The rule of law is not something that the dictatorships of the 21st Century in Latin America care about. Autocratic populism in the region is based in the political manipulation of the judiciary and the state’s administrative and law enforcement agencies.
Judges, prosecutors, police, comptrollers, tax services, and electoral organs are subordinated to the holders of political power in order to become the government’s mechanism to deter, discourage, and repress any opposition to the regime. This strategy maintains a democratic façade within an authoritarian system. Autocratic populists favor more subtle methods, with which they reach “better” results than the military dictatorships of the past.
Political containment by indirect methods was first used by Vladimiro Montecinos, the well-known Peruvian Rasputin at the time when Alberto Fujimori was president, and was later perfected by the left-leaning countries of the ALBA coalition with the aid of Cuban intelligence. The Cuban advisers quickly understood that their system of direct political repression was no longer exportable, and more sophisticated systems of political persecution were needed.
Among the ALBA countries, Bolivia is the one that has most vigorously developed a gross manipulation of the judicial system. The administration of Evo Morales has turned the system of justice into an apparatus of state control, a machine of political intimidation and annihilation.
The great majority of opposition leaders, including all former democratically elected presidents, are now subject to criminal prosecution. There are political prisoners waiting for trial for more than four years, hundreds of exiles, and opposition governors who were illegally removed from office, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the victim of a subversive movement financed by Venezuela, is the target of an atrocious persecution by a network of Bolivian prosecutors and judges organized by Cuba’s diplomats in Bolivia.
In this dance, as in many other cases, NGOs linked to Cuba and other well-known U.S. law firms have turned Miami into a legal battlefield with two high-ranking officials of the current Bolivian government in prison and two other trials of Bolivian opposition figures under way.
The Morales administration’s former anti-drug czar, in the best Banana Republic tradition, is now in prison in Florida for drug trafficking. The other, deputy head of the Police Anticorruption Unit, is in prison in Miami for extorting a Bolivian businessman.
No one can now doubt that the organized mafia-like manipulation of justice in Bolivia has destroyed democracy, and that the “electoral triumphs” of President Morales do not suffice to continue viewing Bolivia as a democracy.
What we have today is a new kind of authoritarianism, with new strongmen who came to power with an even greater appetite for power, violence, and greater hatred than all past dictators combined, intensifying the corruption and weakening the institutions to such an extent as to leave these countries a mere shadow of their former selves.
One of Latin America’s most serious errors was to believe that holding elections was enough to bring about the rule of law, while ignoring other essential components of a democracy. And in all of this, at present, this tragedy has a sole winner: Cuba.
Jaime Aparicio is a former president of the OAS Interamerican Legal Committee and former ambassador of Bolivia to the United States.