three scenarios that the US has to choose from in relation to democracy promotion in the region. First, a loyal and friendly democratic regime, second an authoritarian regime that is friendly to it, or a social revolution that it would rather not to see in the region. Pastor continues to argue that if the US could not get the first choice, it would go for the second choice in order to avoid the third choice (Pastor, 2001) ‘the worst outcome for the US happened in Nicaragua’ where the third option the US wanted to avoid came into reality, when the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship (O’toole, 2007, p.297).

The Reagan Administration did not like what it saw and therefore begun to back and support anti-Sandinistas rebels, the Administrations further employed strategy known as ‘low intensity conflict’ (Robinson, 1996, p.215) which was design to undermined the Sandinistas government. The Sandinistas begun an agrarian reforms, but such move did not go down well with the Nicaraguan ‘old elite’ and the United States. Robin Williams argues that the economic and political reform embarked by the Sandinistas ‘challenged not only the legitimacy of the old elite but of US domination in the region’ (Robinson, 1996 p.215)

Williams further argued that the Sandinista government policy on property ownership ‘favoured poor peasants’ and unlike the United States implemented ‘ high-intensity democracy’ that is different from the low-intensity democracy of the US (ibid) and it’s this native popular democracy that the US has vowed to undermined. The Sandinistas were far from authoritarian regime it replaced, and far from being Marxist as US thought it would be (Jonas, 1989, p.126). Instead Sandinistas has ‘embarked upon a system which had the potential for constructing a genuine democracy’ (Jonas, 1989, p.126) rather than the law intensity neo-liberal system the US wanted. Sandinista’s revolution setup a political alliance dedicated to the ‘principles of political pluralism’ and (rather than being authoritarian regime), pledged to hold elections by 1984. ‘The openness and fairness’ of the elections that followed was not only accepted by the opposing parties, but was declared free by the international observers ‘not directly linked to Reagan administration’ (Jonas, 1989, p.142) and the price the Nicaraguan paid for choosing their own destiny was clear, The US would ruin the economy and help continue the war against Sandinista, until the exhausted locals get rid of the unwanted regime themselves’. (Chomsky, 1994) And thus, Washington ‘would provide its preferred candidate with a winning issue, ending the impoverishment of the people of Nicaragua’ (Chomsky, 1994)

Therefore, Reagan Administration viewed the Sandinista revolution as threat to its national security, and regional domination and therefore ‘insisted upon a military force’ by backing the Contras rebels (O’toole, 2007, p.300). Reagan Administration adopted a hostile strategy to undermine the Sandinista revolution through economic sanctions, diplomatic and political pressure as well as supporting and financing the Contras rebels. If the United States democracy promotion was genuine, it would have been talking to and working with the Sandinista Government rather than undermining it, and not supporting Contras rebels whose human rights violations is well documented. The aim of Washington was clear; unless you do what we want you to do, the war against the revolution and the economic embargo that choked the country would continue.

The behaviour of United States such as intervention, support for authoritarian regimes, human rights violation and lack of respect for international norms in Nicaragua and in Latin America in general fails to back the idea it has promoted or still promoting democracy in the region. The US even disregarded the verdict of international court of justice, which ruled that it had violated Nicaragua’s sovereignty and demanded that the US to stop the military help it gives to the Contras rebels (Livingston, 2009, p.76)

Despite the US Congress banning military aid for the Contras (ibid), the Reagan administration continued to support it, until the Sandinista revolution was gradually dismantled with military, economic, political, and diplomatic, pressures (ibid). And after years of US antagonism and intervention on this tiny country ‘Nicaragua’s attempt to steer its own course through history had been wrecked’ by a Liberal democracy (ibid). Therefore it can be rightly argued that United States democracy promotion in the region has been ‘one tool amongst many in promoting its interest rather than an end in itself in the region’ (Smith, 2010, p.65) thus, The US’ policies towards the region and in Nicaragua in particular was no way near promotion of democracy it was rather ‘the greatest threat to the development of democratic process in Central and Latin America’ (Jonas, 1989, p.128)

But this period of destabilisation and military intervention came to an end in mid 80s and the US begun to support and promote ‘low intensity democracy’. William Robinson (2006) argues that this move from supporting authoritarian regimes to promoting ‘democracy’ is linked to US desire to implement free market economy and pave the way for neoliberal economic policies (Robinson, 2006) Therefore US’s democracy promotion ‘has become a functional imperative of capitalist globalization’ (Robinson, 2006).

However, in late 1980s, the US has ‘changed’ its policy towards Nicaragua and begun to promote a “democracy” so that Nicaraguan people can pursue their own political future. But as Robinson noted this sudden shift was undoubtedly ‘interventionist’ in nature (Robinson, 1992, pp.8-9) the aim was possibly to influence the opinion of the people, so that they might turn their back on the revolution, because the Sandinista according to the US was “the cause of their frustration” (Robinson, 1992, p.13)

Chile is another example where the US undermined and destroyed a genuine democracy in Chile. Successive US Administrations kept denying the role of United States in connection to undermining Chilean democracy, but evidence suggests otherwise. In 2000 the CIA has declassified secret documents relating to the clandestine operation in Chile during Salvador Allende’s presidency. The documents confirmed how the US after failing to influence the 1970 election, undermined and destroyed the democratically elected president of Chile (BBC, 2000) ‘I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country to go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people’ (Robinson, 1996, p.146) stated Henry Kissinger the then US National Security Advisor, in June 1970 speaking of the election of President Allende (ibdi). The success of Chilean democracy became shock and disbelief to the US. This raises the question that, how can a country that believes democracy produces peace and freedom would react to such a negative way? Because the US only promotes ‘low-intensity democracy’, in this case it was full-blown democracy. And as Noam Chomsky (2011) pointed out the US ‘kept to the well-established principle that democracy is acceptable only insofar as it conforms to its strategic and economic objectives’ (Chomsky, 2011)

‘What followed next was one of the darkest chapters of Chilean history’ says Robinson. (Robinson, 1996, p.146) Because one of the steps taken by the Nixon administration in undermining the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was that, Chile’s economy was severely destabilised. President Nixon was once quoted saying that “he will make the Chilean economy scream” (Logevall & Preston, 2008, p.278). This is not how a nation that describes itself as liberal democracy behaves, after all ‘governments founded on a respect, liberty’ and freedom ‘exercise restraint and peaceful intention’ (Doyle, 2010, p.21). This was what Reagan said on one occasion the UK. In this case the US did not respect freedom and liberty and certainly did not exercise restraint, and its intention was not peaceful, it was belligerent instead.

Contrary to its claim that it promotes democracy and freedom, the US has played a major destabilisation role in Latin and Central American nations, particularly Nicaragua and Chile. Simply because the ‘external alignments of both countries have been far more important than any notion of democracy promotion. (Smith, 2010, p.66)

In conclusion, this essay acknowledged that although there were some attempts of democracy promotion by the US in Latin America, it has not promoted a genuine democracy; instead it promoted ‘low intensity democracy designed to benefit its economic and political interests. Despite the US’s assertion that it respects democracy and freedom, and despite maintaining that it exercises restraint and its intentions are peaceful, its conducts in Nicaragua and Chile suggested otherwise. The essay further argued that rather than promoting democracy in the region, the US undermined native democracy by destroying the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende of Chile, and undermined the popular revolution of Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Furthermore, the US did not only undermined democracy, wrecked both countries’ economies, but it backed and supported authoritarian regimes and terrorist guerrillas whose human rights abuses are well documented.


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2 thoughts on “Has US prompted democracy in Latin America since 1970? Evaluate the experience of Chile and Nicaragua

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