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The state of democracy in Latin America


Just days after President Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil's new president on January 1, supporters of the former president, Jair Bolsonaro, stormed government buildings in the capital, trashing government offices and threatening chaos in an effort to force his return to power. Counterprotesters took to the street to demand that the rioters be brought to justice. But this isn't the only example of a complicated, messy transfer of power that we're seeing in Latin America. Peru is about to enter its second month of protests after that country's former president, Pedro Castillo, was arrested in December for trying to dissolve Congress, sparking political violence that has left dozens dead. Now Peru's current president, Dina Boluarte, is facing an inquiry from the country's top prosecutors on charges of genocide in connection with the security forces' response to these protests.

Brian Winter is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and has written extensively about threats to democracy in Latin America, and he's with us now to help us understand what's happening here. Brian Winter, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.

BRIAN WINTER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start off with Brazil. I mean, the election was contentious to begin with, but it was taken a step further when supporters of Bolsonaro literally took over three branches of government. What has been the aftermath of that?

WINTER: The aftermath has been one of trying to pick up the pieces, both literally and politically. Tremendous damage caused to these three government buildings - it was the Supreme Court, the presidential palace and the Congress. All of them were invaded and severely vandalized. In that respect, it was worse than what we saw in the United States on January 6, 2021. But there has been a somewhat heartening effort by Brazilian authorities to try to rally around democracy. We saw the leaders of all three branches of government issue a statement condemning the failed insurrection. We saw all of the governors of Brazil also condemn what happened. And I'm somewhat hopeful that this will pass and that President Lula will be able to put the country back together.

MARTIN: So let's go to Peru now - former President Pedro Castillo's removal and all that has ensued since then. Obviously, there's a kind of a deep stem to a lot of this. There's been a lot of political turmoil in Peru, going back some years. But how would you describe the current situation?

WINTER: Turmoil is a good word. It's a country that just can't quite seem to put together a political consensus needed to go forward. It's had several presidents in the last few years. None of them have been able to meet society's expectations. Castillo was unpopular. He then tried to illegally shut down Congress. That didn't work. And shortly after that, he was impeached. But he, Castillo, retains a support base in certain parts of Peru, particularly in the south, which reflects a - several divides in the country, especially a rural-urban divide. And so a lot of the protests that we've seen reflect that. And unfortunately, there's been a really deadly response by the government trying to put these protests down, and we've seen dozens of people die.

MARTIN: And what happens, then, now, as we said, that current President Boluarte - who was a part of Castillo's regime, it has to be said, before she broke with him - is now facing this inquiry, some very serious charges? So what happens now? I mean, she doesn't seem to have a hold on a base of her own, from what we can see. What happens if she's found guilty of these charges? Or how is that process likely to play out?

WINTER: The honest answer is nobody knows. And it partly reflects just this constant turmoil that we've seen in Peruvian politics over the last couple years. What the protesters want - and what a lot of Peruvians want - is for elections to be brought forward to as soon, potentially, as this year. But that's not entirely in President Boluarte's hands. Congress has to vote for that to happen. Congress doesn't want to do it because it would also result in congressional elections, which - guess what? - would cause them to lose their jobs.

And so right now, it appears that they are determined to try to ride this out, at considerable cost to the political fabric of the country. And people are worried about Peru, I think, outside of Peru and the rest of Latin America, certainly in Washington. It's been through a lot. And when you have a power vacuum like this, there can be really unpredictable consequences, including the emergen (ph) of, you know, an authoritarian savior who promises to end the chaos, but, of course, brings new problems.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, I mean, you've got a president that was ousted by Congress in Peru. In Brazil, you have a newly elected president but a large group who seem to have been convinced that the election was rigged. Is this a broader problem here that - beyond these two countries, just from your sort of deep background in the region - that people seem to have become distrustful of the political process?

WINTER: These last 10 years or so have been really troubled. There's no way around it. These are economies that are not really growing. These are governments that are unable to meet people's expectations. Some of this has been worsened by social media and information bubbles that let these conspiracy theories and other things take hold. But what I always come back to is Latin America has the world's biggest gap between rich and poor and has for a very long time. And that inequality, I think, is what fundamentally generates these waves of instability that, in some respect, are a return to what we saw in the region during most of the 20th century, which was a time of coups and insurgent movements and other instability. And so, you know, until that can be addressed, my concern is that we're going to continue to see instability and inability to forge political consensus.

MARTIN: Just to be frank, the United States is addressing similar questions, isn't it? I mean, you actually tweeted about this. I mean, you said that the fascination with what's going on in Brazil and these moments in Latin America where democracy seems to be hanging in the balance - you know, Americans have an opportunity to look, you know, at ourselves.

WINTER: I think the last couple of years have taught all of us - and by us, I mean Americans - humility when it comes to talking about other parts of the world. And it's true that we are subjected to many of the same root causes of this instability that we're talking about in Latin America. And by the way, inequality is one of them. It has risen in the United States over the last 30 years. And lo and behold, we have some of these challenges and political instability, things that we - manifesting themselves in ways that we've never really seen before, like the questioning of elections. But I think it's also, again, this gap between rich and poor and a huge percentage of the population feeling disenfranchised, like they're on the outside looking in. And that has always been part of Latin America's history.

But, look, I think that it's possible to get carried away with pessimism. I think that 2022 is a year where perhaps some of these challenges in the United States started looking a little bit better. And I would note that so far in Latin America, most of these democracies, with a couple sad exceptions like Venezuela and Nicaragua, are holding at least intact. It's too much to say that they're strong, but these institutions are doing their jobs. So I think they're going to be under constant pressure here in the next few years. But we certainly shouldn't write these countries off and assume that the worst is going to continue to happen.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, is there a constructive role, in your view, for the U.S. to be playing right now? What is it?

WINTER: I mean, look, I think there's this old impulse in the United States to look, especially at Latin America, and, when bad things happen, ask the question, well, what is Washington doing wrong? And that era is over. You know, these are independent democracies that operate on their own. And I think the Biden administration understands that really well. Ultimately, though, I think that the best thing that we can do as Americans to help Latin America is to fix our own democracy because, as you point out, there was a time when I think that we were an imperfect example for other countries.

And when I travel now to places like Brazil and Argentina and Mexico and so on, people kind of roll their eyes at that old idea and say, well, you know, who are you to say anything about what we're doing here? 'Cause your house is a wreck, too. And I understand that. I agree. So we've got work to do there. And maybe all of us working together, talking to each other, sharing ideas and tactics can try to put this back together again.

MARTIN: Brian Winter is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. He's a political analyst who's been following events in Latin America for more than 20 years. Brian Winter, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this expertise with us.

WINTER: Thanks for the invitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.