Democratic backsliding and autocrats, from a personal perspective

Scott Appleby, Dean of the Keough School
Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Director, Kellogg Institute for International Studies
Dear Students, faculty
Dear friends

It is an honor to be here talking to you about democracy for two reasons: first, because is it the inaugural Global Democracy Conference and I am deeply honored to be here and being part of this new initiative of the University of Notre Dame. The University, through the Keough school and the Kellogg Institute, continues expanding their role as a world leading institution analyzing extremely relevant issues of today. The second reason is that, as you will hear from my personal testimony, democracy means a lot to me. The defense of democracy and human rights is the reason why my family and I have suffered so much, including almost two years of my life in prison.

I come from Latin America, a region where most countries are still functioning democracies, but at the same time democracy has receded dramatically in some countries. After a hopeful wave that eliminated military dictatorships in the continent, a counter wave has emerged from democracy itself. It is a wave that is dangerously advancing in some countries, while others like my own Nicaragua, or Cuba or Venezuela, are already submerged in the depths of autocracy.

This year is historic for democracy, and elections in particular. Almost 100 countries, and half of the world’s population is voting this year. While some are totally sham elections, like in Iran, it is important to note that millions and millions of people are going to be alone, with a pen, in front of a ballot to support or reject a candidate.

Although my following testimony is far from optimistic, I will emphasize that at the end, democracy can be defended, protected, and promoted if right actions are done on time. Political participation, raising awareness and denunciations of attacks against democracy should be done on real time and with energy.
I will use the word autocrat several times. I define autocrat as a ruler who governs unconstrained, in the absence of, or with limited, checks and balances. Although mostly attributed to a particular person, I will use the term referring not only as an individual, but a group of individuals such as a junta, or a political party.
Democracy in crisis?

There is ample discussion in the academia and elsewhere about the challenges democracies are facing today. There are concerns about the possibility of a wave of autocratization, especially if we analyze the regression in terms of the world‘s population share now living under authoritarian regimes.

It is a fact that countries are falling into autocracies, the prelude to tyranny. According to Freedom House, in its global report for 2023, democracy receded for the 20th consecutive year. 29 countries suffered a downgrading in their democracy scores, particularly countries in Central Asia, which have become even more authoritarian. V-Dem, in its annual report of 2024 state that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average person worldwide in 2023 is down to levels last seen in 1985”.

How autocrats rise to power

Autocrats have improved their techniques of achieving control. Fifty years ago, it was more brutal. Military cup-plotters violently closed TV stations, stormed into Parliaments, and exiled or executed democratically elected presidents.

Today, autocrats achieve similar results without too much turmoil. Autocrats use the democratic system in their efforts to attain power and weaken democracy.

The democratic backsliding infection map

Dictators seldom share their plans. They reluctantly accept democratic rules because it is the only way to get to power. Once in power, many autocrats show their real nature. They bring with them, usually into the executive branch or parliament, the virus of autocracy. This virus spread rapidly to other branches of Government. It is a silent disease at the beginning. Ozan Varol from Iowa, has documented this phenomenon across regions and explains the expansion of stealth authoritarianism in countries, including the United States.

The early symptoms of this silent disease are usually dismissed, but once it has reached the entire body, it is usually too late to stop it. Democratic backsliding is the overall result of this disease.
It is important to note that over time, voters tend to forget history, and previous autocrats can present themselves as democrats, alluring to new voters prone to believe hopeful promises.

Political scientists, like Scott Mainwaring have documented that authoritarian successor parties have been effective in their efforts to return to power, especially in former communist countries. Rachel Beatty Riedl from Northwestern University, has also explored the issue in the African context. Usually in possession of a political brand, these parties maintain control of territorial organizations, as well as significant sources of income, which in turn allow them to control networks of support. Many of these parties have maintained intelligence services, an important source of information for the leader. This implies that when competing with other parties in a democratic environment, authoritarian successor parties run with an advantage.

Once in power, autocrats tend to bend existing rules and change those rules in their favor. Laws are reformed. Reelection clauses are redrafted to ensure permanence in power.

Laws determining what constitutes defamation are usually reformed to attack independent media. The attacks also take the form of fiscal pressures, exerting accusations of tax evasion and fraud. In the old days, dictators used censorship to silence newspapers. Today they extinguish them by imposing tax burdens and using the judicial system to imprison editors or impose huge monetary fines. The autocrat usually counterattacks independent press with state-owned outlets or social media.

Then autocrats target key government positions. The Supreme Court, Judges, the Prosecutor General, the General Comptroller, and Human Rights Prosecutors, designed to be occupied by respected lawyers, are replaced by autocrat-friendly politicians who accept the position with the understanding of not investigating the autocrat.

Opposition leaders are the natural targets of autocrats. They pose a real competition, and the autocrat’s objective is to get rid of them. An old dictator used to say that there are three instruments used for getting rid of an opponent, in the following order: money, stick, and bullet. Money for the easily convinced, stick for the indifferent, and bullet for the hard liners. There is no dictatorship that has not implemented in one way or another, this troika of repression.
In the past, the military played the fundamental role in placing a dictator, who sometimes came from its own ranks. Today, arm forces are used by autocrats to maintain and consolidate their own power. What do they gain? Retired generals often fill government positions. Companies owned by the army or owned by officers get government contracts. The loyalty of the army is secured by the force of money. This explains the military obedience in countries like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Local and municipal governments, especially those with large budgets, are fertile grounds for autocrat’s competitors to flourish. The autocrat must have absolute control of what is going on in municipalities, either by prohibiting or manipulating local elections. Laws redefining districts, like recently in El Salvador is also used to move boundaries, so local elections can be more favorable.
The work of NGOs is uncomfortable for governments, even democratic ones. They play an important role in demanding government’s transparency, accountability, and policy impact. The usual attack by autocrats’ is that NGOs respond to foreign powers who want to interfere with domestic affairs. They are shut down. In my country, there are basically no NGOs, as the dictator eliminated more than 3 thousand of them, including the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross.

The list of targets goes on to include religious leaders, opinion makers, influencers, celebrities and sports legends. They are usually utilized by the regime for propaganda, if they criticize, they can be in trouble.

Personal perspective

So, what is it like to live under a dictatorship? In my country, dictatorships are more the norm than the exception. Just to illustrate my point: my father, born in 1932 lived most of his life under the Somoza dictatorship (1936-1979), and died during Ortegas’ current and second dictatorship. My uncle, who never voted, spent 5 years of his life in prison and was assassinated during the Somoza dictatorship. My grandfather grew up during the Zelaya dictatorship (1893-1909), suffered exile, and died during Somoza’s dictatorship. My great grand father died from complications after being in prison for years by Zelaya. In the last 130 years, there has been 89 under dictators, and counting. Four generations living under three different dictatorships. As you can see, in my family we do not to get along with dictators.

In 2018 Daniel Ortega reformed Social Security and a wave of protests erupted throughout the country. Initiated by the elderly, it was followed by university students and then, everyone followed. Ortega responded with bullets, killing more than 350 people, and injuring thousands.

Let me share with you some stories and feelings after the 2018 crisis that I have witnessed from people that I know:

Imagine the feelings of the father of Tayler Lorío, a nine-months old baby who was shot in the head while in his father’s arms, and not being able to seek justice. He had to leave the country under pressure from the police and came to the US and works at a hardware store. Alvaro Conrado, a 15-year-old, shot in the chest and desperately taken to two public hospitals while the government denied medical attention because he was providing water to protesters. When Alvaro’s mother traveled to the UN Human Rights Council to denounce the crime, the regime prohibited her entry back to the country, leaving her house, family, everything behind. Franco Valdivia, a 21-year-old college student, whose body had to be exhumed weeks after his funeral to determine that he was shot by a sniper with a high caliber rifle. I met hundreds of students, whose academic records were erased, some of them at the last semester of college. They could not have a graduation ceremony like the one we saw yesterday. In fact, many of their universities were violently confiscated by the government. Even social media is monitored 24-7 by Government officials who can arrest anyone and condemned to 8 years in prison for violating a new cyber attack law. Even waving the national flag in public in my country is enough evidence to put you in prison. I have colleagues of the opposition whose house has been burned to the ground, and their family business of generations confiscated.

I could not stay indifferent to the repression that I had just described. I became a politician, a human rights defender and a presidential candidate. As a consequence, I suffered intimidation, and multiple death threats on my phone. For more than 8 months, I was under police harassment, being followed wherever I went, and sometimes forced me to illegal house arrests, and prohibition to mobilize inside the country. I suffered beating several times and false accusations. I was arbitrary detained and was incommunicado for six months while in prison.

The regime put me on trial without due process and denied me a legal defense. I was accused of treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. This sentence caused extreme pain to my family, my wife and my daughter, here present, and who imagined that they would see me again until 2035. I spent almost two years, unable to see them in person.

While in prison, I was subject to degrading treatment, isolation, harassment, and denial of the right to practice my religion. I was banished from my country and stripped of my nationality and my properties.

The current Nicaraguan regime has violated, just in my own case, 20 out of the 30 rights guaranteed under of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is because of this terrible suffering that my commitment to democracy and human rights are stronger than ever.

I knew I was going to be arrested, I even prepared a video in anticipation. I had a chance to escape from the arrest, but I refused. My decision was not to resist my detention but to continue my fight in prison, despite the fear that I clearly felt. For 3 months, incommunicado in prison, I suffered a lot by leaving my family behind. The torture of not knowing anything about them made me think a lot whether I had the right decision. Hope in the future and the love for my family kept me strong. Discipline and prayer allowed me to live one day at a time, 611 days to be exact.

Understanding democracy

So, what can we do to prevent these things from happening?
There are two basic elements about democracy that I think are not well understood. The first is that sometimes voters, and even intellectuals, tend to see democracy as an abstract concept, disconnected from material outcomes. Autocrats sometimes stress about concrete problem people face, security, inflation, or unemployment, at the cost of democracy and freedom. At the end, however, the erosion of democracy has material effects on people’s lives, like my own, and those of millions who suffer from oppression around the world.

The second is that democracy, and rights in particular, cannot be analyzed in isolation. That is, we should never see the violation of rights elsewhere as “their” problem. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, when asked why he was in Birmingham “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. I would expand this to the time dimension: “Injustice anytime, is a threat to justice every time”.
The two misconceptions about democracy, that is, its abstract and isolated nature, has led to many people turn their backs against incredible suffering around the world. This indifference can sometimes do more harm to democracy that autocrats themselves. As Dr. King wrote “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will”. That is why I think this Global Conference on Democracy, “Understanding Today, Shaping Tomorrow” is a good step towards having a better understanding democracy.

The role of Elites

Thinking about what to do, it is important to keep in mind that by design, it takes a huge amount of people, in fact, the majority of society in most cases, to democratically elect leaders. On the other hand, it takes an incredible small amount of people to keep an autocrat in power. This issue takes to another important area of analysis, the role of power elites, or elites in general.
Elites play a fundamental role in the destiny of a nation. I refer to elite here without any connotation but to define the groups in society that have a leading role in politics, economics, intellectual creation, public opinion, and social movements.

I had the opportunity of seeing how political power, policies and democratic consolidation or backsliding are determined at the top, a perspective clearly explained by many scholars. If politics is shaped by elites in mature democracies, more so in developing democracies, where weak institutions, exclusions, injustice, and inequality are usually the norm, not the exception.

Policies in general are administered by groups of people, elites composed of individuals capable of generating and lobby for laws, policies and actions that put in motion a project called “Nation”. Elites can be positive in putting aside specific interest in favor of development or can betray the mandate of the people and work for specific interests.

Elites can be positive when the nation project they promote is intended to serve the interest of the general population without exclusions. It takes vision and courage for elites not to fall into the temptation of ruling just for their own interests.

With respect to inclusive institutions, Robinson and Acemoglu in their book Why Nations Fail point out that the development and flourishing of nations reside in the creation and endurance of inclusive institutions. These institutions must fulfill five conditions: first, they have to establish clear rules and a leveled field, second, there should not be any bias against a particular group, third, institutions must provide public goods needed for society to develop, fourth to potentialize freedom to select their destinies and fifth, property rights.

I see democratic backsliding as an attempt of an elite, or an individual, to consolidate its political power at the expense of another group. They violate, therefore, the first and second conditions for the five exposed by Robinson and Acemoglu. The result of this are felt in the violation of rights of those excluded, public goods converted into private goodies to enablers, lack of freedom for people to select their own destinies and the violation of property rights.

Recommendation of Policies

We are here at this inaugural Global Democracy Conference which will surely start a new tradition at Notre Dame in analyzing democracy’s contemporary challenges and achievements. At the Keough School, a school focused on policies, there has been an emphasis to build a bridge between solid academic research and good policy recommendations. That is, to bring solutions to emerging challenges through solid academic understanding. The idea of this conference is to convene academia with practitioners, thinkers, doers, and policy makers on how to protect, defend and promote democratic values.

For practitioners on the international justice system present here: international justice has progressed significantly in the last decades, but it is far for having the enforcement mechanisms within countries to stop and persecute autocrats.

For practitioners on the international financial institutions: development organizations should pay more attention and demand more accountability on countries that are moving backwards with respect to democracy. Countries promoting freedom, democracy, free press, and free markets should be awarded, and counties doing the opposite should be reprimanded.

For academics: it is often said that democracies tend to better allocate resources, often in the form of more and better public goods at the service of the general population. More efforts should be devoted to analyzing this question empirically, so we move from the abstract discussion of the benefits of democracy to a more real conversation.

Historians in particular have an extremely challenging problem in the age of rapid communication. History is easily manipulated and distorted by autocrats who want to construct a new version of history. As Mark Twain said “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Political scientists, including some colleagues here at Kellogg, are drawing attention to subnational political processes, elections in states and municipalities. This is important as sometimes existing local rules prevent the erosion of democracy. To understand how those rules exist overtime can shed light in recommendations at a more general level.

Monetary transfer public programs should be evaluated in detail and asses how these mechanisms help families and correct exclusions.
NGOs with international presence can play an extremely important role, not only in supporting its local counterparts, but also in alerting the world of silent, sometimes camouflaged actions to restrict their important work.

This is not an exhaustive list of policy recommendations, but some thoughts derived from my own experience. An experience that I hope is found useful for those who deeply worry about democracy in the world. We must be vigilant with respect to this political system that, despite its imperfections, has proven to be the best one yet.
A final thought that I think is fundamental. In addition to all efforts, we may do in defending it, democracy greatest ally, greatest force, lies in the heart of the individual, in the desire from freedom that derives from our own instincts. Autocrats try to assault the minds and hearts of its citizens, but a person ruling in perpetuity can never repress the desire of the people to be free, that is why they are afraid of their own people. We should exploit that fear into our advantage, giving strength, motivation and power to the human will and the natural desire to be free.

Again, I congratulate the University, the Keough School and the Kellogg Institute for this initiative, and thank for giving me the privilege to be here with you.


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Por Juan Sebastian Chamorro

Político y economista comprometido con el desarrollo y el futuro de Nicaragua. Académico visitante en políticas públicas en el Kellogg Institute de la Universidad de Notre Dame. Miembro del Directorio Político de la Concertación Democrática Nicaragüense Monteverde. Activista por la defensa de los Derechos Humanos y la Democracia. Preso Político de junio 2021 a febrero 2023. Precandidato a la Presidencia de la República. Director Ejecutivo de la Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia del 2019 a enero del 2021 y Director Ejecutivo de la Fundación Nicaragüense para el Desarrollo Económico y Social FUNIDES. Director Ejecutivo de Macesa, Director General de la Cuenta Reto del Milenio, Vice Ministro de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Secretario Técnico de la Presidencia de la República y Director del Sistema Nacional de Inversiones Públicas.
Doctor (Ph.D) en Economía por la Universidad de Wisconsin-Madison, con especialidad en Econometría y Desarrollo Económico, Máster en Economía por la Universidad de Georgetown con mención especial en Políticas Sociales y Licenciado en Economía (graduado Magna Cum Laude) por la Universidad de San Francisco, California. Casado con Victoria Cárdenas y padre de Victoria Isabel.

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