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Analysis Of Authoritarian Legacies In Brazil And Argentina Politics Essay

The post-dictatorship era witnessed a process of democratisation with most Latin American countries adopting some form of electoral democracy. Argentina and Brazil in the last three decades experienced significant political and social changes, embracing representative constitutional democracy after passing through dictatorial periods. With the end of military governments Brazil and Argentina – 1964 to 1985 in the former and 1976 to 1983 in the latter – reduced the role of the state with decentralisation reforms and opened their economies leading to political democratisation and market expansion (Matos, 2007; Cooney, 2005). During a transition period, policies are adopted and implemented in the context of a country’s political institutions, but this institutional setup must be analysed within a historical and cultural background such as ‘fundamental cleavages, shared values, and whether a country has a history of stable democracy or has suffered frequent constitutional interruptions’ (IADB, 2005: 17-18). Therefore, this chapter will analyse this ‘historical background’ in order to show how the transition period from authoritarianism to a post-authoritarian era shapes the present, thus influencing directly on the freedom of the press. Moreover, it will suggest that the historical legacy has a direct influence in the institutional setup. The conclusion will be that those institutions after a long period of authoritarianism are democratically weak and unstable. This suggests that even if you have a democratic regime you still may have illiberal institutions.

Karl Marx famously said in his groundbreaking work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) that men are the ones that make their own history, yet ‘they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living’ (cited by Buchanan, 2008). In the same way institutional antecedents serve as legacies to the post-authoritarian era. In other words, whatever institutions existed before the dictators took a government will be significant in the transition period as soon as they left (ibid: 61). The impact that the military-bureaucratic-authoritarian institutions have in the institutional reform is open to debate, although ‘the impact of the authoritarian regimes may be a reason for that (institutional or collective outcomes), it is worth considering whether pre-authoritarian institutions played a role as well’ (ibid: 62). Pion-Berlin criticized this authoritarian legacy concept. For him the main problem is to understand how much influence can be attributed to authoritarian legacies, and how much to other regimes and time periods, if any. The author points that ‘features of presidential-legislative relations were instituted under constitutions that postdated dictatorships (Brazil 1988; Argentina 1994), so those changes were not a function of authoritarian legacies’ (2005: 162). He also acknowledges that the link between authoritarian legacies and ‘democratic outcomes’ is too complex to be reduced to few explanatory variables suggesting that although there is influence from authoritarianism into the transition, it is not possible to quantify it.

One of the main issues regarding political institutions in Latin America is the history of interrupted governments. The 20th century saw many military governments frequently taking power by force in Latin America. In the last two decades most of the military governments are no longer, but constitutional interruptions are a recurrent occurrence. According to data gathered by the Inter American Development Bank, 14 constitutional interruptions - when presidents or congress do not finish the term they were elected for – took place since the beginning of the 1980s in the 18 countries analysed in their research. Yet, they argue that although it shows a democratically weak scenario these ‘interruptions (or more precisely, their absence) could be taken as an indication of the institutionalisation of the political regime’ (IADB, 2005: 154). However, this informal or poor institutionalisation creates weak accountability, delegative rule and a pervasive particularism allowing old authoritarian practices to come back or to still be influent (O'Donnell, 1996: 45-46). In addition, under conditions of inequality, the making and implementation of policy becomes tendentious in favour of economically powerful interests and actors. These countries can be defined as democracies ‘when they add, as they often do, the plebiscitarian component of delegative rule – they are also strongly majoritarian. But their liberal and republican components are extremely weak’ (ibid: 46).

As nations distance themselves from the authoritarian era, it is arguable that the impact of that period would slowly diminish. The passage of time may lead to the idea that the memories of the repression would vanish and the military legacy would be less influential. This idea would be wrong as well. Even though military institutions can lose most of their influence they maintain their relevance (Pion-Berlin, 2005: 159-160). Authoritarian legacies do persist, yet societies can also use this legacy to fight it. For Pion-Berlin, ‘authoritarian legacies matter precisely because they generate a fierce determination in civil and political society to move forward, not backward’ (ibid.: 160). It is also important to keep in mind the constant switch between dictatorship and democracy in Latin American in the 20th century to understand the influence of authoritarian legacies. The civil wars and the struggle for independence of the 19th century were replaced by military organisations capable of monopolising force within a territorial unit which had a large ‘bureaucracy in contrast to the clientelistic pattern of civilian public administration’ (Philip, 1996: 712). Moreover, this bureaucracy became enrooted in the institutions to come.

In the case of Argentina, the international circumstances of the Great Depression that followed the ‘Black Friday’ of October 1929 were the beginning of a series of military coup d'état [1] that took place in the twentieth century. In this period Argentina had brief periods of constitutional rule beginning in September 1930, when the elected president Hipólito Yrigoyen was overthrown and a military junta started to run the government. This moment is now known as the ‘infamous decade’ because of its electoral frauds, undermining of opposition and generalised corruption (Torres, 1973). Eight years later, Argentina saw a civilian president in the office again. Yet, he was physically incapable to keep his mandate and two years later the vice-president Ramón Castillo was in charge. This semi-democratic period – although there were some kind of elections, opponents were killed and many people could not effectively vote – ended in 1943 with another coup. In the mean while Argentina kept itself neutral to the Second World War, only committing itself with the allies on the last year of the war. In 1946, Juan Domingo Perón was elected and with his wife Eva Perón – and now a mythical figure in Argentina – led a political movement that had a huge popular support. His almost unchallenged control of Argentine political scenario, together with gold reserves capitalised after the First World War, increased the government expenditures, especially in social issues while other efforts were made to develop political institutions by making the suffrage more universal – women were allowed to cast their vote in 1947 (Gordin, 2001: 24). His populist government divide the country in peronistas – those supporting him – and the antiperonistas – his opponents. This division led to another military coup in 1955 (Potash, 1981). After this Argentina saw other three coup d'état in the 20th century – 1962, 1966 and 1976. The first four dictatorships were temporary while the last two assumed with a permanent government on mind (Potash, 1994a; 1994b). The last one, from 1976 to 1983, violated human rights by kidnapping, torturing, and killing thousands of people using tactics now known as Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) (Lewis, 2003). In 53 years since the first coup in 1930 until the fall of the last military government in 1983, Argentina had 25 years of military rule with 14 different military commanders with each staying the average of 1.7 years in charge. In this time, all democratic elected governments were overthrown from power.

In the same way than Argentina, Brazil also had switches between dictatorship and democracy in the twentieth century. Unlike the other Latin American nations, which declared themselves republics after winning independence, Brazil had seven decades of a pro-slavery monarchy until it was overthrown by a military coup in 1889. The ‘Empire of Brazil’ was replaced by a ‘constitutional oligarchic’ republic with some kind of representative government – yet illiterates, migrants and women were excluded from voting (Philip, 1996: 710). The early republican period saw a military dictatorship mixed with corrupt civil governors. Fraudulent elections were controlled by a powerful elite and freedom of the press disappeared – something similar with the more recent dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 (ibid.). In 1930, the ‘old republic’ regime came to an end, and the international context of the Great Depression – the country’s entire gold reserve had disappeared in fourteen months – allowed the defeated candidate Getúlio Vargas to organise a military coup with huge popular support to assume the presidency of a weakened regime (Levine, 1999: 97-99). A communist threat served as an excuse for Vargas to launch another military coup in 1937 and the supposedly temporary government became a dictatorship (ibid: 104).

During the ‘Era Vargas’ (Vargas period) the National Congress was shut down, a new Constitution was created, the opposition was smashed, and the press censored – once more in the same way that the last dictatorship would do, showing that historical practices would be enrooted in the military institutions and then repeated (Levine, 1999: 104-105). After the end of World War II Vargas dictatorship became unsustainable and a coup d'état removed him from office. In 1951, Vargas was democratically elected for the presidency for the first time, but was incapable of governing under a democratic rule. Several economy problems and an active opposition led him to commit suicide in 1954 (ibid: 119). The old hierarchical and elitist structure of Brazilian institutions was still in place, nonetheless he was perceived, at least in rhetoric, as the ‘father of the poor’, the father of a recently born nation. After Vargas's suicide, Juscelino Kubitschek was democratically elected president in 1956. Under his presidency Brazil had an economic and industrial boom, with the inauguration of the new capital Brasília in 1960 (ibid: 121-125). His successor was Jânio Quadros, who resigned in 1961 less than a year after taking office. The vice-president assumed the presidency, but his government was interrupted in 1964 by a military coup. In the same model than Vargas, the new military regime had a transitory rhetoric, but ended up as a ‘hard dictatorship’ in 1968 intending to ‘reorder society’ thus pretending to ‘rule more effectively than partisan political parties and demagogies’ (Farcau, 1996: 1-3). According to George Philip, every South American country has had a period of authoritarian government amounting to at least ten years since 1945. Military interventions in Brazil and Argentina began weakening civilian institutions enabling them to be replaced with authoritarian governments (Philip, 1996: 714). The civilians returned to power after 21 years of military rule in 1985.

In Brazil, the centralised aspects of military institutions were kept under the new ‘democratic rule’ with presidents controlling much of the agenda – as the military juntas did during the dictatorship period. Data gathered by Figueiredo and Limongi shows that more than 85 per cent of all legislation adopted since 1985 – when the dictatorship came to an end – has originated in the executive branch (cited by Power, 2010: 20). In Argentina, the provinces had more autonomy, for instance, policymaking, which can have direct impact on the media, ‘cannot be understood without reference to the complex relations between the national government and the provinces - which in turn are affected not only by the formal institutions of that federal republic, but also by underlying economic and social structures throughout the country’ (IADB, 2005: 11-12). With elections starting to run regularly after 1989 in both countries, political democracy was the new ‘game in town’. Notwithstanding, Scott Mainwaring – and other authors (Ames, 2001) –, criticised the new institutional combination calling it ‘problematic’ (Mainwaring, 1993: 198-200).

The constitutional removal from office of Fernando Collor by the Congress in 1992 – the first Brazilian president democratically elected since 1960 – led Mainwaring to argue that the multiparty presidentialism resultant was ‘especially likely to produce immobilizing executive/legislative deadlock’ creating an unstable democracy (Mainwaring, 1993: 199-200). In his view, multipartism is more likely than a dual party government to produce ideological polarisation. Furthermore, the combination of a presidential with a multiparty system creates difficulties of ‘coalition building in presidential democracies, with deleterious consequences for democratic stability’ (ibid.). According to Ames (2001), presidents could not be expected to govern effectively in an open-list proportional representation institutional setup. In the other hand, the transition process can also produce a non-institutionalised democracy with a restricted scope, weak and low density political institutions - this if they somehow exist (O’Donnell, 1994: 59-60). One of its reasons is that ‘reducing the scope of governmental influence is, ironically, a task executed by the state itself’ (Weyland, 1998: 109). In this scenario the importance of other social actors – media, watchdogs NGOs and oppositional political parties - increases dramatically. Yet, these ‘social actors’ cannot and should not substitute the government in regulating itself from mishandling of public interests, but can and should act as an eye of the society helping uncover cases of corruption. In this non-institutionalised setup, democratic institutions are replaced by non-formalised but strongly operative practices: ‘clientelism, patrimonialism, and corruption’ (O’Donnell, 1994: 59).

The recent wave of democratisation has, in theory, freed civil society from strict governmental secrecy and repression. In this new regime setup, institutions like the judiciary and congress have a great impact upon civil society and can give different meanings to the interactions between social actors and the civil society helping to provide the context within which those interactions take place. E.g. the control of law that was with the military is now with by the judiciary. According to O’Donnell, the route to political democracy is ‘a pacific and negotiated one based upon initial liberalisation and on the subsequent introduction of institutions of electoral competition, interest representation and executive accountability’ (O’Donnell et all, 1986: 34). Democracy was received in Latin America as the political system where ‘democratic processes and institutions would break the power of the ruling elites’ and the market lead values ‘would overcome the artificial barriers between individuals and unite them everywhere into one community’ (Burchill, 2009: 61). After 1989 in Brazil, the state was seen as a potential force towards social inclusion and wealth distribution, even though it was the object of elite attacks due to its authoritarian roots and nepotism practices (Matos, 2008: 4-5).

In reality the new democratic political system in Latin America is reduced to ‘the right of election of the people’s representatives and to the right of consent to the government’s policies’ where the ‘real’ power is held by a small number of people (Markovic, 1994: 132). Citizens are reduced to one vote every once in a while with the sporadic vote being the only way to exercise democracy. Democracy might be ‘the only game in town’, but the democratic institutions in Latin America are still unequal, unfair, and disempowering suggesting that even if you have a democratic regime you still may have illiberal institutions. Democracy is about the right to life, property, freedom of speech; of the press; of conscience; of movement, equality before the law, direct election of representatives, due process in criminal proceedings, separation of powers - legislative, executive and judicial power (Bragues, 2006: 158). In the other hand, the peaceful transition of power to Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, proved that Brazil is in the right path to achieve its long-desired political stability – Argentina still has a long way to go though. The next step for both countries is to strength its democratic institutions and to transform passive citizens into active protagonists. Democratic weak and unstable institutions after a long period of authoritarianism are still the Achilles’ heel. This ‘weak spot’ will be analysed in the next chapter looking at the current situation of the freedom of the press in both countries to show that even after 25 years after the dictatorship came to an end, the historical authoritarian legacy still cast its shadow over both countries.

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