The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall from 1988 to ’91 spawned liberal democracies worldwide. By 2005, there were democratically-elected governments across Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Totalitarian governments were swept away in Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany; and Argentina, Brazil, Chile, South Africa and South Korea became strong democracies. Indeed, more than half the world’s population lived in democratic nations as we started the 21st century.
But democracy has been in retreat over the last decade, not the product of coups or violent overthrows. Elected governments themselves have been responsible. In Central and Eastern Europe, growing authoritarianism has seen democracy recede in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Belarus. We have had reversals in Latin America: Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. In Asia, “India is headed to be less free,” says the Economist; China’s Xi Jingping has made himself president-for-life and is eroding democratic rights in Hong Kong; in the Philippines democracy is increasingly flawed, whilst in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar freedoms remain suffocated. In Western Europe, the threat to democracy hovers with right–wing nationalism in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Denmark and Sweden. And in the United States of all places, the authoritarian Donald Trump is shamelessly attempting a coup by trying to subvert the elections which he lost by six million votes.
We must be alert in Trinidad and Tobago. Fears have arisen, the Procurement Act is rendered “gutted” and “toothless”, removing transparency in billion-dollar government contracts and disposal of public property like Petrotrin lands. The Law Association (LATT) has also had to chastise the National Security Minister for questioning the role of attorneys in recent court proceedings seeking to prevent deportation of Venezuelan migrants. LATT reminds the nation that the courts must uphold the laws, and hear and determine all applications brought before them; that attorneys are “duty-bound to represent their clients fearlessly if the law is to be followed and the State held to account”. LATT warned that constitutional fundamental rights and freedoms, especially the rights of the child, the independence of the Judiciary and the rule of law, must not be disregarded.
It is a pertinent warning. There is presently significant tension between the European Union and two members, Hungary and Poland, whose governments enacted increased executive power over the rule of law and can now “illegally detain refugees, limit civil liberties and attack the rights of women and minorities”. Such recession of democracy can happen here.
Indeed, authoritarian proclivities have surfaced in the Government. Novelist/lecturer Merle Hodge has commented on “this streak of authoritarianism, the dictatorial gene” of the ruling party where critics have been scorned as “ungrateful mongrels” and “national parasites”; and as “unimportant, uninformed, contemptible or malicious” says one senior counsel. A businessman was denigrated as “sucking from the country” and deserving of a “swift kick in the pants” and an Opposition member was also threatened with a “sh-t kicker”. And some months ago the national security minister of all persons was caught making claims to the Parliament, at odds with those by the American ambassador.
Further, in an obvious attempt to intimidate citizens, activist nationals have been labelled seditious and treasonous under the antiquated 1920 Sedition Act of the authoritarian colonial power. When questions arose about the use by policemen of camouflage-type uniforms on duty, citizens were told “No one cares” about their views, and the police were instructed to “ignore them, ignore the stupid conversations”.
We also have ongoing brutal disregard of nationals stranded abroad by Covid-19. After nine months, stories emerge of “Trini families living in airports; Trini babies drinking sugar water to survive, diabetics and cancer patients without medicine; Trinis grieving for their loved ones and Trinis begging for a lodging”. In Atlanta, some are “sleeping in pavilions and other outdoor spaces because they have run out of money to stay anywhere”. Almost every day agonised nationals plead for permission to return home. But affinity for Nicolas Maduro remains undiminished. Everybody but the brutal dictator is blamed for the disaster in Venezuela, from which millions flee their home to neighbouring nations.
Doubts also linger about our recent general election. We had no monitoring groups like in 2000, 2007, 2010 and 2015. A Newsday editorial noted the various reasons given by the Government: Caricom was unable to make up the numbers to send a 12-member observer team; Caricom had not budgeted for the cost of quarantine measures; the Commonwealth had a team but an essential “focal point” was not communicated. And most significantly, the nation was told with characteristic authoritarian style: “we do not conduct our democracy based on observers. We will conduct our elections with or without observers”. Newsday has called for “a full review of the 2020 election, addressing all complaints and constitutional issues raised”. But in this stagnating shallow democracy, that and God’s face you will never see.
Dark clouds hang in the global democratic sky. US president-elect Joe Biden wants to bring back the sunshine. Let’s hope he succeeds. We are all in trouble with democracy receding.