What Pakistan’s Political Leaders Can Learn From Latin America

What Pakistan’s Political Leaders Can Learn From Latin America
In the last 40 years, Latin America made the most significant gains worldwide, becoming the third most democratic region in the world, after North America and Europe, according to Daniel Zovatto, an expert on Latin America and the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance since 1997.

The vast majority of the democracies in the region have displayed notable resilience: Only 27% experienced any interruption in these last 40 years.

Latin America has made major gains in the electoral sphere — indeed, elections are popularly accepted as the only legitimate means of coming to power — and the region has the highest levels of election participation in the world, with a regional average of 67%.

While much remains to be done, it is the region with the highest percentage of women parliamentarians in the world, with a regional average of 27%.

Over the past 40 years, peace and democracy has largely replaced dictatorship and conflict in Latin America. The roots of the region’s misrule and instability have been quite thoroughly analysed. A major role was clearly played by governments that were unaccountable, kleptocratic, indifferent to injustice, and occasionally downright murderous. For many decades, the attitude of the region’s leaders could be summed up by the famous quote attributed to former Brazilian president Getulio Vargas: “For my friends, anything—for my enemies, the law.”

According to a paper published by Freedom House, a U.S. think tank which publishes Freedom in the World Report, Latin American democracy was in a sorry state during the 1970s. In 1974, Cuba, Chile, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia ranked Not Free on the Freedom in the World scale, outnumbering the 'Free' countries. The bulk of the region consisted of poorly rated 'Partly Free' countries that were unstable and vulnerable to coups and revolutions.

Over the past 40 years, peace and democracy has largely replaced dictatorship and conflict in Latin America. The roots of the region’s misrule and instability have been quite thoroughly analysed.


During the 1980s, the US policy toward the civil conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala was widely condemned, with critics accusing the Reagan administration of supporting right-wing death squads. The issue also caused lasting damage to America’s reputation in the region. Indeed, Central America had a bloody history of thuggish dictatorships that stretched back to the 19th century, with very little tradition of effective self-government, and the US role in this history was often shameful.

Latin America, however, was among the first regions to experience the global political transformation known as the 'third wave' of democratisation. By the mid-1980s, South American heavyweights Brazil and Argentina had made transitions to civilian rule. In 1989 the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile gave way after suffering defeat in a national referendum. By the early 1990s, peace and democratic elections had come to conflict-scarred El Salvador and Nicaragua.

To be sure, democratic institutions remain fragile in Latin America, even in regional powerhouses like Brazil. Nevertheless, most countries have vibrant political parties and a level electoral playing field, and previously excluded minorities are increasingly able to make their voices heard in the political debate. These political parties mobilised and organised democratic forces at the grass roots to overcome the power of the autocrats and army that dominated Latin American politics for decades.

Brazil is Latin America’s largest country with a population of 213 million. Ever since its current president Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, observers have warned that the former army captain posed a serious risk to the world’s fifth-largest democracy. However, Brazil has made progress towards democracy in a broader historic context. Brazil is a highly complex country. It is a federal presidential constitutional republic and its 26 provinces (or states) are semi-autonomous self-governing entities organised with complete administration branches and relative financial independence. States hold elections every four years and exercise a considerable amount of power. The 1988 constitution allows states to keep their own taxes, set up State Houses, and mandates regular allocation of a share of the taxes collected locally by the federal government.

This progress is a sea change from the period between the 1930s and 1980s when the country went through military coups, instability, growing poverty, and hyper-inflation. In 1964 a military-led coup d'état deposed the democratically elected president of Brazil, João Goulart. Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil was governed by the military. Thousands of politicians (including former president Juscelino Kubitschek) had their political rights suspended, and military-sanctioned indirect elections were held for most elected positions until political liberalisation during the government of João Figueiredo.

João Figueiredo was Brazil’s last military ruler who served till 1985. His term was marked by a severe economic crisis and growing dissatisfaction with the military rule, culminating in the wide spread protests in 1984.
Diretas Já {Direct (Elections) Now} was a civil unrest movement which, in 1984, demanded direct presidential elections in Brazil. The movement brought together diverse elements of Brazilian society. Participants came from a broad spectrum of political parties, trade unions, civil, student and journalistic leaderships. The growth of the movement coincided with the aggravation of an economic crisis (with an annual inflation of 239% in 1983). This led to the mobilisation of class entities and unions. The movement linked representatives from diverse political backgrounds under the common cause of direct elections for president.

The driving forces for Brazil’s transition to democracy were domestic, not external. Political forces mobilised masses suffering from severe economic hardship and decades of mismanagement by the military or military dominated regimes.

Brazil’s democratic transition consolidated its gains during the 1995-2002 under its popularly elected president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In 1994, Cardoso, as finance minister, launched Plano Real, a successful economic reform that managed to permanently rid the country of the excessive inflation that had plagued it for more than forty years. It was primarily the success of his economic plan, backed a coalition of political forces, that has helped democracy survive in Brazil despite its turbulent history.

The key lessons from Latin America’s political history seem to be: political and democratic forces if organised and mobilised at the grassroots can counter the military’s power but they need strong economic performance and good governance to consolidate their gains in the continuing struggle against autocratic forces.

The writer is former head of Citigroup’s emerging markets investments, and was responsible for managing investments and macro-economic strategy across 40 countries in the emerging markets, covering Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa.