Latin America's Autocrats Fail Marx's Survival Test

By Fabio Rafael Fiallo

The crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the development of social media have provided a renewed impetus to peoples' aspirations to live under democratic rule. Political movements with dictatorial designs have been obliged to conceal their ulterior objectives and elaborate new tactics aimed at enticing the population and ultimately seizing power.

Nowhere is this opportunistic change of tack more visible than in Latin America. Guerrilla warfare (like Colombia's FARC) and attempts of coup d'état (like Hugo Chavez's in 1992) have gone out of fashion. Far-left parties, which in the past had professed a blatant disdain for the electoral way, now prefer to compete in presidential elections, trumpeting their supposed faith in democracy and extolling their passion for liberty.

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This has been the stance taken by the leaders of the so-called 'Bolivarian axis' – namely Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales – as well as the Kirchnerists in Argentina.

And yet, as soon as elections are won, a sinister mechanism is put in place; one aimed at progressively corroding freedom of expression and association, the independence of the judiciary and political pluralism.

Independent journalists and opposition leaders are persecuted, subjected to astronomic fines, jailed or forced to exile. Rebellious judges are removed and even sent to prison, at the same time as the judiciary is stuffed with flunkeys ready to execute the government's diktats. And just like in the old banana republics, securing life presidency – through constitutional reform and rigged elections, if need be – becomes the incumbent's overriding goal.

Concomitant with this process of demolition of democratic institutions, the new autocrats adopt a warlike attitude toward private enterprise and the market mechanism. They do so in the name of the alleged need to strip the entrepreneurial class (the "exploiters," or "bourgeoisie," in their jargon) from whatever power remains in the latter's hands.

Profit-seeking is systematically stigmatized; trade becomes a suspect activity and is often criminalized. Restrictions of all kinds (price and exchange controls, import barriers) are imposed. The export revenue derived from the country's natural resources is put at the service of the State to foster political patronage and finance populist subsidies and a bloated bureaucracy. All too naturally, efficiency melts away.

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Fabio Rafael Fiallo is an economist, writer and former UN official. His latest book, "Ternes Eclats", or "Dimmed Lights" (Paris, L'Harmattan), presents a critique of international organizations and multilateral diplomacy.

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