Ending The Electoral Monopoly

In many ways Latin America has never had it so good. Economic growth over the past four years has been the highest since the '70s. The middle class is finally growing. Poverty is finally receding, if insufficiently. Even inequality, the region's perennial scourge, is slowly waning. Moreover, representative democracy is taking hold and holding on. And perhaps most important, with the exception of Cuba, respect for human rights is spreading and deepening.

Yet two challenges endure, and they may be worsening. The first is the endless series of conflicts within and between virtually every country in the region: Chile and Peru; Chile and Bolivia; Venezuela and Colombia; Ecuador and Colombia; Colombia and Nicaragua—all are locked in rancor and disagreement. At the same time, a persistent polarization of political views plagues Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and several other nations. The second challenge is the immense, ancestral concentration of power in the Americas—the public and private monopolies in business, the labor movement, the media, the electoral arena, just about everywhere, in every country.

In both respects, a modest but symbolically significant act is a lawsuit I recently brought against the Mexican government before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica. The public hearing took place last week in San José, and the plaintiff's lawyers repeated to the court the arguments they have been making since 2004, when I attempted to run for president of Mexico as an independent candidate. Like those of many other Latin American countries, including Brazil, Mexico's electoral laws prohibit independent candidacies, make the creation of new parties virtually impossible and deny access to justice or due process to citizens whose political and electoral rights are denied.

In my suit, I claimed that these prohibitions violate several international conventions, and mainly the American Convention on Human Rights, signed in Costa Rica in the 1960s. In response, the Mexican government argued that every nation has the right to establish its own electoral laws. Further, the government argued that while citizens do not have the same standing before the country's courts that political parties do, they have some standing, and that's good enough.

The hearing was one of the most attended in the court's history, and the debate on the rule of law, human rights, democracy and international law was probably unprecedented in terms of substance and scope. The court is expected to render its judgment by mid-year, and three fundamental issues are at stake. First, whether political—and specifically electoral—rights are basic human rights that should receive the same respect and protection as the better-known ones like freedom of expression. Traditionally, Latin American courts have said they are not. In Mexico, the Supreme Court still refuses to take up political-rights issues. If the IACHR rules that these electoral rights are as important, and as "human," as the others, a giant step will have been made toward the region's acceptance of international standards on these matters, regardless of its anachronistic traditions.

The second issue involves antitrust policy. Everyone in Latin America, from the World Bank to the extreme left, agrees that the main obstacle to sustained, higher growth lies in the pervasive nature of monopoly structures. Telecommunications, banking, retail stores and myriad other industries are dominated by one or two firms in nearly every nation in the hemisphere. So are the media and the electoral arena. The same parties have monopolized electoral expression in Latin America since time immemorial. The absence of competition in this domain is as pernicious as it is in every other. A favorable ruling for the plaintiff would send a clear message: if national courts and regulatory agencies are unwilling or unable to break up or weaken monopolies, international institutions are.

Finally, the case sets a hugely emblematic precedent for Latin America. The Mexican government had never been brought to trial before the court (in one previous instance, the IACHR declared itself incompetent). So for the first time, the region's most sovereignty obsessed country, its most antiinterventionist nation, would be forced to submit some of its most sensitive matters to external jurisdiction. For nations such as Costa Rica, Uruguay, Chile and perhaps a few others, this is no big deal. Each of those nations has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to a strong international order. But for Mexico—and for nationalistic Brazil—it is. The fact that former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo accepted the binding nature of the court's rulings in 1998, that former president Vicente Fox visited the court in 2002 and pledged to support and embrace its rulings, and that current President Felipe Calderón's administration decided to plead its case formally, instead of rejecting jurisdiction, shows just how far Mexico, and Latin America, have come. There is still a long way to go, but the region is closer to where it should be than ever before. This is as good as it gets.