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Hugo Chavez Alberto Fujimori Donald Trump authoritarianism Portland 2020

The Donald Trump Show

Lessons from Latin America before democracy goes off the rails.

Words: Isabel Bernhard
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons

“Aló, Presidente!” is a well-known phrase to most Venezuelans. Both the opening greeting and the title of Hugo Chávez’s weekly talk show, it offered direct insight into the whims and wishes of the country’s leader. The show embodied a cult of personality that vacuumed up Chávez’s supporters and skeptics alike: whether you adored or deplored him, the discourse surrounding his presidency was undeniably on his terms. His program’s candor and informality masked Chávez’s rigid, systematic dismantling of Venezuela’s democratic institutions until it was too late. Years earlier, in Peru, president-to-be Alberto Fujimori ran on a similarly unconventional direct appeal to his people. Fujimori would be a president like you,” he promised, and voters backed him in a landslide. Both Chávez and Fujimori went on to rule autocratically until death (in 2013) and exile (in 2000), respectively.

If this sounds like familiar presidential behavior to Americans, it is. Donald Trump, Hugo Chávez, and Alberto Fujimori were all (1) outsiders to the political process who cultivated anti-elite sentiment and (2) dealt with a prolonged political and economic crisis in office. Broadly speaking, all (3) found key campaign promises stymied amidst deep political polarization and high intragovernmental tension. By analyzing how these three factors severely damaged Venezuela and Peru’s democracy, we can fortify American institutions and public opinion to prevent deepening anti-democratic behavior at home.

Before entering office, Chávez, Fujimori, and Trump were political outsiders who cultivated anti-elite sentiment. Chávez drew from his mixed-Indigenous background and military record to prove his distance from Venezuela’s traditionally white professional politicians. As a clear anti-establishment signal, he led a failed coup against Venezuela’s then-president. Fujimori was an agricultural engineer and a talk show host who rejected the stereotypical image of Peru’s white elites and gained Indigenous voters’ trust after the opposition made nativist insinuations against his immigrant background. Trump was a real-estate mogul and reality TV star with no background in politics. He attacked the Republican establishment for faulty decision-making in the Iraq War, while leaning on anti-Democratic claims about Obama’s birthplace and Hillary’s emails.

If there is ample enough public support for — or minimal enough public resistance to — these musings, Trump could put more openly authoritarian plans into action.

Next, Chávez, Fujimori, and Trump all dealt with a prolonged political and economic crisis in office. Chávez took office amidst record-low oil prices, a significant economic crisis for Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy. He also inherited a political crisis of widespread public distrust of politicians, stemming from the 1958 Punto Fijo power-sharing pact between two antiquated and ineffectual parties. As for Peru, Fujimori battled persistent hyperinflation as well as two terrorist groups that staged abductions and gruesome murders of innocent civilians. Trump has experienced impeachment, the Mueller probe, congressional investigations, investigations from the DOJ’s Southern District of New York, and the COVID-19 economic spiral.

Broadly speaking, all three leaders found key campaign promises stymied amidst deep political polarization and high intra-governmental tension. Chávez was met with immediate opposition in government, which culminated in a short-lived military coup against him. He was also unable to implement the much-needed policy of raising national gasoline prices to match international rates for fear of popular protests. All this took place against a polarized backdrop where Venezuelan elites and the poorest sectors of society saw each other as diametrically opposed to the other’s survival. Fujimori was met with sharp congressional resistance to his neoliberal economic plan, and two years into his first term was already facing mounting opposition and fears of a military coup.” Trump’s campaign rhetoric to “Build the Wall” has resulted in incomplete construction while his immigration policy is contested in court, as are his plans to open up environmentally protected areas for industry and energy development.

Crucially, Chávez and Fujimori understood the connections between traits (1), (2), and (3). When each faced (2) political/economic crises and (3) stymied policies amidst heightened tensions, they drew on (1) their outsider status and popular base to resolve the tension and enforce their will. In doing so, Chávez and Fujimori openly pivoted towards authoritarianism, severely damaging democracy in Venezuela and Peru.

In response to the state-owned oil company’s antagonistic leadership, Chávez nationalized it and distributed its revenue to social programs popular among his base. Following a military coup, he created a civilian militia three years later. Wary of a failed recall referendum against him, Chávez moved to create one standalone political party and amended the constitution to allow unlimited terms. All these actions slowly but surely moved Venezuela towards a dictatorship. When the Peruvian congress refused Fujimori’s proposed financial austerity plan to combat hyperinflation, he dissolved Congress and sent tanks to the building to underscore his point. In keeping with his outsider image, the public overwhelmingly supported him. Buoyed by reelection, Fujimori went on to pardon human rights offenders, bribe opposition politicians, and abduct and murder civilians on false terrorism charges.

Trump has already demonstrated an awareness of how these three traits interact. On the cusp of his second term, the stressors from political/economic crises and stymied policies are nearing a crescendo. He has already begun experimenting with anti-democratic solutions to resolve the pressure and is testing the messaging with his base. To give himself more time to implement policies, Trump contemplated discrediting and challenging the 2020 election results. To relieve pressure on his inaction towards racial unrest, he sent federal agents to violently disperse crowds in front of the White House and in Portland. Chávez and Fujimori offer a cautionary parallel. If there is ample enough public support for — or minimal enough public resistance to — these musings, Trump could put more openly authoritarian plans into action. If we are complicit in inaction, we could find ourselves tuning in to the reality show that is our democracy’s demise. 

Isabel Bernhard is an MSc. candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford.

Isabel Bernhard

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