• Show Notes

Dear Reader,

I spent this last weekend in Miami, attending a Latin American legal conference sponsored by Yale Law School, my alma mater. The purpose of the conference is to bring together legal scholars from the region to discuss legal issues facing their respective countries. Although the meeting has always taken place in a different Latin American or Caribbean country every year, the change of venue to the U.S. this year was apropos: One of the features of the conference is that the “host” country holds a panel on the state of democracy at home. Needless to say, the 2024 election was of great interest to everyone. I was there to offer my thoughts on this topic, along with an NPR journalist based in Miami and a lawyer from the Brennan Center. The discussion highlighted the striking juxtaposition of Latin America’s history against the precariousness of American democracy today.

Let me explain. As you might know, Latin America is no stranger to democratic challenges. The region’s history has been marked by political instability, violence, and in many countries, dictatorships. Two countries that I both studied and lived in exemplify these democratic hurdles. One is Chile, which endured a seventeen-year dictatorship following a military coup in 1973 led by General Augusto Pinochet (with assistance from the U.S., which believed Pinochet was preferable to the recently-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende). Pinochet’s rule was marked by severe human rights abuses – we’re talking activists, professors, artists, and lawyers rounded up and shot in soccer stadiums, “disappeared” in the middle of the night, or thrown out of helicopters – as well as a takeover of the judiciary and media by his regime. Pinochet stepped down in 1990 after losing a referendum on his rule but remained the Commander in Chief of the Chilean Armed forces and became a senator for life (with an immunity from prosecution that Trump would envy) when he retired from the military in 1998.

The other country I know well is Colombia, where I spent a year in the late 90s (so Season 3 of Narcos, in case you watched it). There, Pablo Escobar wreaked havoc on the political and judicial system, using his wealth and power to terrorize anyone who tried to hold him accountable – particularly anyone who supported the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. Escobar’s mantra was plata o plomo – silver or lead. Hundreds of judges and prosecutors were murdered for making the wrong choice. The violence got so bad that Colombia created jueces sin rostros – “judges without faces” – who would adjudicate cases behind one-way mirrors and using voice-distorting microphones so they couldn’t be identified. During his reign of terror, Escobar assassinated the Colombian attorney general and a presidential candidate, blew up a commercial jetliner carrying 107 passengers, and coordinated an attack on the Colombian Supreme Court which killed eleven justices. Escobar was shot and killed in his pajamas on a rooftop in 1993.