The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion These three elections show the challenge to democracy in Latin America

Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's president, speaks to members of the media in Caracas, Venezuela, on Nov. 21. (Carolina Cabral/Bloomberg)

Elections alone do not a democracy make, as the results of Venezuela’s less-than-free balloting on Sunday show. The ruling Socialist party of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro controls the media and major institutions such as the National Electoral Council, and holds more than 200 political prisoners; many opposition leaders have fled the country. So Miguel Díaz-Canel, the president of Venezuela’s close ally — Cuba — was only being realistic when he tweeted congratulations for Mr. Maduro’s party’s “convincing” victory before the polls had even closed. The Socialists won all but three of 23 state governor offices as well as most of 3,000 local government positions.

There were European Union observers present; it’s unlikely that their report, due Tuesday, will change the official U.S. position, which is to recognize opposition Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president. Still, those opposition politicians who decided to participate were justified in doing so, even at the risk of legitimizing the exercise. The tiny foothold they gained may — as they hope — re-energize a demoralized people, the vast majority of whom are suffering extreme poverty, ahead of scheduled 2024 presidential elections. Certainly the U.S. strategy of recognizing Mr. Guaidó and tightening sanctions on Mr. Maduro’s regime has not worked so far. Nevertheless, there should be no surrender of that leverage unless Venezuela makes irreversible democratic reform.

Venezuela’s was this month’s second pseudo-democratic exercise in Latin America, the first being Daniel Ortega’s repression-marred reelection in Nicaragua. Mr. Ortega celebrated by vowing to withdraw from the Organization of American States, a two-year process which, if completed, would leave his regime, Mr. Maduro’s and Cuba outside the Pan-American system.

In Chile, meanwhile, there was another election on Sunday. This one was indeed free and fair, but the polarized results — a runoff between candidates of the far right and far left — show that outright dictatorship is not the only threat democracy faces in the hemisphere. Since the restoration of democracy in 1989, after 16 years of military rule, Chile has stood out in the region as a bastion of economic progress and moderate politics.

Yet a national uprising in October 2019 showed that much of the public had grown impatient with Chile’s continuing economic inequalities and that the country of 19 million was susceptible to the same tensions — including rising crime and the need to incorporate a wave of migrants fleeing from Venezuela’s crisis — that have destabilized other societies in South America. On Dec. 19, Chileans will choose between José Antonio Kast, a right-wing populist often compared to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who finished first Sunday with 28 percent by running on an anti-crime, anti-migration program, and 35-year-old leftist Gabriel Boric, a leader of the 2019 protests, who got 26 percent at the head of a coalition that includes Chile’s small Communist Party.

As in nearby Peru, where a presidential election’s first round produced similar divisions earlier this year, Chile’s centrist parties, and their voters, now hold the balance of power in the runoff. Their influence on the eventual winner may help determine the future course of democracy in Chile and, by extension, Latin America as a whole.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).