On Sunday, July 22, The Washington Post published “Latin America’s new authoritarians,” in which its author, Juan Forero, carries on the newspaper’s longstanding practice of selective and hyperbolic criticisms of the hemisphere’s governments. Forero intends to shed light on “a new kind of authoritarian leader…rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.”
One may recall the Post’s strained attempts to illustrate this trend, like an April 19 editorial that accused President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina of practicing “autocratic populism” simply for pushing to re-nationalize the Spanish oil company Repsol YPF with overwhelming public support. The newspaper was later ridiculed for a June 20 editorial, which introduced the democratically elected president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, as a “small-time South American autocrat” in its opening sentence and accused him of “wallowing” in “anti-American slanders and paranoia” as he decides whether to provide WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with political asylum.
Forero’s feature—published as a news article, not an opinion piece—nevertheless contains the kind of strong, unsubstantiated opinions that characterize the Post’s editorials. He asserts, for example, that “charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s.” Forero is referring to countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela, the last of which, according to his article, is a “growing, alarming” threat to the region, “led by a captivating, messianic leader with an ample oil-fueled coffer under his control, [who] is determined to see smaller countries copy its model.”
Unsurprisingly, Forero remains silent on the advent of a different model that’s being applied in smaller countries: the parliamentary coup. These coups replace elected governments with de facto ones while providing a specious imprimatur of legality. President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, the parliamentary coup’s most recent victim, described the trend: “You can call this a coup d’etat 2.0, a parliamentary coup or an express coup—many names for the same thing, a coup that is different than what we saw in the 1970s: there are no tanks or dead in the streets, and they are very careful to try to give the entire thing some kind of legal legitimacy.” Lugo traces this pattern back to 2009, saying that “[t]he laboratory for all of this was three years ago in Honduras. And here in Paraguay it was perfected.” Even so, in Forero’s account of “creeping authoritarianism” in the region, it’s as if two prominent examples of this phenomenon—the Honduran coup and last month’s illegitimate ouster of Lugo—never happened.
The circumstances behind the parliamentary coup in Honduras are as follows: President Manuel Zelaya arranged for a non-binding referendum to be held in June 2009, to probe the interest of citizens to set up a constituent assembly to redraft the constitution in November of that year. When the head of the military balked at Zelaya’s order to distribute materials in advance of the plebescite, Zelaya fired him. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that this was illegal, and the military subsequently kidnapped him at gunpoint and spirited him out of the country. Economist Mark Weisbrot, one of the keenest observers of the Honduran ouster, cut through a smokescreen of procedural trivialities:
Supporters of the coup argue that the president violated the law by attempting to go ahead with the referendum after the Supreme Court ruled against it. This is a legal question; it may be true, or it may be that the Supreme Court had no legal basis for its ruling. But it is irrelevant to what has happened: the military is not the arbiter of a constitutional dispute between the various branches of government. This is especially true in this case, in that the proposed referendum was a non-binding and merely consultative plebiscite. It would not have changed any law nor affected the structure of power; it was merely a poll of the electorate. Therefore, the military cannot claim that it acted to prevent any irreparable harm. This is a military coup carried out for political purposes.
In the case of Paraguay, the elected president, Fernando Lugo, faced impeachment in June after a violent land dispute left six police officers and 11 peasant farmers dead (although there is no evidence that Lugo was responsible for the police actions). Lugo fired his interior minister and proposed an investigation into the incident, but the rightwing opposition pressed for his removal under the vague indictment of “poor performance of duties,” and granted Lugo only one day to prepare a two-hour rebuttal. Weisbrot noted that this was “a clear violation of Article 17 of Paraguay’s constitution, which provides for the right to an adequate defense.”
The particulars, however, are less relevant than the fact that the impeachment’s rationale could have been anything at all. A State Department cable released by WikiLeaks predicted last month’s events, reporting in 2009 that opposition leaders had been eager to “[c]apitalize on any Lugo mis-steps” because their “dream scenario involves legally impeaching Lugo, even if on spurious grounds.” This would “assure their own political supremacy.”
Surely the forcible overthrow of elected leaders is a far more serious challenge to democratic institutions than the rise of “charismatic populists.” Given the rightwing accomplishments in Honduras and Paraguay of subverting the most basic of democratic protocols, it’s absurd for Forero to ignore these events in favor of detailing the “new authoritarianism” of leaders who he admits are “democratically elected,” who “do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law,” and who preside over republics with “active news media, political opposition and civil society organizations.”
Meanwhile, Honduras has experienced both the assassination of opposition figures and virtual martial law; credible reports estimate that state security forces have killed hundreds of civilians in three short years. In comparison, Forero’s gravest charges against Venezuela and Ecuador are “arbitrary arrests.” Similarly, Forero’s article raises alarms over Correa’s lawsuit against newspaper editors for libel but makes no mention that over 20 journalists have been murdered with impunity in Honduras since the coup. Exaggerations also abound, as with Forero’s contention that the Venezuelan government manages a “vast state media apparatus.” This claim is similar to a canard of Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, who in 2010 decried “the regime’s domination of the media.” The truth, however, is that in over a decade, state television has never captured even 10% of Venezuela’s audience.
More insidious than the Post’s selective, exaggerated coverage is its thesis that the United States is “looking the other way” in the face of the “growing threat to hard-won democratic gains” in the hemisphere. Forero quotes Santiago Canton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, who contends that “a country that just doesn’t act is the United States,” permitting “things to happen that shouldn’t be permitted.” Forero and Canton decline to consider that the United States—characterized in the article as one of the “most vibrant and influential” democracies in the hemisphere—is actually a proactive interloper that has sought to undermine the democracies of sovereign countries like Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 2010. At present, the United States stymies democratic processes in Honduras by providing $50 million a year to the illegitimate regime’s notoriously repressive police and military. This is an example not of U.S. standoffishness but of ongoing material support to an authoritarian regime.
In fact, the long-term success of the parliamentary coup would have been impossible without U.S. support in 2009. While there is no direct evidence that the United States played an active role in overthrowing Zelaya, Washington never called for his unconditional restitution (nor has it done so in the case of Lugo). And when the repressive military dictatorship that succeeded Zelaya carried out a fraudulent election marred by violence, the United States provided decisive backing for it. In the lead-up to this sham, a State Department official offered the following justification to Time Magazine: “[T]he elections are going to take place either way, and the international community needs to come to terms with that fact.”
Washington also provided its blessing for the dictatorship’s elections through the National Democratic Institute, an organization largely financed by Congress that monitors voting processes as a part of its charge to “support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide.” NDI sent election observers to Honduras, whereas election observers from the European Union, Organization of American States, the United Nations, and the Carter Center abstained from monitoring an inherently undemocratic charade. NDI cloaked this political decision in the disingenuous language of neutrality. It acknowledged the potential criticism that “holding these elections under current conditions would legitimize a coup d’etat and establish a precedent that could be used to unseat elected governments elsewhere,” but stated that the purpose of its election mission “was not to take a position on these larger political issues nor should its presence in Honduras be viewed as such.” When NDI reported on the “generally peaceful and orderly” nature of the vote, the U.S. press took its cue, and days later, a New York Times editorial began its first sentence as follows: “There is wide agreement that last week’s presidential election in Honduras, won by the conservative leader Porfirio Lobo, was clean and fair.” The success of Coup 2.0 was now all but guaranteed.
Buried in the middle of Forero’s piece is likely the real reason behind the newspaper’s inconsistent treatment of the various governments in the hemisphere. The Washington Post scrutinizes Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua because “[a]ll vocally oppose the Obama administration, favor state intervention in the economy and have moved to strengthen alliances with Washington’s adversaries, among them Cuba, Iran and Russia.”
In one sentence, the Post reveals its firm allegiance to the priorities of the U.S. government and international investors, not to the principle that sovereign states have a right to manage their domestic and international affairs. The Post doesn’t criticize massive state interventions in the U.S. economy, nor does it question the prerogative of the United States to strengthen its military ties to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia—the Post is critical only when left governments in Latin America pursue policies with similar independence. These democratically elected governments have stayed in power precisely because they have brought widespread benefits to their poor majorities through greater economic sovereignty and democratic social reform—even if it means upsetting powerful investors or Washington.
Lugo, after being deposed, publicly recommended that “if one wants to support the democratic processes here, then the best you can do is to start following what is going on here. If the media reports on Paraguay, then that helps our democracy the most.” If The Washington Post is sincere in its concern for democracy in Latin America, it has much room for improvement—Forero’s article never once mentions the word “Paraguay.”
The excellent media watchgroup FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) has picked up on this story as well, adding a number of valuable points to the debate. Read Peter Hart's "The Threat—Again—of Left-Wing Latin American Democracy." FAIR's weekly radio program, a terrific resource that can be heard for free online, also covers the issue in Friday's episode. The segment on Latin America begins at 3:15.
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, CNN En Español, Truthout, and Upside Down World. He is the author of the new NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which takes a critical look at the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere.
Thanks for the incisive analysis. My friend was in Honduras in 2009 and I was in Latin America when Lugo was ousted. The coverage and public sentiment there was and remains very different than in the U.S.