In ‘ “Resurgent Democracy”: Rhetoric and Reality’, nlr 154, Edward Herman and James Petras condemn us support for new democracies in South and Central America as hypocritical and opportunist. They also point out the wilful confusion involved in deliberately associating genuine democratization in South America with a forced process in Central America that is intended ‘to provide electoral cover for an essentially military policy’. In one sense the dramatic departures of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier from Haiti and Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines in February vindicate their analysis. In the face of blatant coercion and massive fraud in Manila, confirmed by his own official observers, President Reagan initially declared that there were faults on both sides and that his government would remain neutral. A fortnight later, Secretary of State George Shultz scurried into the White House press room to endorse newly installed President Aquino and pay tribute to ‘one of the most stirring and courageous examples of the democratic process in modern history’. Clear evidence indeed of the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Reagan regime. Yet the fact remains that Reagan and his associates had lost control of the situation as a result of the determined mobilization of the people of the Philippines and the emergence of opposition to official policy in both houses of Congress. Reagan cannot have desired the fall of Marcos, or the precipitate form that it took. The important issue is not whether Washington is genuinely committed to meaningful democracy for its own sake—it should go without saying that it is not—but why it now favours processes of contained liberalization, and whether it can control them. Herman and Petras overestimate the capacity of the us in this regard, underplay the significance of developments in Central America itself, and disregard the destabilizing consequences outside the region of the new rhetoric of support for democracy. Equally, they misinterpret the political situation in South America, neglect the substantial changes that have occurred there, and consequently fail to identify the threat posed by a resurgent and potentially hegemonic bourgeoisie.
Herman and Petras correctly locate US policy in Central America as part of a four-track strategy, the main track being a frontal assault upon Nicaragua. They dismiss the ‘terror-cum-elections’ format as ‘essentially a public relations exercise for US public and congressional consumption’. So it is. But its causes are significant, and its effects may be far-reaching. It arises, as they note in passing, out of the major defeat represented by the overthrow of Somoza and the consolidation of the Sandinista regime. As in Cuba and Iran, Washington proved unable to control the circumstances in which a key ally fell from power. The success and attractiveness of the Nicaragan revolution have therefore driven the US into a defensive policy which involves a major shift from previous decades. As James Dunkerley has argued, the prelude was the ‘breakdown of a regional politico-military system’, based upon landlord–military pacts, which alone proved compatible in the past with US interests.footnote1 The fact that a shift has taken place is more important than the hypocrisy it has generated; and the sponsoring of façade democracies, in the midst of political and economic crisis, is a risk-laden leap into the unknown. Almost regardless of the nature and commitments of the new civilian regimes, the prospects must be improved for a more genuine democratization. Complex social and political processes are developing in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and are materially affected by the changed position of the United States. For Reagan is now compelled to denounce the very practices on which US interests have hitherto depended, to discredit and weaken his traditional allies, and to enter into at least tactical alliances with more progressive forces in the hope that they can be controlled. It would be short-sighted to dismiss these ‘artificial’ processes entirely out of hand—above all because the original defeat was anything but artificial and has changed the terrain on which the struggle for democracy is being waged in the region. Moreover, moves towards democratization in Central America, however ‘artificial’, have ripple effects elsewhere. The fall of Marcos in particular shows that it is one thing to have a four-track policy, and quite another to ensure that signals do not get crossed, or that points and braking mechanisms do not fail. Ironically, the more determined the attempt to present as genuine a process which is not, the more extensive the external effects are likely to be.
Nor should it be assumed that just because a democracy is weak or artificial in its origins, or beholden to centres of power capable of imposing limits, it can never outgrow such constraints or develop stronger roots. There are few liberal democracies whose institutions were not originally weak, or artificial, or both. Certainly the cases of post-war construction of democratic regimes in Italy, West Germany, France and Japan, and the Latin American examples of Colombia, Costa Rica and Venezuela, provide examples of initial artificiality or severe constraint, followed by enduring institutionalization. There are good reasons to doubt such an outcome in Central America, but they do not stem from the artificiality of the first steps.
With regard to South America, Herman and Petras argue that military power survives virtually intact, and that ‘thoroughgoing democratization will require a further major erosion of military power and status’. Since the burden of debt and austerity policy is intolerable, ‘debt moratoria and democratic restructuring of the armed forces are necessary accompaniments to political change if democracy is to be given a chance to succeed’—an argument similar to the one recently developed by Kenneth Roberts.footnote2 Such is the authors’ pessimism that they go on to raise the possibility that ‘the new civilian leaders are “fall guys” whose allotted task is to take primary responsibility for assured economic failure’, already scheduled for replacement once the inevitable disorder ensues.
There are serious deficiencies in this line of argument. Firstly, it involves a confusion between ideal and real forms of democracy, or between the kinds of democracy that Herman, Petras and Roberts on the one hand, and the ruling groups of Latin America on the other, would like to see. It is not always clear whether they are assessing the prospects for the former or for the latter. There is all the difference in the world between an ideal democracy capable of satisfying the needs of a majority of citizens, and a workable system of civilian rule characterized by regular competitive elections and capable of guaranteeing the interests of the bourgeoisie. It is the latter which has been achieved where liberal democracy is stable.footnote3 The question that should be addressed, then, is whether elites in the new South American civilian regimes can achieve the institutionalization of limited democracies which protect their long-term interests yet secure a degree of popular consensus or support. Roberts, who considers the question directly, judges that they cannot; Herman and Petras no doubt agree. It is because I think that the issue is not so clear-cut that I wish to state it clearly.