In a recent editorial, conservative writer Erik Erickson argued that the US government should support the "next Pinochets" in order to create more stability in Latin America and stop the flow of refugees seeking access to the United States. The remark was immediately controversial because Augusto Pinochet was a Chilean dictator who had committed massive violations of human rights.
But there is another problem with his argument: he brings the facts back exactly. Recent history and the social sciences do not show that authoritarian regimes prevent people from fleeing across borders. They show that they encourage more people to flee.
Erickson acknowledges that Pinochet was a "corrupt tyrant who ruthlessly exterminated" his own citizens. But oddly enough, he thinks a leader like this will cause more migration than less migration. In fact, Pinochet's repression and political stability during his reign forced 200,000 Chileans into exile abroad, about 2% of the Chilean population of 1973. Chilean refugees traveled to at least 110 countries and perhaps up to 140. Canada alone has accepted more than 8,000 Chilean refugees.
Indeed, Pinochet's Chile was an example of a larger phenomenon: large-scale migration is correlated with authoritarianism, war, repression and crime. A contemporary example of Latin America is Venezuela, which is today the most authoritarian country in South America.
Venezuela generates the largest flow of migrants and refugees: according to the UN, more than 3 million Venezuelans – more than 7% of its population – have left their country of origin in the last two years. Most of these migrants and refugees do not go to the US border. We therefore hear less about them, but they represent one of the largest refugee flows in the world. Venezuelans go mainly to other countries of South America. Ironically, one of them is Democratic Chile, which is now a refugee-hosting country, not a refugee-producing country as it was under Pinochet.
Venezuela illustrates another problem of an authoritarian regime: the government itself has become a corrupt criminal organization involved in the drug trade, the leading cause of crime and death in Latin America. While democratic and authoritarian regimes suffer from corruption, authoritarian regimes are more likely to be corrupt and some, like Venezuela, have become kleptocracies. According to Freedom House, the next three least democratic countries, after Venezuela and Cuba, in the region – Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua – also suffer from corruption and are a major source of migrants on the US border.
Authoritarian regimes like that of Pinochet represent another risk: the armed conflict. Around the world, war is a fundamental cause of migration. For example, the wars in Syria and Iraq have caused the largest refugee movements in recent history. Taking charge of dictators increases the risk of war. Indeed, in 1978, the Argentine military government and Pinochet almost went to war against some small islands of the Beagle Channel. The Argentine military junta has also attacked the United Kingdom in the Falkland Islands to reinforce its lack of legitimacy. These are not trusted governments, it is the least that can be said.
Of course, the main problem in Latin America today is not war, but crime. According to the recently concluded peace agreement in Colombia in 2016, Latin America is for the first time released from armed conflict, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data program. But crime, and especially drug-related crime, has risen sharply. The threat of criminal violence is clearly causing some Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States.
To attack this violence is clearly necessary. But there is little evidence that authoritarian leaders are the answer.
Erickson says a "socialist-communist resurgence threatens our borders." In fact, we can say that we have taken a right turn with the newly elected Conservative governments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Paraguay. But the problem is not socialism, communism, conservatism or any other ideology. The problem is the authoritarian of all ideological tendencies. After all, Honduras and Guatemala have right-wing governments, while Nicaragua and Venezuela have left-wing governments.
Of course, it is important to identify the right policies to reduce the number of refugees – especially in a world more interconnected by communication technologies, which allows people in poor and violent countries to seek information about the prospects for migration elsewhere. But the real history of authoritarian leaders hardly suggests that "more Pinochets" would reduce the flow of refugees and migrants.
Kathryn Sikkink is Professor of the Ryan Family at Harvard Kennedy School and Professor Carol Pforzheimer of Radcliffe Institute. She is recently the author of "Evidence for Hope: Promoting Human Rights in the 21st Century".st Century."