Latin America’s dynamic: politics after charisma

Ivan Briscoe
5 March 2008

One image has stood like a rebuke to the supernatural powers of Latin America's new presidential elite. Ingrid Betancourt, her face punched by despair, stares down at the wet jungle floor; her lifeline from the land of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a battery radio, no longer works properly. Next year will mark her sixth anniversary as a hostage in the tropics.

Ivan Briscoe is senior researcher at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), Madrid. He was previously editor of the English edition of El PaísBuenos Aires Herald, the UNESCO Courier

His previous articles for openDemocracy

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003)

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (30 July 2003)

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (25 May 2005)

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America" (18 October 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow" (10 February 2006)

"Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007)

"Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)

"Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007) newspaper in Madrid and also worked for the and in the field of development research include these analyses of Latin American political trends:

Leaders of national revolutions and state-building crusades have elbowed each other for the chance of leading her out of the forest. Hugo Chávez met and cajoled the Farc's emissary, only to be cut short by an aggrieved Álvaro Uribe. The Colombian president promised his utter dedication and a patch of uninhabited earth on which to negotiate. Nicolas Sarkozy, fresh out of a mission to the courts of Chad, sent the rebel leader a stern video message. Even the new Argentine president, Cristina Kirchner, spent her first day in office discussing how she might best intervene.

No one, however, has got anywhere. The political and psychological dynamic of the Colombian rebels' jungle rearguard seems oblivious to the products of Latin America's general will. Elected and re-elected, hailed for their skin colours and their thirst for social redress or a firm hand, these media-enhanced leaders nevertheless seem to be butting against a stone-cold reality: be it Betancourt, the Gini coefficient, or the popular liking for food on supermarket shelves.

He's not the messiah

It is now two years since the electoral cycle confirmed the continent's shift to the left (and reaffirmed rightwing populism in Colombia). The charmed, epoch-changing life of these leaders, however, is showing signs of drawing to the end, while the strength and legitimacy on which they traded has momentarily vaporised. In December 2005, the electoral victory of Evo Morales of Bolivia sent shudders through a continent acclimatised to indigenous submission; on 9 December 2007 the new constitution was approved by an assembly that had been chased from its home and tucked away in the freezing hall of Oruro's Technical University, 3,700 metres above sea level.

Despite the great differences in national contexts, a common denominator can be found - not so much in public disillusionment with these radical leaders, for they are all still highly popular, but a sense that their electoral landslides may not have earned them the transformational powers that their self-image would suggest.

The result, as seen in Venezuela, is a brutally rapid shrinkage of presidential confidence. Here, for instance, we find Hugo Chávez allegedly attacking the furniture in his office after the result of the referendum on 2 December 2007 (so says the local media), before telling reporters days after the vote that he, a voice in the wilderness, would remain forever a revolutionary, even if he were to "end up with four real revolutionaries" for company.

Three months earlier, however, the national assembly and the radio and television stations of the land witnessed a very different version, a man so in harmony with public opinion than he could, should he wish, create floating islands off the Caribbean coast, amongst other feats of "new man". Never, in fact, had Chávez been so messianic as in his six-hour speech to parliament on 15 August 2007 to present thirty-three constitutional amendments.

"President Chávez: I find it difficult, and I'll tell you so, that today, with all respect to all the countries on this planet, I find it difficult to think that there is, in any country on this planet, a democracy as alive and as deep as that which we're living through in Venezuela. I find it difficult.

Audience [applause]

President Chávez: Long live the sovereign people!

Audience: Long live!"

A landscape with rocks

Among many articles by openDemocracy

Sergio Ramírez, "Nicaragua: through the abyss" (3 September 2007)

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina's new president: Kirchner after Kirchner" (29 October 2007)

Arthur Ituassu, "Tropa de Elite: Brazil's dark sensation" (2 November 2007)

Justin Vogler, "King Juan Carlos vs President Hugo" (13 November 2007)

Stephanie Blankenburg, "Venezuela: a complicated referendum" (4 December 2007)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, The global drug war: beyond prohibition (4 December 2007)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's controversial constitution" (10 December 2007)

Ana Caistor-Arendar, "Cristina Kirchner's moment" (14 December 2007)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "From Soweto to the Amazon" (17 December 2007) writers analysing another tumultuous year in Latin American politics:

But a trapdoor has started to appear on these leaders' platforms, a sense that the gathering of people's souls, concentrated in the leadership of one individual or vanguard, may dissipate as quickly as the media, the street and election campaigns put it together. It is a sense of fragility concealed within an armour of strength - and Chávez is only the most extreme victim. Three days after assuming power, President Cristina Kirchner was fingered by a Miami court as the end-point of $800,000 dollars from Venezuela, allegedly destined for her winning campaign. Morales's team has plotted a fifty-year regime; the battle is now on ahead of the 2008 referenda to stop 40% of the country's economy in the four lowland provinces from running away.

Contrary to the reiterations of the western media, these are not complacent dictators such as Cuban author Alejo Carpentier's First Magistrate (in El Recurso del método), the imaginary head of a central American republic who pays visits from Paris to terrorise his subjects, or blithely confident military rulers like Augusto Pinochet, inviting the Chileans to ratify his rule in 1988. Electoral success and social bases are a burden, constantly to be fed and protected. Where the government is drawn from broad civic movements, as in Bolivia, the tug-of-war between "socialisation, monopolisation, concentration and democratisation" (in the words of vice-president Álvaro García Linera) is the daily bread of relations between state and society.

The objectives these leaders have pledged to deliver - redistributing wealth, rebuilding the state - are not shaping up to be simple targets either. Though the statistics are confused, and often massaged, the evidence suggests there has been no change in inequality in Venezuela or Argentina. Brazil's narrowing of the gap can be spotted under a magnifying glass. Public-sector corruption and mismanagement remain notorious in all three countries.

For Heinz Dieterich, a radical Marxist and author of a compelling account of Chávez's electoral failure, the only regimes to have really changed power structures in Latin America were "revolutionary dictatorships": Cuba under Fidel Castro, Paraguay under Gaspar Francía (1813-1840) - not the fluffy, love-bombing populisms of today. The risk now is that weakened regimes with brittle economies will face a multifaceted "oligarchic-imperial counter-offensive", due to begin in 2008, and rolling over Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela by 2010.

His sombre assessment, widely read and commented in leftwing circles over recent weeks, points to part of these governments' worries. The crisis in Bolivia undoubtedly derives from the backlash of an agribusiness elite previously favoured by the central government, while Ecuador's constituent assembly could likewise be besieged by the old economic and parliamentary elite. Yet this does not mean that a concerted, coordinated neo-liberal attack-wave is about to sweep over the hemisphere. Chávez has been weakened, and inflation in Venezuela could escalate in 2008 as price controls on scarce basic goods are scrapped; but it would an act of monumental political stupidity for anything resembling the oligarchy to challenge the president to another street battle.

It's too late to stop now

In any case, Venezuela's old elite and its new regime have already overlapped and started to intermarry. And during the Ibero-American summit in Santiago on 8-10 November 2007, it was curious to note that the diatribe against imperial economic intrusion which caused King Juan Carlos to storm out was that of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, an active member of his country's economic elite, and a supporter ("against my principles") of the country's various structural-adjustment packages.

The fundamental root of regime brittleness is well-documented. New political movements have since 1998 occupied the spaces left by mismanaged and destructive neo-liberal reforms. They have co-opted protesters, harangued the old guard and bypassed institutions; they have hugged the media close, but refused close questioning. To borrow from cultural theorist Paul Virilio, they have replaced the hypocrisies of late 20th century political representation with "pure and simple presentation".

Their goals are epic in size, at the same time as being earthy, tender, to the heart. But the institutions they have inherited are a drag on organised structural reform, while the homely emotions they project in speech after speech translate into the expectations of rapid material results. Far from a kind of mystic union, they are in fact the creatures of the discriminating judgment of a wary public. Cristina Kirchner, a perceptive observer, knows it well: as she told an audience in 2006 that the Soviet Union was not defeated by the United States, but by the desire to consume.

Nor is this union to be found in a great national endeavour. The overture of all these "revolutions" has been inclusion, but as they seep across power their coherence falls apart and their schisms start to emerge, spanning self-serving politicians and bureaucrats, regional strongmen, Marxist radicals, organised criminals and the demands of the electoral base. These last, in turn, are reached by the transnational feelers of consumer culture. Chávez's slogan for swing voters in the December 2007 referendum was an inspired, almost comical effort to match this very individualistic shopper with his state-socialist project: "I want you to be the centre of power."

The surge of the left appears to be giving way to a new, extraordinarily unpredictable era, with ideological definition and leadership charisma snarled up in a messy round of conversations and pact-making, of freeing up prices, building new party cadres, and making deals with the standing powers of money, the military, and the old political elite. The aim is to entrench a new order and maintain peace. Yet the heroics must somehow soldier on; disenchantment would mean political collapse, social peace could spell indifference. There are many trips to the jungle to make, and many Betancourts with tragedies to relate: "Here nothing is mine, nothing lasts, uncertainty and precariousness are the only constants."

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