In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Intervention in the Americas Today

September 25, 2007

Over the past two decades, so-called democracy promotion has become a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Americas. This has justified, above all else, intervention of one sort or another in the electoral processes in Latin American countries.

“Democracy,” as several contributors to this Report remind us, does not refer only to elections. Beyond the ballot box, the term can characterize a wide variety of legal and social agreements that give people regular and transparent powers to participate in institutions that shape their lives. Understandings of democracy, of course, are key to its promotion, and Washington’s understanding of the democracy it promotes is a central focus of this Report, as is how that promotion is carried out.

The Report emerges from “In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Electoral Intervention in the Americas,” a conference held last April at Yale University that brought together strong defenders and acerbic critics of U.S. democracy promotion to debate its nature, motives and effectiveness.

The gathering’s organizers, Jonah Gindin and Kirsten Weld, describe the difficulties they encountered in trying to get “democracy promoters” to face their critics. But the organizers were ultimately successful, the debates were joined, and NACLA has put together a Report that speaks with more than one voice, reflecting the diversity of the conference.

Greg Grandin, Jorge Domínguez and Bryant Garth set the historical stage by chronicling, from different points of reference, the establishment of U.S. democracy promotion programs in the Americas. All three go beyond the official discourse of democracy and describe the real relationships of power and influence at stake in these processes.

Grandin discusses Washington’s longstanding concern with threats to the hemispheric order “from within,” and the use of particular conceptions of democracy to support certain relations of power. Domínguez recalls the past century of U.S. electoral intervention in the Americas and its dramatic rebirth during the Cold War. He critically differentiates efforts to support the creation and/or re-creation of genuinely open electoral procedures from efforts to ensure that U.S. allies and proxies win all crucial elections.

Garth describes the interplay between Latin American elites and U.S. policy makers in what he characterizes as a market-like process of import and export. What we must understand, he writes, “is that the influence of the United States on Latin American institutions and ideas is not just about what the dominant power imposes on Latin America but is also about what Latin American elites seek to import.”

William Robinson and Michael Coppedge debate the nature of this imported and promoted “democracy.” For Robinson, what passes for democracy (rule by the people) is actually a very restricted form of representative democracy called polyarchy (rule by the few). Key to the Washington democracy promoters’ theory, he argues, is “an institutional definition in which democracy is simply limited to procedurally correct elections within a constitutional order.”

“In this way,” he continues, “removed from the discourse and the agenda is the matter of who controls society’s material and cultural resources, how wealth and power are distributed locally and globally.”

Coppedge defends polyarchy, insisting on the separation of “electoral” democracy from “social” democracy for both theoretical and practical purposes. There is no necessary contradiction, he writes, between U.S. support for free and fair elections (when such support is, in fact, forthcoming) and U.S. opposition to social democracy. They are two distinct processes. The job of progressives, he argues, is to make use of the political openings provided by genuine polyarchy to fight for greater equality and social justice.

Zander Navarro’s argument falls somewhere between those of Robinson and Coppedge. Despite the sharply drawn limits within which the restricted, U.S.-promoted version of democracy has been meant to function, he argues, the process has created “new political circumstances in which a new meaning of democracy can enter the realm of real politics, not as a mere institutional arrangement trapped by built-in inertia, but as a political process of continuous change.”

This argument, together with Héctor Mondragón’s description of the farce that U.S. democracy promotion has been reduced to in Colombia, captures the state of hope, paradox and contradiction faced by Latin America’s “democratic moment.”


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