The Explainer: Latin American Dictators

That was as neat a summary as you can find, of the tragic Latin American experience in modern times. Even when democracy can be made to function, there are those who expect to wield a veto power over its results as happened in Chile in 1973.

On June 28, the President of Honduras, who was exploring ways to amend the constitution to extend his stay in power, was bundled out of the country, still in his pajamas, as the army launched a coup d’etat. The army’s veto over the president’s plans, was followed by the legislature inaugurating the Speaker of the National Assembly as the new president, and the Supreme Court ratified the decision.

But the world –and the entire Americas, it seems- isn’t about to take it sitting down. How is it that a continent formerly known for coups, now seems to have a zero-tolerance policy for them?

I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.




Let’s begin with two newsclips to put our topic tonight in perspective.

Here’s the Associated Press reporting on what happened in Honduras on June 28. Let’s watch.

In a nutshell, then, the President of Honduras, limited by the constitution to a single, four-year term, wanted to extend his term. The Supreme Court said he couldn’t; the politicians were upset; he still wanted to go through with a non-binding referendum to explore the idea. The army kicked him out.

And here’s another, more recent, Associated Press report from July 1:

This news struck a chord among political observers here at home. There was, of course, the feeling of déjà vu: like Edsa Dos, it seems the Honduran political class and perhaps even a big chunk of its citizenry viewed their president as someone who had to go, if democracy was to be saved; only to discover the world didn’t quite agree, just as when foreign observers characterized Edsa Dos as a failure for democracy and the rule of law.

But there’s something else familiar about the Hondurans and their paranoia concerning their president’s desire to stay in power.

The ongoing debate over whether the President wants to stay on, despite a single term limit imposed by the Constitution, is in large part, a hangover from our past experience with her predecessors.

Here’s a Philippines Free Press editorial cartoon from 1940, introducing an image that would become familiar to its readers: of Presidents surrendering to the temptation to become Latin American style dictators;

In this editorial cartoon, thirty years later, the president has changed but the ambition, in the eyes of the Free Press, remained the same.

And this time, the Free Press got it right; and when, after martial law, it resumed publication again, besides the home-grown, Latin American style ambitions of presidents to stay in power, there was now, vividly in people’s minds, the power behind the scenes that had made it possible: the United States.

After all, besides civilians, American influence was very strong with the armed forces, literally armed and trained in large part, by Americans by means of actual supplies, or training. And the limits of democracy include, alas, the veto-power exercised by those with the guns.

Which brings us to the bemedaled, sash-adorned figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, satirized in this British cartoon. In the 19th Century he provided the most famous example of liberty and democracy succumbing to the charisma and ruthless ambition of the man on the white horse.

Latin America, which found its imperial masters, Spain and Portugal, occupied by Napoleon, took the opportunity of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, to start their own wars of independence.

In the aftermath of the wars of liberation in the Americas, our own ties to the Americas, stretching back hundreds of years from the time Spain ruled us through the Viceroyalty of Mexico, were cut; politically, but not intellectually:

And our own war of independence would follow the model of another one of Spain’s last colonial possessions in the Americas, Cuba. There was a racial, even cultural element at play here at home that echoed the Latin American experience; unlike the British or the Dutch, the Spanish had freely accepted intermarriage with natives and in their American colonies as in the Philippines, it was this new, mestizo class, not quite Spanish and not quite native, that began to agitate for independence.

But revolutions, as the saying goes, aren’t tea parties; and whatever the cries of liberty and independence that echoed in these nation-building wars, as the perhaps most famous of the Latin American liberators, the man you see here, Simon Bolivar, found out, it is easier to achieve political independence than to establish a functioning government; Bolivar’s military exploits didn’t necessarily match his ability to hold political and civil societies together; nations founded by generals found themselves haunted by the impatience that comes naturally to those with the guns.

Over a century after Bolivar, men like this one –the Cuban dictator-president Fulgencio Batista- still strutted on the Latin American stage, providing the caricature of the slightly silly but surely sinister dictators we continue to identify with Latin America.

But of course there is something else we identify with the word, America. And that’s the United States of America, exemplar, rightly or wrongly, in many people’s minds, with democracy itself.

Now a look at this footage.

It shows the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista visiting the United States.

Welcoming him is Franklin D. Roosevelt who was himself accused of semi-socialism, but widely admired as a committed lover of democracy. But not for everyone. He was once asked why the Americans supported dictators in Latin America, and he replied, “hey may be a sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch.”

To be sure, since the time of James Monroe in the early 1800s, America had defined its territorial interest as comprising all of the Americas; and jealously guarded the two American continents as a kind of exclusive playground for itself. When this photo was taken, of Attlee, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam in 1945, the American sphere of influence had extended to include any part of the globe not actually dominated by Communism –and the effort to keep that area as large as possible became known as the Cold War.

And this included the Americas, where any government seen by Uncle Sam as potentially harmful to American commercial or military interests was seen as headed down the path of domination by Moscow. So the 1940s to the 1970s proved a golden time for supporting dictatorships the world over, and scenes in Latin America such as this one, of elected presidents toppled by officers trained by the USA, became commonplace.

The Eternal Castro, however, survived JFK and every effort, thereafter, to bring him down.

Elsewhere, though, the Communist tide was stemmed; not by means of democratic resistance, but military repression. Generals like Stroessner of Paraguay, received, and relied on, American support.

For America, though,

The most famous example remains Chile. In the early 1970s it was a country that up to that point, had been well-known as a stable, functioning democratic country even when other nations in the region were under the thumb of military government.

Then they elected Salvador Allende, a Marxist, president. But as Allende made overtures to Cuba, and began to actively promote socialism in his country, the USA and the Chilean elite acted. A bloody coup, involving the storming of the presidential palace, in which Allende was killed, took place.

And thus, this famous photo from 1973, of the victorious Pinochet –a grim, sterm, sinister new face for right wing military dictatorship.

According to Juan Gabriel TOKATLIAN, something new has recently been introduced in Latin America’s political system: the notion of unlimited reelection.

He calls this Latin America’s Caesar Temptation. The term comes from the Venezuelan historian and sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, who argued in 1919 “at least in the case of Venezuela, a charismatic leader, confirmed in power through regular elections, would be best placed to concentrate political power successfully and guarantee institutional order.”

Remember our own national paranoia, particularly after Marcos, over presidents wanting to stay in power forever? That paranoia had been put in place, first of all, by the Latin American example; and as TOKATLIAN explains it, “For most of the 19th century and well into the cold war era, reelection of a sitting president was generally prohibited in the great majority of Latin American countries, owing to a general fear of leaders remaining permanently in power, abetted by the prevalence of electoral fraud.”

But that is increasingly no longer the case.

For example, in Brazil, “Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, in power since 2003, was reelected in 2007, and now many members of his party are pushing for a constitutional reform that would allow him a third term.”


And in Argentina, Néstor Kirchner, as a provincial governor, he engineered changes to the provincial constitution in 1994 and 1998 that allowed him to stay in power indefinitely; then, as president, since he’d helped write a single term limit for the presidency, after serving as president from 2003 to 2007, he stepped down –with his wife, Cristina- being elected president of Argentina. But there’s talk he’ll run for the presidency again to succeed his wife in 2011.

The Ceasarism TOKATLIAN thinks is developing also perhaps owes its rise to something else. Besides restoring democracy, citizens began to accomplish a second kind of revolution, a racial one, in recent years. Nations long ruled by the mestizo elite, began to elect indigenous politicians. One of the most famous of these is Evo Morales.

Take a look at this photo of Evo Morales being inaugurated president of Bolivia in 2005. He became the first fully indigenous head of state since the Spanish conquest, or  in 470 years. Many of the politicians, however, are still pretty much white.

Latin American leaders have been known to indulge in populism; but added to old-fashioned populism are the racial politics that sustain Morales, and, as demonstrated by other Latin American leaders like Rafael Correa of Ecuador, a new kind of approach that isn’t exactly Communism, or even 1960s style Socialism, but “Christian humanism of the left.” This includes repudiating debts racked up by dictators or under the dictation of Washington; and questioning free trade and the so-called Washington Consensus.

But while the sa Silvas, the Kirchers, the Morales, the Correas are all manifestations of what’s called The Pink Tide in Latin America, perhaps the pinkest of all stands out. He’s president of this country, Venezuela, and what he’s done helps explain the tensions in Honduras.

When we return –the man behind the Bolivarian Revolution.




That was a 1988 propaganda video for General Augusto Pinochet, the man who replaced Salvador Allende, whose fall from power you saw at the beginning of this program.

This brings up a question of particular relevance to us, which is, it’s so easy to wrap yourself in the flag and call yourself a democrat –who’s to say who, exactly, is for, or against, democracy?

Fidel Castro, who, for over a generation, was the last radical standing in Latin America, once said elections don’t matter. But as Latin America regained democracy, elections, long denied by dictators, became something no one could ignore. Not least because, as Chavez himself proved in his rise to power, elections provided the one, sure, way to defeat the old status quo that had once warmly embraced dictatorship in the first place.

Hugo Chaves is a populist, a socialist, admirer of Cuba, and survivor of what can best be described as Latin America’s own version of Edsa Dos. Hated for many of the same reasons Joseph Estrada was, the mestizo upper class, the private media, the Catholic Church, the politicians and the army tried to oust him; but unlike our experience in 2001, the effort failed.

Chavez bounced back, and he isn’t a man to back down, domestically or internationally. Take a look at this clip, that caused a sensation in 2007 during a Summit of Latin American countries, when he ended up scolded by the King of Spain:


Chavez raised American hackles when he embarked on using the vast, state-controlled oil wealth of his country to push an agenda that horrified true believers in free markets and globalization. Even as his country earned oodles from the high price of oil, he devoted that oil income to Socialist programs, and to greater cooperation between countries.

He called this the Bolivarian Alliance for Our People of the Americas or ALBA. The idea, in its simplest terms, is to bring Latin American countries closer together.

The purpose of their coming together is to help solve each other’s problems by committing to a common agenda in terms of social welfare by means of activities like bartering goods –Chavez, for example, exchanged oil with Cuba in return for Cuban doctors helping with public health in Venezuela.

Doing this, he argued, would avoid simply adopting the American economic model which had trapped countries like his under the burden of foreign debt.

If you’d like to know more, simply visit the 21stCenturySociaism website:

But for now, Chavez, too, is an intriguing model if you adopt Ceasarism as a perspective: Venezula, is the first success story in achieving unlimited reelection for Presidents. Many other countries in Latin America now see it possible to justify the continuation in office of presidents, so long as they hold elections.

Take a look at this Wikipedia Map, and you’ll see the growing clout of Chavez and his perspective on politics and development. The catalog of countries comprises-







Saint Vicent and the Grenadines

Antigua and Barbuda


And this brings us back to Honduras, and it’s recently ousted president, seen here with his daughter a couple of years ago, visiting Fidel Castro and his successor as President of Cuba, his brother, Raul.

Here’s veteran journalist Nicolas Kozloff, let’s watch.

(2:02 to 3:03)


And so, on one hand, if there’s the question of do you roll over if presidents show signs of wanting to stay on –the justification for the coup- there’s the ideological question, too –do you let your radical changes lose steam, simply because of term limits?

The BBC in 2007 published this map, showing just how Leftist Latin America’s become. This seems to have freaked out the Bush administration, but the Obama administration, for one, dialed down the rhetoric and began expressing a willingness to dialogue with countries like Cuba.

Here’s Andrew Clem’s more nuanced map, showing that even within the Left, there are different approaches; from hard-Left in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Nicaragua, to the Moderate Left in places like Argentina, Brazil, and Honduras.

But the real sea change, even if Center-Right governments are now the minority in Latin America, is the new-found unity the Honduran coup has fashioned in the two continents: for once, everyone is on the same page, though obviously not everyone has the same idea of democracy.

But as the President of Costa Rica put it, if you revive the military having a veto power on politics, it’s a step back for everyone.

Later tonight on the The Explainer Dialogues, join me as I discuss with Rep. ___ and our clever panel, a paradox of democracy, Latin American-style.

When reforming leaders decide the constitution has to go, what should be the genuinely democratic response to their ambition to stay in power?


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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