In the 1960s and 1970s, coups d’état by the armed forces were recurrent in Latin America.
During the first two decades of the 21st century, however, interruptions in presidential terms developed other characteristics.
Of the 14 interruptions, only two were coups; the rest were resignations or layoffs by parliaments.
While these differences are substantial, since an army-led regime is not the same as one led by civilians, the interruption of a presidential term always creates crises in political systems, regardless of where they are. be the shapes.
From 2000 to 2020, several Latin American countries experienced crises due to the rigidity of presidentialism. During this period, there were two successful coups – Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador (2000) and Manuel Celaya in Honduras (2009) – and one failed – Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (2002).
In addition, there were five references by parliaments.
In 2000, Alberto Fujimori initially resigned from abroad, but the Peruvian Congress eventually formally removed him from office.
In 2005, Lucio Gutiérrez was ousted in Ecuador in the midst of the economic crisis.
And later, in 2012, Fernando Lugo was filed in Paraguay and in 2016 Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. In both cases, as a result of the confrontation between the factions that support their government and those that oppose it.
The last president impeached by a Congress was Martín Vizcarra in Peru at the end of 2020, a situation that has sparked the rejection of citizens.
Finally, six presidents have resigned from their positions in the past 20 years.
Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina, in 2001, and Bolícia Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, in 2003, and Carlos Mesa, in 2005; all three in the midst of serious economic and political crises.
Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala in 2015 and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru in 2018 resigned over corruption allegations.
And the last, Evo Morales in Bolivia, in 2019, for allegations of electoral fraud.
Venezuela’s 2019 presidential crisis, involving the legitimacy and recognition of two presidents, Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro, requires a separate classification, but is part of the same set of critical events for presidentialism in the region.
The weaknesses of presidentialism
The main problem with Latin American presidentialism is that its conception is rigid, that is to say that the periods of government are fixed, unlike parliamentary systems, and concentrates the capacities of government action in a unitary figure: the holder executive power.
The president is the head of government and, therefore, of public administration, but he is also head of state and, therefore, the supreme representative of a political community. This dual function creates problems if the other powers are not autonomous and independent.
Other factors that weaken presidentialism are a poorly institutionalized and highly fragmented party system, and a weak internalization of the “rule of law”, which generates impunity and, therefore, mistrust of the system. policy as a whole, which is evident in Latin America, where systematically breaking the law has very low costs and very high benefits, especially for the elites.
In short, in the presidential systems of Latin American countries – a bad copy of the American model – government crises generally turn into systemic crises. And it often ends with another resignation or presidential resignation.
The return of populist leadership
As if the aforementioned shortcomings were not enough to shake up political systems, Latin American presidentialisms have another risk factor: the presidents themselves.
In our region, those who aspire to the presidency usually present themselves in every campaign to the public and the electorate as the embodiment of the solution to all social problems. And when the situation worsens, this logic acquires a “cesarean” nuance in the Gramscian sense.
As the Chilean writer Ariel Peralta Pizzarro pointed out in 1939, Caesarism is that arbitrary and personality-centered solution that presents itself as necessary in view of the inability of collective actors to conclude plural agreements in order to find deep solutions.
This logic has remained over time and emerges strongly when political systems fail to deal with the demands of the social system.
Faced with the problems of presidentialism, charismatic leaders with movementist bases have resurfaced in Latin America, replacing populist parties and tendencies.
These leaders promote a relationship of domination that tries to eliminate mediations in order to create a patrimonial and personalist treatment.
In Colombia, Álvaro Uribe promoted a reform in 2004 that allowed him to be reelected immediately, while in Ecuador Rafael Correa promoted a new constitution in 2008 that allowed him to be reelected the following year.
In Bolivia, Evo Morales, already in his second term and with a new constitution, manipulated the judiciary to favor a new re-election, which resulted in a crisis in the system that ended with his resignation in 2019.
In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele took over the Legislative Assembly in February 2020, with the support of a military and police sector to intimidate members of Congress into supporting one of its policies.
In Argentina, Cristina Fernández reigns over the current president in office and probably also did so during the second term of her husband, Néstor Kirchner.
In Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, govern with proto-authoritarian logics, accept the rules of democracy, but do their best to avoid being guided by their principles.
Nicolás Maduro, for his part, transformed Venezuela into an authoritarian regime.
The democratization processes of the last decades have favored reforms aimed at reducing the power of the executives.
Legislative controls over offices have been strengthened, impeachment mechanisms have been redesigned, or autonomous constitutional bodies have been created to oversee government policies and actions.
In some cases, it has been decided to extend the separation of powers, as in the Constitutions of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela.
Paradoxically, however, in most countries electoral systems have also been strengthened by incorporating the second round of elections and allowing re-election, and the legislative powers of the executive have also been increased.
These logics have created hybrid and institutionally weak presidentialisms.
Presidentialism operates in a context of Latin American citizenship with a weak democratic spirit which favors authoritarian slippages.
Until a democratic culture is fostered, our societies will continue to believe that one person can magically solve all their problems.
Translation by Maria Isabel Santos Lima