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The Latin American Democracy: The Creation of Policy Essay

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Updated: Dec 18th, 2021

Latin American countries by and large have democratic systems of government that mirror that of the United States. Marring some distinct differences, policy is shaped by some of the same basic principles. Politicians are people. These people have jobs, and to keep those jobs they must satisfy their electorates. The question, when observing how policy is formed in Latin America, then becomes, “How do politicians find it necessary in Latin America to satisfy their respective electorates?” Many believe that Brazil is a country in which pork barreling legislation is a major factor in reelection for incumbent federal deputies. This belief encourages individuals to infer that at least segments of the general public’s needs are in fact being met. This may be the case, but it is not because these deputies are doling out funds to meet the needs of the people. In Columbia, a very similar impeachment process to that which exists in the U.S. is law. The Columbian Chamber of Representatives is much like the United States Congress in its ability to decide to impeach a president. This may lead one to believe that impeachment policy is one dictated by law, but this is not the case. Policy, it is no surprise, is created in Latin American countries in manners that directly correlate with each system’s structure of accountability for their representatives, as is the case in every democracy. Pork barrel add-ons in Brazil are indirect examples of this, as well as are the actions to impeach taken in Columbia in the mid 1990’s.

In Brazil, the president possesses the power to wield a line-item veto (Samuels 847). Also, Brazil is an open-list PR system, which means that incumbent deputies have to run as individuals within their own parties against members of their own parties across entire states of the country. These two facts greatly impact the manner in which legislation and policy is formed, especially in terms of pork barrel add-ons that do not result in much opportunity for credit claiming.

Politicians need to be able to claim credit while before their electorates to keep their positions in government in a democratic system. What the line-item veto means in Brazil is that pork barrel add-ons are dispersed by deputies in small amounts throughout proposed legislation to increase the chances of each piece of pork being signed into law. Much of the appropriations for special public works are in such small sums of money that very little can be done to serve the greater good, although that small sum posed a very little threat, and therefore was not vetoed. This makes credit claiming futile for many deputies who do not have much to show in the way of life-changing public projects. The open-list PR system makes credit claiming for pork even more complex by lack of districts within a state. The deputies run to represent the entire state, and must maintain constituencies in unofficial districts chosen out of necessity to concentrate campaign resources. This, however, does not mean that their opponents will not vie for the same votes. Small public works projects could have been done in a region by two or three different deputies, canceling out the benefit of claiming credit, and of focusing efforts to satisfy a manufactured constituency.

The practice of pork barreling in Brazil is suspect then. Why? If there is no great benefit to the politician, why initiate policy that is of little value politically? The answer is that pork barreling does not equal votes, but instead campaign contributions for those seeking reelection (Samuels 846). Pork barreling results in politically forged friendships with those who benefit from the government contracts it produces. Those in business to build infrastructure will become very friendly with deputies who promise to add pork to a piece of legislation making policy the construction of a highway system. This does, of course, benefit the public, but the motivation has less to do with satisfying constituencies and more to do with filling campaign war chests with generous donations from the private sector. Policy, then, is created not to gain favor directly from the voters, but to gain funds that will enable the most effective reelection campaigns possible. This improves chances of reelection, and therefore is committed. It is said that “…pork-barrel projects dot the Brazilian countryside” because the motivation does not lie in actually producing a viable and beneficial public policy, but in getting the newest, biggest private contracts to the private contractors with the most wealth to donate to future campaigns (Samuels 851). This is a direct result of the limited accountability generated by the open-list PR system, since politicians need voters to have the ability to detect both their good and bad policy initiatives and credit these initiatives to the right person. If Brazil were to create districts in which politicians had to focus their efforts, this would greatly increase the capacity for voters to make their representatives accountable, especially in a system in which individuals are the focus of campaigns instead of the party.

Even something as seemingly governed by objective law as impeachment proceedings is actually governed and created by policies created to meet the needs of sitting political officers. It boils down to the following: “Other things being equal, popular presidents are more capable of enduring strong accusations, while declining presidential approval typically provides a strong signal for legislators to defect from the president’s camp and creates incentives for Congress (and the judiciary) to remove the president from office” (Hinojosa 655). Impeachment policy is said to be created very plainly here by public opinion. Without public opinion, though perhaps very serious laws are infracted upon, an impeachment is a very unlikely event. The most revealing part of the above quoted statement is that “declining presidential approval” “creates incentives for Congress.” Two impeachments are being covered here, Bill Clinton’s and Ernesto Samper of Columbia.

Throughout this country, Bill Clinton’s impeachment is still polarizing between ideological groups. Democrats think it was a waste of time, and Republicans think his removal from office was a national necessity. This is how polarizing the United States’ public presidential extra-marital affair was. The charges against Ernesto Samper were much more serious, as he was accused of accepting funds from a Columbian drug cartel when running against an opponent in a very close presidential race. In this most serious circumstance, there was not enough public opinion to create incentive to even begin an impeachment proceeding, proving that politician’s everywhere create policy based on accountability. It did not matter that the sitting president very likely, knowingly, accepted campaign contributions from known criminals, because the politicians in office would have lost favor with their electorates by pursuing impeachment. This is an example of how accountability to voters alone leaves room for laws to remain unenforced, and suggests that Colombian and United States’ democracies could each benefit from a stronger judicial involvement in impeachment. This could provide the accountability that voters lack the will to maintain in their representatives as a consequence of their own moral grayness or apathy.

Budget control is a central issue in every government. However in Latin America, there is an “understandable fear” that limits the types of policies that can be enacted to correct some very serious budget issues (Hallerburg 585). Delegating to the president makes sense in some Latin American style democracies speaking and as an objective party, but entrenched fears of dictatorship prevent policy from being enacted that would provide the president with special powers to govern tax revenue. Though political leaders can observe the need for a specific policy initiative, the fears of the people prevent purposeful correction to governmental operations, showing further how profound accountability to voters can be—only here in a negative fashion.

“… Vertical accountability also necessitates that the public as a whole develop evaluations of elected officials that are somehow based on their actions while in office” (Kelly 865). This is the principle that determines how policy is shaped not only in Latin American democracy, but in democracy. It becomes more and more clear that democracy shares the same fundamental and consistent principles everywhere in the world. Cultural and structural differences make for different obstacles to meet and overcome for those who are seeking political office. Politicians will not do what does not result in a change in public opinion in their favor. The dotted coastline of Brazil is perfect evidence of the motivation behind the policy of Brazilian deputies, who, because of their lack of ability to claim credit for public projects, lack the motivation to complete works in progress.

Viewing some examples of Latin American democratic phenomenon makes the importance of structure clear in any democratic system. Politicians survive in their business by accessing the resources they require to keep their offices. Money and votes create policy, no matter what democracy is being studied, and even if it means keeping a criminal in the office of the president no action will be taken if there is not some compensation for efforts made. That is why vertical accountability—accountability of performance by a politician to his electorate– is crucial, but not a guarantee that righteous action will be taken in all instances. Columbia’s lack of impeachment and fears of presidential power on the part of electorates are both examples of this. Brazil’s open-list PR is an example of the results of convoluted channels of vertical accountability that limit commitment to projects in construction. These instances demonstrate how policy in Latin American countries is inextricably linked to the accountability politicians experience in those democracies.

Works Cited

Hallerburg, Mark, Patrik Marier. “Executive Authority, the Personal Vote, and Budget Discipline in Latin American and Caribbean Countries.” American Journal of Political Science 48 (2004): 571-587.

Hinojosa, Victor J., and Anibal S. Periz-Linan. “Presidential Survival and the Impeachment Process: The United States and Colombia.” Political Science Quarterly 121 (2006): 653-675.

Kelly, Jana Morgan. “Counting on Past or Investing in the Future? Economic and Political Accountability in Fujimori’s Peru.” The Journal of Politics 65 (2003): 864-880.

Samuels, David J. “Pork Barreling is not Credit Claiming or Advertising: Campaign Finance and the Sources of the Personal Vote in Brazil.” The Journal of Politics 64 (2002): 845-863.

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