With one clean election in its last three, is Latin American democracy in danger? - Christopher Sabatini - Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs - Tuesday 6/26

With one clean election in its last three, is Latin American democracy in danger?
Christopher Sabatini
Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs
Tuesday 6/26


The Persian poet Omar Khayam wrote the oft-quoted image: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/ Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,” but it was Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth who summed the same thought up more concisely: “What’s done cannot be undone.”

Somebody tell the new President of Colombia.

Ivan Duque, the Conservative candidate won by promising, among other things, that he will overhaul the agreement that ended the guerilla war with the FARC rebel army.  Duque denounces some of the sweeteners that brought the FARC to the table, and wants unilaterally to take them back.

Like Donald Trump, who dismisses the value to the US of Iranian restraint on nuclear weapons development and denounces sanctions relief and other incentives for Iran to sign the international agreement, Duque downplays the value of the peace Colombia got, to rage against the political rights and light criminal sanctions the government gave FARC for taking the deal.

Since Trump pulled America out of the Iran agreement, the Tehran government has threatened to stop obeying its rules, and move towards resuming, even increasing, its investment in nuclear technology.  This is a threat Washington seems to see as applying mostly to Europe and Israel which lie within Iran’s present missile range.

Here Duque is different.  His plan to welsh on the deal his Presidential predecessor made will cheat an adversary close to home.  Any violence from FARC parties who feel the new government is betraying its commitments to them is certain to hurt mostly Colombians.

But more than enough Colombian voters said they’d take their chances, giving Duque a decisive 54% to 42 victory over his left-wing rival Gustavo Petro.  Not only was the margin clear, but, by all reports, the Colombia election was clean.

The last two Latin American elections, this May in Venezuela, and last December in Honduras, were as dirty as it gets.  In both cases, autocrats, one from the left the other from the right, manipulated the election to secure their re-elections. In Venezuela Nicolas Maduro changed the rules, jailed and menaced his opponents, and offered voters food, money and jobs for their votes.  In Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez simply stopped and then rigged the counting of ballots, to get himself declared the winner.

In Honduras, the Organization of American States cried foul and called for a re-vote, which President Hernandez rejected.  In Venezuela, after the UN refused to monitor the election, Maduro found pseudo-organizations which would and Maduro accepted their approval.

Later this year, two very important Latin American elections are scheduled…in Mexico on July 1 and Brazil in October.  Overwhelming majorities in both countries say, they don’t trust the electoral process. Sounds like bad news for democracy.



Christopher Sabatini is a lecturer of international relations and policy at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, the founder and executive director of the new research non-profit, Global Americans and the editor of its news and opinion website www.LatinAmericaGoesGlobal.org. With support from the National Endowment for Democracy and the Ford Foundation, Global Americans conducts research on social inclusion and foreign policy and democracy and human rights. In September 2015 he was recognized as the best professor of a small class in SIPA. 

From 2005 to 2014, he was the senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s Rule of Law working group, which published a report on rule of law in the hemisphere entitled Rule of Law, Economic Growth and Prosperity(also available in Spanish). He also chaired the AS/COA Cuba Working Group. In 2007, Dr. Sabatini launched AQ and maintained a regular blog on policy in the Americas on the magazine’s website (www.americasquarterly.org). From 1997 to 2005, Dr. Sabatini was the Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy. From 1995 to 1997, he was a Diplomacy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He has served as an advisor to the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has published numerous articles on Latin America, U.S. foreign policy, democratization, and economic development in the region.












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