News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
Government Ethics
Oscar Sabetta/Getty Images

President Hugo Chavez waving a Venezuelan flag during a march to support his government in Caracas in 2002.

The instruction manual for autocratic governing was written just south of here

Botsford spent most of his professional career in Latin America, providing strategic advice to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies doing business in the region.

Having lived and worked for more than 30 years in countries including Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia — all places with authoritarian regimes elected democratically — I have watched plenty of times as democratic institutions were systematically weakened and corruption allowed to flourish.

The comparisons between these countries and the United States today should be alarming to all of us, as the similarities are striking. An instruction manual exists on how to destroy the rule of law.

The United States is in the process of becoming authoritarian. No need to look any further than our hemispheric neighbors in Central and South America. Authoritarianism, as a result of military dictatorships, has become engraved into their societies and honed to perfection. Generals became strongmen, preferred by a society dependent on paternalistic leaders -- conservative or liberal, but always nationalist. Think Panama's Manuel Noriega or Argentina's Juan Peron on the right, or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez or Bolivia's Evo Morales on the left.

Why are many countries that were colonized by Spain, Portugal or France more corrupt in nature than countries colonized by England?

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

It's cultural and began with the Rule of Law. Napoleonic law governs much of Latin America, while English Common Law governs much of North America. So, depending on where you live in the hemisphere, private property can become fungible.

Political corruption was rare in the United States from the 1960s until the election of Donald Trump. Down south something close to the opposite is true: Vibrant postcolonial democracies mirrored on the U.S. Constitution were the norm until the 1920s, but since then their democratic institutions have been systematically dismantled.

The pattern has been consistent: A leader has been elected along with a loyal legislative branch, then he's set about to systematically corrupt the Rule of Law, hold power with a divide-and-conquer strategy and use his office for enriching himself and his family.

In order to succeed, these demagogues have dominated their nations' institutions of power:

  • The legislature. (Just this month, the Venezuelan Congress was effectively taken over by its president.)
  • The judiciary. (Ecuador's Supreme Court always obeys the president.)
  • The media. (Brazil's president has suppressed its once free press.)
  • Corporations. (Bolivia's president nationalized the private sector.)
  • The spies. (The Argentinian president gutted the intelligence community.)
  • The treasury. (The Peruvian president outright stole from government coffers.)
  • Voting. (Nicaragua's president controlled the conduct of elections.)

Moreover, clientelism has been the currency of these authoritarian regimes. Webster's defines this as "a social order that depends upon relations of patronage; in particular, a political approach that emphasizes or exploits such relations."

Finally, these leaders have focused on cultivating a political base from a portion of the population that feels aggrieved — economically, socially or because of race. Their form of indoctrination builds slowly, starting with small innocuous changes. The analogy is to the frog who never realizes it's been boiled alive. The victim has been democracy itself, with the rule of law decapitated across a continent in favor of the leaders' rules and laws.

These demagogues have needed lots of cash, or the ability for great accumulation once in office, to spread around to their allies. Campaign fundraising kick-started these efforts, inauguration festivities accelerated them exponentially and then re-election campaign financing kept up the pace.

Kickbacks derived from government contracts became common practice. So too the notion of the national treasury as the leader's personal bank account.

The national legislature then readily becomes the dictator's rubber stamp, ushering his judicial picks onto the courts and keeping unwanted legislation stymied. Along the way, members of the opposition party have been systematically bullied into submission — or opted for early retirement.

Quickly installing a corrupt general prosecutor or attorney general has proved essential to demagogic success, followed by the selection of nothing but compliant judges and prosecutors.

While their work has commenced, the leaders' have labeled the press as the enemy of the people — corrupt media partners serving as echo chambers and drowning out balanced coverage. Opposition media has been stifled through economic pressure, allowing leaders to go unquestioned when they tell their people that what they see and hear elsewhere is not the truth — and that the executive is knowledge and wisdom's one true source.

Willing corporate allies have been rewarded with lucrative government contracts, while perceived enemies in the business community have been starved by the treasury until they submitted to the leader's will.

Corrupt foreign allies have also routinely been enlisted — to attack opponents or bring in investments, national security be damned, and even if it requires a hollowing out of the government's own intelligence-gathering community.

And if all this has not assured these leaders' indefinite hold on power, bureaucrats have been lined up to rig elections — timing them for the boss's maximum advantage, suppressing the opposition's path to the polls and stuffing ballot boxes for good measure.

All this has allowed these demagogues to hold power even when their red meat rhetoric has succeeded at herding only a third of the people into their blindly loyal base. In regional political jargon, it's known as controlling the street.

It's worked time and again for leaders who stage frequent political rallies, portraying themselves as men of the people who share many of the public's grievances. Scapegoating immigrants, accusing them of taking jobs from the natives, has proved a winning part of this formula. And portraying themselves as empathetic victims has had the added benefit of keeping the majority silent, out of fear of severe retribution from the riled up base.

Education across the continent is now all about indoctrination. To dominate the people requires starving them intellectually and stuffing them ideologically, their leaders have concluded, so writing critical of the government is often banished. "Shoes yes, books no" has been the demagogue's slogan across Central and South America since the 1940s.

Obfuscation, self-dealing, lies and corruption have been normalized for these leaders to succeed. It is very difficult to turn the clock back in the region. And it is impossible to avoid noticing parallels in our own country now.

© Issue One. All rights reserved.