Curtain Raiser

Latin America Steps Backwards, Colltalers

The presidential election in Peru, whose first round failed to produce a winner yesterday and is heading to a June runoff, may be placed within the context of a reversal to a model of conservative government policies that’s happening all over Latin America.
Keiko Fujimori, daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, in prison for corruption and crimes against humanity, couldn’t beat Wall Street investor Pedro Kuczynski and congresswoman Veronika Mendonza, but still has a shot at winning it all.
Violent protests have erupted against a possible return of a Fujimori to power, showing that promises not to pardon her dad were not convincing to many of Peru’s 30 million population. But her very ascent to a contender position seems part of larger ideological counter-wave in the continent, seeking to dial down the social policies that have dominated its politics in the past decade.
Brazil’s democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla imprisoned by the 1960s military dictatorship, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, a left-of-center populist, and Bolivia’s first indigenous president Evo Morales, to name three governments elected on an agenda of social promotion, are facing powerful forces seeking to oust them.
Rumors of a coup, which are now back in full against Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa too, are of course eerily familiar to the continent as a whole, and we’re not talking about 40 years ago. They effectively announced the ousting of Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya in 2009, and forced, through a parliamentary maneuver, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo to step down, in 2012.
But this wave of conservative thinking threatening to disrupt Latin America’s slow return to democracy, masks crucial

particularities and the incredible diversity of the region, as exemplified by what’s happening in its three other powerhouses.
Take Argentina, whose new center-right president, Mauricio Macri, has already been caught in the scandal of offshore accounts known as the Panama Papers. His two predecessors, husband and wife Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, could never be called left wingers. They benefited from the favorable environment but theirs was mostly an old fashioned populist ruling brand.
For the Kirchners, old, archaic Argentine power currents, such as the Peronism, informed and gave background to much of their policies. No wonder money laundering charges now being leveled at Cristina do resemble the old tenor of Latin American politics.
In Chile, where another former exiled, Michelle Bachelet, was elected president for the second time, in 2014, the opposition has hardly anything to use against her, except for a shady land deal worked on by her son. Not enough for the rumor mill, we’re told.
On the contrary, under her presidency, Chile has worked hard to bring its terrifying past to light, and its perpetrators to justice, even if not fast enough. Bachelet’s pragmatic, if not forward thinking, economic policies have also helped the rebuilding of a new future.
And Uruguay, so far the region’s jewel of democracy, cultural tolerance, and economic stability, is doing just fine, thank you. Despite its equally disturbing past in the hands of military butchers, the little nation proved that it definitely could.
President Tabaré Vázquez’s return to power, following immensely popular José Mujica, has been relatively scandal-free, and actually steady in support of progressive causes, such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and liberal marijuana laws.
Criminality is down, literacy and education levels are rising, and the economy as a whole, even if still semi-industrialized, remains robust. And the Internet is faster than in New York too. Yes, it’s a tiny country, but that should never be held against it.
In the context of the U.S. presidential elections, though, Latin America has been no more than a soundbite, and except for Mexico, remains completely absent from the candidates’ platforms. It’s is as if over 600 million potential allies don’t count.
It’s a mistake that the Obama administration is as guilty of as the Bush term that preceded. Whoever becomes the new American president will, like his or her predecessors, have to start a new continental dialogue from scratch. If they even bother to do it, that is.
In fact, judging by past efforts to establish cooperation ties, or worse, interfere with the region’s politics, in order to defend U.S. interests or just out of ideological paranoia, many South Americans are just fine with the way things are. See Mexico, War on Drugs, for reference. Or further in the past, Google Chile, Salvador Allende coup, Henry Kissinger, for education.
It shouldn’t be that way. The Allende template is still being tried on to this day, in different packages, and the results are never healthy. Look at Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico, and how U.S.-instigated instability has come back to haunt its own foreign policy.
Just like in the Middle East, heavy-handed interventionist has produced some of the most intractable and disastrous consequences, which have undermined diplomacy and tainted with suspicion even genuine, independent humanitarian efforts.
Back to the powerful local media-supported conservative wave that may still replace Brazil’s Rousseff with a strong-armed right-wing coalition, or finally doom Venezuela’s Maduro, and prevent Morales and Correa from governing, it should be all cause for alarm.
The beginning of the 2000s saw many wars starting, serious economic crashes, worsening of Middle East and African violence and intolerance, and instability, or downright terror, in Europe. In Latin America, however, never a paradise, it was at least a period for growth.
Millions were lifted out of extreme poverty, and not due only to party-driven policies. Social tensions were reduced, and a potential new prosperity era could be envisioned. It actually offered a welcome counterbalance to the horror happening elsewhere.
Peruvians tired, or rather, terrified of a return of the persecutions, torture, and callous embezzlement represented by Fujimori, are eager to seize the possibility of electing a more progressive leader. And the whole continent could use the good news.
While the U.S. may miss yet another opportunity to play the good guy, Latin America can’t allow a step back when it used to be its ‘backyard,’ (as in the 2013 unfortunate but not out of context remark by Sec. of State John Kerry). For a change, voters in several countries realized that and chose candidates from the working class for president. And for a while, at least, it worked.
Perhaps that much needed moment of collective lucidity south of the Equator was not isolated, and the reaction to it may turn out to have short legs. Democracy strengthens when, instead of being handed over to its spoilers, it’s recast as the people’s defense.
Dreamers get discouraged by reality, as change never comes fast, and when it does, it may not last long enough. There are no easy answers, only uncomfortable questions to ask. But no political system is viable if it won’t include everyone. Have a great week. WC


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