"We are concerned about the rise of populism based on messianic leading figures"
Antonio Garrastazu is the director of the International Republican Institute. In dialogue with LPO, he talks about the growing US concern about authoritarian leaders who come to power through voting.

Antonio Garrastazu is the Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organization that is part of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). With the main focus on strenghtening democratic governance at the international level, the IRI works with more of 110 countries and, through different programs, it seeks to deepen links between civil society and local governments. Corruption, open government, youth, gender inequalities, the role of indigenous communities and journalism are some of its priorities in the region.

Given the plurality of voices in the region, What is the relationship between the IRI and the countries you work with?

We are a non-governmental organization (NGO) independent of the US government. Our work focuses on the implementation of projects in collaboration with the Department of State, the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the NED. Of course, this means that we have an important role in American foreign policy. At IRI we work with countries that welcome us to work, from Haiti to Argentina. But we don't work exclusively with governments.

What criteria do you use to assess the quality of democracy?

Citizen participation and the flourishing of a civil society or a free press are key components for any democracy. We support these sectors even in countries where rights are not recognized. It is true that projects related to democracy or good governance are very difficult to measure, which is why we must design methodologies and indicators that qualitatively measure the change or result that is produced through our projects. From the design of the project to its closure, the implementing team and IRI's monitoring and evaluation division work hand in hand to ensure that the information collected is truthful, timely, useful, and meets the standards mandated not only the internal politics of IRI but also the United States government. Above all, we base ourselves on what our beneficiaries tell us, on their needs and priorities.

"We are concerned about the rise of populism based on messianic leading figures"

What are the main challenges for the region?

There is an increase in insecurity, which was the main issue in the Ecuadorian elections with the murder of Villavicencio; corruption, the main issue in Guatemala; the democratic deterioration in several countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, which in turn drives the growth of populism. This is very important. The IRI was born as an institute to promote democracy through elections, but we are concerned about these issues of democratic regression in the region and the rise of populism based on messianic leading figures and processes that promote faith among the citizens. New technologies and youth can also explain this.

There is an increase in insecurity in Ecuador with the murder of Villavicencio and democratic deterioration in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, which in turn drives the growth of populism. This is very important.

Do you see a new type of populism?

Phenomena like Rodolfo Hernández, the "king of TikTok" in Colombia, or Javier Milei in Argentina. It's not mere populism that is worrying, it's autocratic leadership, the lack of commitment or respect for democratic norms and institutions. Latin America has been building its democracies for many years and it has a lot of experience with authoritarianism. We are concerned about these setbacks. Not everything is bad, of course: Mexico has stable growth. Dominican Republic too. There is a light with (Bernardo) Arévalo and the Semilla Party in Guatemala. As an institute, it's up to us analyze what kind of programs we can design to see what solutions we can promote in favor of democracy. We are not going to tell countries what to do. We arrive, present what we do, ask what the needs are and design projects to solve or improve those challenges.

"Tenemos la obligación, en defensa de nuestros intereses, de parar el desmantelamiento de la democracia"

It is difficult to encompass the entire region in a single diagnosis, but given the historical link between the United States and Latin America, how does this affect relations nowadays?

Here in the United States we have our problems with democracy, but we are not trying to export our model. Many times it is about offering help in the form of technical support, connecting our partners with Latin American experiences and practices. We have to explain what the IRI is in the region, and when they see us they often focus on the R, relating us to the Republican Party. We have to explain that we are part of the NED, that we were founded in 1983 by a call from president Reagan in Westminster, where universal democratic values sought to be promoted. The NED was founded by the US Congress and named IRI and NDI to be approved by Congress. However, we are not a spokesperson for the Republican Party nor do we receive funding from them. On the contrary, we work with different political parties around the region.

How do you manage to carry out that work?

It is important to clarify that 90% of our funding comes from the United States government through competitive grants. Three days before the cross death in Ecuador, we were with representatives of the Pachakutik Party and the president, the director in charge of the party, told us: "When you came with this speech of promoting parties and democracy we thought you were related to the Republican Party, but we were grateful for your support." And indigenous center-left party that is satisfied with our work together is a success story for us. There are the realities of the field and those of the donor, and we as an institute must align them to be able to contribute to the solutions. We contribute in countries that need to strengthen democracy.

"We are concerned about the rise of populism based on messianic leading figures"

In literature, there is a tendency to define ideological distinctions not by left or right, but by democracies and autocracies. What do you think?

I agree. However, the reality is usually more complex, in the sense that there are several authoritarian countries with democratically elected leaders. El Salvador is an example. President Bukele came to power democratically. Probably, he will win the elections, but he controls the Congress, the Supreme Court, communications, the streets, he controls everything. On the other hand, a country like Cuba, complete dictatorship. And then what is happening in Guatemala, with authoritarian tendencies. And what is happening in Venezuela, with periodic but fraudulent elections. The categorization of democracies and authoritarian regimes is fundamental for us.

How does the IRI define democracy?

Having elections is a fundamental resource. We have to work with an elected government without any cheating and that respects the rules of the game. At IRI we understand that promoting democracy around the world is about empowering people on a personal level. When people can raise their voices without fear and participate in a free and fair political process, they will finally have the tools they need to build a democratic destiny in the country they call home. We determine the needs that exist in the countries we work in. First, from the United States to see the interest. Then, seen the characteristics of the countries. There are diffuse lines in El Salvador or Guatemala. In the last one, there have been fairly free elections, according to the OAS, the EU, but there are many problems. It's a hybrid democracy. We determine democracy by elections. We have different categories to see whan we can contribute with. Some countries don't welcome us, like Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua. We are unwelcome people.

We were founded in 1983, in the US Congress after a call of President Reagan. However, we are not a spokesperson for the Republican Party nor do we receive its funding. On the contrary, we work with different political parties around the region.

In the electoral system, the phenomenon of using democracy as a tool to gain votes arises. The famous "I am democracy, they are not." Does the behavior of the candidates weaken democracy?

Definitively. Milei is an example of this. There is a gap in which traditional political parties have not known how to represent the will of population. We seek to support the parties when they come to govern. We have a project, "From winning to governing" and we seek to help, in legislative matters, after the candidates win the elections. These issues of democracy have to do with the candidates' behavior, what is expected of them as elected leaders, how they will approach constituents, what control and internal democracy mechanisms the political parties they represent have, etc. Political parties cannot be separated from democracy, they have a very important role. In Latin America, we have worked with the parties and we have exchanged good practices with European parties.

"En la política de tribus, no reconocer la derrota es un mecanismo político"

Does the fact that there are American politicians who support candidates like Milei in Argentina or Kast in Chile affect you?

We have no opinion on the politics or positioning that a US congressman may have. Because of our mandate we cannot do anything in the US. It often happens that some right-wing candidates in the region see us and think that we are their partners because of our name. As an institute, we must balance the expectations of some leaders. We must explain that we are a non-governmental and non-partisan organization.

"We are concerned about the rise of populism based on messianic leading figures"

How do you see the relationship between youth and democracy in the region today?

Young people are a population segment that should not be left aside. It is essential that young people get involved, that they participate in politics, that they raise their voices, that they understand what mechanisms their country has to access public information, transparency and anti-corruption mechanisms. In fact, many of our programs at the regional level have a focus on inclusion and youth. In Chile, for example, many of the young people were not born during the dictatorship. So they don't have that comparison of the way people lived under that dictatorial regime. Many young people take it for granted and we think that we must fight to preserve and improve our democracies, it's a constant fight. In some countries they do not believe in democracies because of the corruption of all political parties. This is also why populist figures with extremely young parties emerge, in countries with a great young population.

There are several authoritarian countries with democratically elected leaders. Bukele came to power democratically in El Salvador. Probably, he will win the elections, but he controls the Congress, the Supreme Court, communications, the streets, he controls everything.

At this point where democracy, youth and corruption come together, migration also appears. How do you see this phenomenon?

In many countries, where there are no opportunities for young people, where there is corruption, insecurity, democratic governance is affected. If countries do not offer employment and opportunities, this encourages migration to the United States. In other cases, such as Venezuela, an authoritarian system is added. On this issue, we have to continue contributing, giving opportunities to women, young people, political parties, to foster hope among citizens to show them that democracy is the way out. Strengthening must be generated from the bases. In countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela, we must not only offer solutions in this matter but also define a democratic system.

La estrategia secreta del Comando Sur para contrarrestar "la maligna influencia" militar de China en Latinoamérica

Although you do not get involved in US domestic politics, there are cases like Haiti where involvement of the United States is requested. What is the role of international cooperation organizations?

We work in Haiti and it is one of the most complicated countries, in the sense that chaos rules. There is not even an elected leader. We hope that the time will come to be able to "solve" the issue of gang security and we think that Kenya's involvement will help. We promote youth to be engines of change in their communities. When the environment allows it, we will work with civil society organizations, but without government nothing can be done. First you need a government, you need an electoral system, you need stronger journalism. In Haiti elections are necessary. Order must be established so that there is structure and citizens can live a normal life. A rebuild is needed. Gangs in Haiti have generated a civil war.

"We are concerned about the rise of populism based on messianic leading figures"

How does the IRI see Latin America's relationship with China and Russia?

We are very concerned about this evil influence in the region. China has been sweeping the region. Paraguay, Belize and Guatemala recognize Taiwan. They removed Taiwan and put China as an observer in SICA, for Nicaragua. China's enormous investment in the region worries us. All the infrastructure that is invested, hospitals, bridges, schools... but everything can collapse as it has happened in the Ecuador dam. It can be seen throughout the region. Russia, on the other hand, is very involved in countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela. It's an influence that seeks to get involved in military exercises where Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are invited. In addition to infrastructure, China has cultural issues, trips to Beijing and training leaders, which the United States does not have. They have diplomats everywhere spreading their message, their narrative. There is a strong investment in any cultural issue and they have and army behind them that is difficult to compete with. The United States is slower to invest. For example, Uruguay wants a Free Trade Agreement with the United States like others, but in the face of delay, China is usually seen. Businessmen seek to negotiate with China and the aggressiveness of this country allows them to get involved quickly. Citizens, civil society organizations, and political parties must be informed so that they know what is coming behind Chinese investment. We have to ask ourselves, what does all this investment entail?

We are very concerned about the evil influence of China that has been sweeping the region. The huge investment in infrastructure, the trips to Beijing and training of leaders, the diplomats everywhere spreading their narrative. The United States does not have that and it is slower to invest.

A few days ago we were able to see a Russian contingent at the military parade on Independence Day in Mexico and the Ukrainian ambassador to Mexico said that it is a Russian regiment whose "boots and hands of war criminals are stained with blood." How do you think this affects the North American integration process?

It's an important and strong issue. Not only was Russia, but also Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. All authoritarian governments. Senator Xóchitl Gálvez said that they invited these countries, but not members of the Senate. We wonder what is happening there. Mexico is a very important partner for the United States, but having Russia in the front row is a fatal message for North American integration. The gesture of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is a stain on democracy and integration.

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Antonio Garrastazu es director del Instituto Republicano Internacional. En diálogo con LPO, habla de la creciente inquietud de Estados Unidos por los líderes autoritarios que llegan al poder a través del voto.