The State of Latin America

If 2020 has taught us anything about Latin America, it’s that it cannot easily shake off the fetters of its history. Despite all attempts to the contrary, it is a continent that remains firmly ensconced within the parameters of its past. Whether it’s the growing spectre of authoritarianism, staggering levels of inequality, assaults on the dignity of indigenous people, or demonstrations against inept leaders, the patterns that have defined this year are mere shadows of long, sweeping historical processes that have accompanied Latin America since the very beginning. Lockdowns managed to briefly quell the roaring fires that swept across Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia during the previous year, but this always was to be an ephemeral phenomenon. As this year progressed, these fires roared back to life. The question now is: what is the state of Latin America? And what happens next?

History’s presence is perhaps no more strongly felt than in Peru and Chile, who spent this year struggling to come to terms with their authoritarian past. Both countries spent years under the grip of despotic leaders – with Alberto Fujimori ruling Peru between 1990 and 2000 and Augusto Pinochet ruling Chile between 1973 and 1990. Both leaders produced new constitutions – granting more power to the President and, in the case of Chile, enshrining a doctrine of free-markets and privatization. The consequence has been an utter hollowing out of democracy and escalating cronyism in both nations. Last year, acquiescence turned to revolt in Chile, with massive protests rocking the country and a chorus of voices demanding economic justice. Sparked initially by a rise in transportation fees, demonstrations escalated quickly from secondary school students evading metro fares in Santiago to confrontations with the Chilean army and what some have described as the worst civil unrest since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Demands for better wages, welfare reforms, a new government and a new constitution continued into 2020. Seeing no other choice, President Piñera yielded to the masses and agreed to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. Two months ago, that referendum passed. Chileans are now waiting for April to arrive, where another vote will take place, allowing citizens to select the drafters of the new constitution. An air of optimism has finally descended on the coastal country, coming as a relief after decades of ineffectual governance and rising inequality. 

Although Peru faces its unique challenges, deep parallels can still be drawn between Lima and Santiago. The spirit of Fujimori looms large in Peru, who curtailed the independence of the judiciary, breached the law, and set a precedent for corruption in the country during his rule in the 1990s. Today, nearly 70 of the 130 members of Congress are under investigation for bribery, money laundering, and other criminal activity. It was in response to this scandalous set of affairs that Martin Vizcarra defined his Presidency when he assumed power in 2018, promising to act within the law and stamp out the corruption that was so endemic in Peru. Although impeded at every turn, Vizcarra managed to make good on some of his promises, and for this he remained popular among Peruvian citizens (indeed his approval rating remained high even during the worst months of the pandemic – which struck Peru with especial voracity). But this all changed last month. President Martin Vizcarra was ousted as President by Peru’s Congress, in an impeachment vote that accused the President of corruption and mishandling of the pandemic. Although Vizcarra immediately resigned, outsiders saw the situation for what it was: a flagrant power grab that amounted to nothing short of a congressional coup. Like the action of fare-evading in Chile last year, this move lit a spark. Several cities burst into protests, with Peruvians targeting their anger at corruption in the country. It quickly became the largest set of demonstrations the nation had seen in over two decades. Although Vizcarra’s replacement, the much-loathed far-right Manuel Merino, has resigned – this does little to combat the institutional problems plaguing the country. The situation is still unstable, and it will be for the foreseeable future. This is exacerbated by an absence of stable political parties in the country. In every Presidential election since 2001, the winner belonged to a party that either did not exist or was marginal. Parties often change names, change identities or dissolve altogether. This often leaves politicians campaigning on what they are against (usually the previous administration) as opposed to what they are for. It also leaves voters bewildered and, ultimately, disenchanted with the political process. One can hope that Peruvians will use their momentous wave of anger and objection to support a new, more rejuvenated political system for Peru, one that engenders a new constitution, an end to corruption, and contends with inequality and poverty. 

The legacy of despotism also informs much of Brazilian politics today. Bolsonaro’s success emerged from a harkening back to Brazil’s era of military rule – which he describes with halcyon language as a time of law and order. In a nation as rife with violence as Brazil, this message was convincing. But, contrary to the opinion of many, Bolsonaro did not overthrow democracy. Although he speaks like an old school proto-fascist from the 20th century (frequently conjuring the phantom of communism as an existential enemy), he has largely remained hemmed in by Brazil’s democratic institutions. However, this is little consolation, as Bolsonaro’s real nefariousness arises from the subtle, day to day function of governing; from the slow erosion of environmental regulation, to the creeping encroachment on indigenous sovereignty. Most notably, he has completely failed at dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to innumerable deaths across the vast country. Recent municipal elections appeared to provide a sharp rejoinder to his leadership – with Bolsonaro’s candidates facing major setbacks, and Brazil’s so-called “Big Centre” seeing considerable gains (which, despite their misleading moniker, is a loose coalition of conservative forces). Yet all is not what it seems. Municipal and federal elections are two different species, and President Bolsonaro’s approval rating is currently the highest it’s been since he first took office. Indeed, he is so popular that over 70 election candidates registered their nicknames as “Bolsonaro” on municipal ballots. Why is this? The answer is simple: money talks. His emergency relief program comes as a substantial form of aid to poorer Brazilians. This, of course, is a contrast to Bolsonaro’s typical economic agenda, which has long been dogmatically free-market in its orientation (it’s important to recognize that Bolsonaro originally wanted emergency aid to be 1/3 of what it was, only being pushed to increase the amount by Congress). If Bolsonaro continues to earn support from the poor and working class, which he is likely to do with his upcoming “Citizens Income” initiative to disperse further emergency funds,  it is entirely possible he could win the 2022 general election. 

Brazil is an exception, in that it is one of a very few countries in the region with a popular right-wing government. Chile’s leader is embattled from years of protests, and likely to lose his next election. Argentina’s right-wing government was voted out last year for fomenting poverty and inequality. Then there is the case of Ecuador, Colombia and Guatemala, all three of whom share right-wing leaders who have had to face immense surges of opposition to their rule. We can begin with Ecuador, which is a somewhat odd case given that it’s leader Lenín Moreno ran as a left-wing candidate and was a disciple of the popular leftist leader Rafael Correa. President Moreno’s decisive neoliberal turn came as a betrayal to those who voted him into power, and by 2019, fostered enormous protests and riots against his decision to cancel fuel subsidies, along with a litany of other austerity measures. Like in Chile, outrage culminated in something tangible: the measures were reversed. Things have since calmed in the country. How long this relative tranquility will remain undisturbed is another question. Given that President Moreno recently approved a $6.5 billion IMF loan, one can only wonder how much time will pass before a new round of austerity is implemented and protestors re-emerge. The fact that he has recently announced his intention to postpone elections will only exacerbate the chances of a revolt.

Like Ecuador, neighbouring Colombia’s streets were teeming with demonstrators in 2019. The basis for these protests was more amorphous than in Ecuador, with voices being raised against a whole host of issues from income inequality, to police brutality, to corruption. Nonetheless, what buoyed the mass demonstrations was a general sentiment of dissatisfaction with President Ivan Duque, who saw his approval ratings plummet. Like in Ecuador, neoliberal economic reforms had a large part to play in this. But that is merely scratching the surface. What has defined President Duque’s tenure has been increased violence towards unarmed civilians, ex-guerrilla fighters, union leaders, and community activists. 261 indigenous leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in 2020 alone. The trend is disturbing but hardly foreign to the people of Colombia, who suffered through the infamous “false positives” scandal – where the military lured poor or disabled civilians into remote parts of the country, murdered them, and dressed them up as guerrilla fighters to increase the body count against the FARC and ELN. Recent estimates claim the number of victims to be nearly 10,000. To mitigate further violence, President Duque must respect the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC and ensure that the government maintains its commitments under the peace deal – especially with regards to protecting ex-rebels from violence. His decision to engage in talks with ex-FARC leaders last month is an encouraging sign, but much has to be done to move forward towards peace.

Finally, there is the small nation of Guatemala, who elected the right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei in January of this year. Only a few months into his term, he already confronts a major national crisis. After the passing of a controversial budget, which favoured private interests at the expense of aid to the impoverished, citizens took to the streets in opposition. Poverty is incredibly high in Guatemala, and has only been augmented by the arrival of Covid-19. The passing of a budget that cuts funding for healthcare and education thus appears tone-deaf to the needs of Guatemalans. Indeed, tension fulminated in the capital last month when protestors set fire to the congressional building. The Vice-President has since called on Giammattei to resign. As the nation heads into 2021, it will certainly be plagued by a familiar uncertainty that trails the whole continent. 

But there are glimmers of hope. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, in an effort to revitalize his base, has begun enacting a range of progressive policies – including the expansion of access to medical marijuana and a wealth tax. A bill that would allow women to receive abortions until 14 weeks is also on the table, accompanied by a welfare program supporting pregnant women and young mothers. In Mexico, President Lopez Obrador, although fumbling his Covid-19 response, introduced a bill to provide free healthcare to tens of millions of Mexicans, and managed to depart from almost a century of PRI party rule (which the author Mario Vargas Llosa notably called ‘the perfect dictatorship’). In Bolivia too, there is cause for celebration. After being ousted in what could only be described as a coup in 2019, the MAS party emerged victorious this year, winning the much-delayed election do-over, and putting an end to a year of instability and human rights violations perpetrated by the Añez administration. Finally, even Venezuela exhibits promise for the next year, as upcoming elections are purported to be competitive and feature 14,000 candidates from 107 political organizations (98 of which are identified as opposition parties).

Where is Latin America headed? For one, we will continue to see tension mounting across the region as egregious levels of inequality and poverty remain stubbornly entrenched in their place. The economic situation looked promising at the dawn of the century, thanks to a commodity boom and leaders like Lula de Silva, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa allocating financial benefits across all stratas of society – drastically lowering inequality and poverty. But the situation has changed, and leaders have failed to adapt to them. Policies that continue to ignore the poor will continue to elicit protests and riots. In fact, the current situation largely resembles what the continent endured during its era of “economic restructuring” in the 1980s and 90s, when governments fell into debt and implemented harsh austerity to dig their way out, inspiring large waves of protests in response. To restore stability, governments must restore the economy.

The other worrying trend is a steady deterioration of democracy, something that is inherently fragile to begin with. The continent has long been ruled by strongmen and wealthy landowning families. In the 20th century, nearly every attempt at forging a democracy was strangled in its crib (in which the U.S. played a decisive role). Exacerbating this is a deeply rooted corruption of the political sphere, something that has been inherited from its colonial history. The only way to avoid military rule and despotic leaders is to replenish the public arena of politics. Citizens must feel like they are indeed citizens, and have a role in guiding the political process. A dejected populace is more likely to accept a shuttering of democracy, bedevilled by indifference. On the other hand, when citizens feel like they have a stake in the system, they are more likely to engage in politics and society at large. But this cannot occur with a series of top-down technocratic tweaks, through simple electoral reforms or anti-corruption policy endeavours. To bind the masses back to politics, to suffuse their lives with meaning, to grant them a place in society, means providing them with a life of economic wellbeing. It was Aristotle who said “When there is no middle class, and the poor greatly exceed in number, troubles arise, and the state soon comes to an end.” Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world. If its leaders cannot reckon with this reality, then can hardly be surprised when anger and violence permeate the streets, and when democracy slips into obscurity.

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