Latin America’s new left: dictators or democrats?

Ivan Briscoe
27 September 2006

It took five weeks of seething and haranguing in the giant campsite at the heart of Mexico City for presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador finally to break the taboo. Unable to claw back the tiny sliver of votes between himself and the eventual election winner Felipe Calderón, facing an imminent final result from Mexico's highest electoral court, the leftwing leader vented his indignation with words drawn from the stored dread of every self-respecting Latin American democrat. "We've decided to put to one side these moribund institutions that serve no purpose and push for the revolution of consciousness so that the people can decide."

"Que se vayan al diablo con sus instituciones (to hell with their institutions)," the candidate bellowed.

Obrador's plan to install a "parallel government" in the disputed aftermath of the election of 2 July 2006 reflects his determination to sustain the challenge to Calderón's legitimacy. It is hard to envisage a political outcome that reinforces trust in Mexican democracy. But in other countries of Latin America where radical leaders clamouring for greater equality and state intervention have managed to secure power though elections, the outlook for the rule of law has not been looking good.

In Bolivia, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party of Evo Morales has pressed to make the constituent assembly elected on 2 July a commanding power, the future source (poder originario) of all the country's law; his opponents from the rich, lowland east warn of plots to close congress, usurp power and re-establish rule by decree.

In Venezuela, pioneer of the contemporary leftward political trend, Hugo Chávez's travel agency appears to have no need to warn him that elections are due in December. The president's recent world tour has brought him closer to Syria, Iran, and Belarus (where he congratulated Alexander Lukashenko on his success in "neutralising" March's tentative "denim revolution"). Closer to home, Chávez was first to Fidel Castro's sickbed; and his three hours with the Cuban leader were described by Havana's state-run newspaper Granma as a time of "emotional interchange, (with) anecdotes, laughter, photos, gifts, a frugal snack."

Meanwhile, even in those nations run by what the new standard typology of Latin America applauds as a soft, market-friendly left, the health of constitutional democracy has been seriously questioned. The strongheaded rule of Néstor Kirchner in Argentina has brought a sharp fall in poverty rates (now down to 31.4%), but the president has operated through executive decree, intolerance of criticism and populist stagecraft.

In Brazil, President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva - running for a second term as president in the 1 October elections - has governed for fifteen months while surrounded by vote-buying and other bribery scandals that have implicated his three closest aides; and he is attacked by opponents for building himself an electoral fortress of 30 million votes from a variety of redistributive social programmes.

After a near-miss in Peru when ex-president Alan García was re-elected ahead of the populist Ollanta Humala, forthcoming elections in Ecuador and Nicaragua may extend the leftist wave - and the democratic questions that follow in its wake. Only Chile and Uruguay, both marginal to the region's key diplomatic circuits, can truly be said at present to be pursuing the model of gradualist European social democracy.

Many established Latin American intellectuals, having lived through resistance and dissent during the continent's cold-war dictatorships, are wringing their hands in despair. For the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa, or former Uruguayan president Julio María Sanguinetti, the new radical leaders are not so much "refounding" their nations as repackaging old dictatorial methods for a multimedia era interspersed with acclamation at the polls.

Ivan Briscoe is editor of the English edition of El País, Madrid. His outstanding commentary and analysis about Latin America and Spain on openDemocracy include:

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve"
(April 2003)

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (July 2003)

"A victory for Spain, not al–Qaida" (March 2004)

"Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (May 2004)

"The invisible majority: Venezuela after the referéndum"
(August 2004)

"All change in Venezuela's revolution? " (January 2005)

"Taking liberties: a review of Naomi Klein" (November 2004)

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (May 2005)

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America"
(October 2005)

"The summit of the Americas' free–trade farewell"
(November 2005)

"The time of the underdog: rage and race in Latin America" (December 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(February 2006)

"Fending off the iron fist: crime and the left in Latin America"
(April 2006)

In this perspective, there have been three great waves of Latin American authoritarianism: the 19th century's post-independence strongmen (including capricious butchers such as Paraguay's Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia); the mid-20th century's military rulers, inspired by national-security doctrines and the demonisation of the left after the Cuban revolution; and - today - the "third wave" represented by Morales and Chávez.

The former shunned democracy entirely, while the latter shelved altogether the need for popular consultation ("the ballots boxes are in safe keeping" proclaimed the Argentine junta of 1976); what marks the current generation (so the argument goes) is that it rules through the "tyranny of the majority", exploiting long pent-up grievances to overrun all state institutions and taint opposition with the stigma of being oligarchs, imperial lapdogs, and enemies of the poor.

This story, wholeheartedly propounded by the US military's southern command (whose chief, General Bantz J Craddock, predicts a "backwater of violent, inward-looking states") is not without its truths. At the level of rhetoric, both Morales and Chávez do specialise in bombast and confrontation. The actions of their states tend to be sudden, top-down, and geared to mass approval: take the 1 May nationalisation of Bolivia's hydrocarbons, or Chávez's blizzard of forty-nine decrees in 2001 and his incessant military build-up.

Inside the states, and despite differences of circumstance and history, new prerogatives of presidential power emerge. Some $15 billion, taken from "surplus" oil revenues and central bank reserves, are now under the control of Venezuela's development fund, Fonden - an organisation run by a president-appointed board, with decisions rubber-stamped by a parliament where all 167 seats are occupied by chavistas. "Others used them (presidential decrees) to put their hands in people's pockets," Kirchner recently explained of his own ruling habits in Argentina. "I use them to fill pensioners' pockets and protect people."

As the various legs and arms of public power become occupied - first the executive and parliament, then the courts, the civil service, the armed and security forces, state-run companies, and finally the press and provinces (which not even Chávez has yet achieved) - the mística of power intensifies. The Venezuelan leader, according to his brilliant ex-guerrilla opponent Teodoro Petkoff, exerts a "magical-religious" thrall; López Obrador, though he will have to wait, is denounced for "messianic" tendencies; Morales received his ceremonial vestments of the Great Condor at Tiwanaku a day before his presidential sash.

"There is a classic and well-known fear of freedom, an insidious and pernicious feeling," writes Chilean author Jorge Edwards, with urbane disillusion, of the continent's penchant for "Napoleon's imitators."

A question of land

The criticisms are valid, but in themselves they hardly amount to the dawn of leftwing tyranny. In all cases, barring Cuba, the opposition is alive and vociferous, the ballot secret, the press free, and the courts still function; there is definitely no sign that prison cells are receiving political inmates. Yet the sense of imminent institutional shutdown is undeniably strong.

Middle and upper classes in Bolivia and Venezuela look to Havana with grave foreboding, uncertain what the much-vaunted Chávez-Morales-Castro "axis of good" might entail. They find swaggering populism tolerable, even normal: it is and always has been the default mode of the right across the region. But a state that extends its purported revolutionary mission into a country's most ingrained institution - private property - is quite another thing.

The extent to which the fears of Latin America's wealthier social strata, the denunciations of encroaching dictatorship, and the attempts to reorder a nation's ownership structure are strapped together should never be underestimated. Time and again, the region's societies have tolerated far-reaching reform, only to snap into warring factions when the issue of land deeds is broached. The seed of Chile's coup in September 1973 can largely be found in fears of a property revolution that had in fact been initiated in the 1960s, under a reforming Christian Democratic government. And as a recent, unofficial biography of Chávez makes clear, the item in the waterfall of Bolivarian legislation in 2001 "that provoked the greatest agitation" concerned legal controls over land and agrarian development; Chávez termed it "hot stuff"' and said "I worked on it myself."

The raw neurosis that the lexicon of land reform produces - the word "expropriation" has similar connotations to violent mugging in Latin America - stems from firm historical roots. Shaped by an invasive, colonial rule, the region's economies generated centuries of fine living for some, married to low-paid extraction and harvest for the rest. Ownership, in other words, bequeathed wealth and status; it defined social identity in a profoundly conservative fashion, sapping the continent of the less fecund north's capacity for market innovation, mobility, and industrial investment.

When attempts are made to rewrite the underlying property structure, the margin for democratic compromise appears minimal: those who gain do so at the expense of someone else's loss. This is, more than anything, a zero-sum game.

Bolivia is now living the early stages of this conflict. Some thirty-five million acres, say government officials, are to be distributed to 2.5 million people, or 28% of the population, by 2011; this in a country where, according to the Catholic church, 50,000 families own 90% of the land. "The historical enemies of the poor must accept this land revolution," declared Morales in June. According to his vice-president and strategic mastermind, Álvaro García Linera, the eventual goal is a three-tiered "Andean capitalism": modern industry (initially gas production), urban trade, and traditional farming.

Already the countryside has witnessed shootouts and deaths. The strident opposition in the eastern Santa Cruz lowlands has spawned a protest network (Nación Camba). It boasts vigilante, racist tendencies and an agenda of halting land reform, as well as a civic leader, Germán Antelo, who excoriates the government for "authoritarian fascism", and for its "manuals of subversion written in foreign lands." It is no coincidence that the lion's share of the land destined for redistribution - on the basis of laws passed in 1953 and 1996, albeit to little effect - should lie in the fertile east.

It may be predictable, but there is still something unsettling in the way Bolivia's great popular awakening, that of Morales's landslide election in December 2005, should have so soon produced a stand-off threatening the very foundations of democracy. "In this tug of war, democracy keeps going only as a precarious balance between demands for social change and the interests that resist it," explains Ana María Romero de Campero, who heads the Unir-Bolivia foundation, devoted to the unenviable task of pacifying the country. The conflicts, she says, are still building up, "exacerbated by one side, then another."

Other countries in the left-leaning quadrant, where urban population densities are much higher, have not suffered the same extreme polarisation through agrarian reform. But the propertied still shiver with anxiety at the morning news: a tremendous row is brewing within chavista ranks - oxymoronic as that may seem to some - over decrees to expropriate ninety-five supposedly underused properties in Caracas, two of them golf courses. Luis D'Elía, former piquetero (picketer) leader in Argentina and now a government housing official, has likewise lobbied for a more radical treatment of land, particularly the tracts in hands of foreigners - starting with 300,000 hectares belonging to United States businessman Douglas Tompkins.

In these countries, however, a rather different form of redistribution provides a greater cause for alarm. Violent crime is not government policy, but the terror it generates, and its sharp recent rise - Latin American accounted for 75% of all the world's kidnappings in 2003 - would seem to express in a diffuse way the abandonment felt by the wealthy, and the vengeance that society is preparing for them.

Where governments should exert firm control, there now appear territories run by sub-states forged in prisons (as in Brazil's Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command / PCC), or armed gang networks camped out in the hearts of cities. It is not difficult to imagine the panic felt by the Portuguese business community in Venezuela when, for several weeks in 2006, a list of their names and addresses were sold first at street-stalls, before then being posted on the internet.

All power to the informal

A populist leftwing drift is neither novel nor particularly threatening: Brazil under Getulio Vargas, Argentina under Perón, Bolivia from 1952, Peru from 1968 - all provided less democratic and constitutional varieties of the very same phenomenon. But this new political climate is marked by Cuban guidance, institutional fragility, and a bellicose rhetoric of them-and-us; for many, it seems in word and deed to be heading to a democratic dead-end and an overarching state. Were Hugo Chávez to lose in December, would he really give up power?

Radical intellectuals respond with a familiar, yet powerful argument. Drawing on the great theorists of Latin American revolution, the Cuban José Martí and the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, they stress the primacy of social rights, derived from the moral urgency of combating extreme poverty. Fidel Castro still draws on huge sympathy across the continent for this very reason; his government counterpoises its extraordinary aid of 2,600 medics to Pakistan after the earthquake in October 2005, its eye-surgery for 6 million poor people across the continent, with the export of war by Washington in the name of freedom.

"Democracy is under threat in Latin America, but not in Bolivia and Venezuela," argues Atilio Borón, a prominent Argentine sociologist. "The great problems are to be found in countries where governments are failing to rule in line with the expectations of the electorate, causing a very serious corrosion of legitimacy."

Were social welfare and the full quota of civic and political rights incompatible, then it might be right to choose the former. But from the developed west, this trade-off sounds suspect: surely a formula in which the two feature, as they did in post-1975 Spain, would be preferable. Surely political movements and parties can reach an accommodating pact to serve the common good while also blocking authoritarian takeovers.

The blueprint for best-practice democracy, however, must at some stage face up to the domestic particularities of Latin America. Spain's parties of right and left struck a constitutional deal that has brought thirty years of growth and alternation in power. Colombia in 1957 and Venezuela in 1958 witnessed very similar left-right pacts, whose signatories pledged growth, civil rights and social justice - only for Colombia to be consumed by over four decades of fratricidal conflict, and Venezuela to seize up in 1998, victim of rampant corruption and a hobbling, hapless state. "We do not know what sort of country we want to be, nor how we want to be it, nor how we can be it," reads the confession of Ramón Escovar Salom, an interior minister in the last pre-Chávez government.

Those political parties which might steer a moderate course towards reform, meanwhile, have vanished from sight in the countries that would most appear to need them. The new movements - the Bolivarian cause in Venezuela, Bolivia's MAS - rose in the twilight of party systems, staking out constituencies at extreme speed through a febrile grassroots and a national media presence. And in no way do they resemble the parties they superseded: locating stable membership, manifestos and conventions is a fruitless quest. MAS is a focal-point of dozens of different social sectors and radical causes, which it does not altogether control. Chávez, meanwhile, is at the pinnacle of a bewildering array of groups and neighbourhood committees, first engendered by his propaganda trips across Venezuela in a Toyota Samurai after his release from jail in 1994.

If there is any glue in these huge and powerful movements, it is a certain defining social experience. These are the quintessential products of 1990s Latin America, where the state pulled back, poverty rose, mass media spread, and formal contractual employment withered. Indeed it is the people subsisting in black market employment, accounting for 47% of all the region's urban jobs in 2003 - rising to 66.7% in Bolivia, the highest rate on the continent - who are the bedrock of this political transformation.

Apart from limited labour laws, their lives are virtually without a safety net - and 75% of Latin Americans are afraid they will lose their job. The state has done nothing for them. Their homes are built, not bought: a United Nations study in 2000 found that 50% of homes in Caracas were constructed unofficially. Their hopes of social advancement are virtually nil.

Argentine author Tomás Eloy Martínez memorably reported the case of one man from Berazategui in Greater Buenos Aires, who encapsulates just such a struggle with shift work, penury and constraint: a factory hand who on losing his watch, and unable to pay for a new one, regularly gets up to walk to the bus station during the night so he can ask for the time, and thus not be late to start his job at 6am.

It is no surprise that voters such as these demand sweeping change. Nor is it remarkable that coarse nationalism and primetime TV proclamations are the political response. Their plea - echoed in multiple Latinobarómetro surveys from across the continent - is for effective, accessible government. Their leaders' venom against the oligarchy or petrolatifundismo (oil and estate ownership) or the empire strikes a popular chord, and soothes high expectations.

But this impatience and battle-readiness is leavened with far more pragmatic demands, complicating the prognosis for imminent authoritarianism. Ideology is fuzzy and volatile: having spent five years in jail for training a revolutionary militia in the 1990s, García Linera now appears to be Bolivia's chief pacifier of the opposition and foreign investors. There is certainly no systematic revolutionary plan, nor state structure able to pull one off, nor a cold-war power willing to sponsor such a transformation.

Just as significantly, the popular social demands are material - for food, health and education. Any threat to the future provision of these goods would quickly sap the leaders of authority. Chávez, for instance, may have built up a massive war chest of discretionary funds, but focus-group work by the Hinterlaces agency in Caracas in 2004 noted just how willing his supporters in that year's referendum would be to change sides should he not deliver on his promises. Inside the regimes, crude and boisterous democracy is in fact the normal working practice. Frequent governmental chaos in Bolivia, particularly involving the nationalisation of gas fields, is a faithful reflection of the clamour of so many powerful social groups, with their front line in the shanty towns of El Alto.

Even if this would seem to entail a tyranny by the poor majority and the construction of huge constituencies fed by political patronage, there are sounds reasons to expect that issues such as crime, economic stability and growth - on which a future opposition might thrive - will gain greater popular leverage. For just as free trade's creative destruction promises in the long-run to make rich workers out of the world's labouring poor, so these governments are hoping to turn the marginalised into an aspiring bourgeoisie, a boli-burguesía.

Horizontal movements, driven by vocal material demands, are not harbingers of dictatorship. Extreme polarisation, however, has fostered a climate in which violent action, curbs on independent institutions, electoral boycotts and vigilante groups may flourish. It is easy to lament or condemn the clumsy aggression of a populist regime; but much harder to accept that it emerges from a process of political and governmental decomposition that has left millions to survive without support, and to give their votes to the promise of instant remedies.

Wise diplomacy and the counsel of neighbouring moderate governments, especially once the Brazilian election campaign is over, should serve to allay many of these tensions. Yet all concerned, inside and outside, should remember that these new leaders are not dangerous and disposable puppets, but the products of history, pouring from groundswells in their societies. Cuba's Josè Martí said it well: Injértense en nuestras repúblicas el mundo; pero el tronco ha de ser de nuestras repúblicas ("Let the world form part of our republics; but the foundation has to be of our republics").

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