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Lula on the Future of the Left(s) in Latin America

March 14, 2013 Comments off

I’ve been remiss in not getting to this sooner, but, after the death of Hugo Chávez, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva published an editorial in the New York Times addressing not just the legacy of Chávez, but the future of politics of the left in Latin America. Lula is praiseworthy of Chávez’s efforts to address social inequalities in his country. He also speaks highly of Chávez’s efforts towards regional integration, saying it falls on the surviving leaders in South America to

consolidate the advances toward international unity achieved in the past decade. Those tasks have gained new importance now that we are without the help of Mr. Chávez’s boundless energy; his deep belief in the potential for the integration of the nations of Latin America; and his commitment to the social transformations needed to ameliorate the misery of his people.

In theory, regional integration sounds wonderful, especially given the historical economic context in which local elites and international capital collaborated to extract resources while gross socioeconomic inequalities continued and even worsened throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. And certainly, having regional institutions like the Bank of the South to serve as a counter to the attempted hegemony of the World Bank and IMF is a good thing. However, one can’t help if the idea of the Union of South American Nations attempting to “move the continent toward the model of the European Union” seems like a more questionable goal, particularly in light of the European Union’s recent troubles. Certainly, that’s not to say the Union of South American Nations has to take that same path,

The piece also contains what seems to be an awareness, if not concern, over the ability to institutionalize Chávez’s reforms in his absence:

Mr. Chávez’s legacy in the realm of ideas will need further work if they are to become a reality in the messy world of politics, where ideas are debated and contested. A world without him will require other leaders to display the effort and force of will he did, so that his dreams will not be remembered only on paper.

To maintain his legacy, Mr. Chávez’s sympathizers in Venezuela have much work ahead of them to construct and strengthen democratic institutions. They will have to help make the political system more organic and transparent; to make political participation more accessible; to enhance dialogue with opposition parties; and to strengthen unions and civil society groups. Venezuelan unity, and the survival of Mr. Chávez’s hard-won achievements, will require this.

That other leaders will have to continue his legacies if the reforms are to remain in place is clear; whether or not they can is another question. Although Lula states the challenges simply and elegantly, it is clear that they are not insignificant, and include subtle digs on Chávez’s own government: in addition to needing to “strengthen unions and civil society groups,” Lula points to the need for Chávez’s successors to make politics “transparent” and “to enhance dialogue with opposition parties,” things that were not always present under Chávez. In other words, Lula is saying that so-called Chavismo has to adapt and transform in the absence of its leader, and that there is room for improvements in how governance with reforms can occur. These comments aren’t exactly uncritical of Chávez, and show the ways in which there were and are real disagreements in both policy and style between leaders of “the” left in Latin America.

If Lula’s criticisms were not yet fully clear, he makes them so in a thinly-veiled description/critique of Chávez that simultaneously serves as a reminder that discussion of “a” Latin American left is misguided:

One need not agree with everything Mr. Chávez said or did. There is no denying that he was a controversial, often polarizing, figure, one who never fled from debate and for whom no topic was taboo. I must admit I often felt that it would have been more prudent for Mr. Chávez not to have said all that he did. But this was a personal characteristic of his that should not, even from afar, discredit his qualities.

One might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology, and a political style that his critics viewed as autocratic. He did not make easy political choices and he never wavered in his decisions.

This comment precisely cuts directly to the reason why a talk of “the” Latin American left is so frustrating. Such characterizations of a singular left assumes such a uniformity in ideologies, practices, and tactics among leaders as to almost be insulting, treating Latin American leaders as generic, interchangeable pieces without any regard for distinctions in their personal ways of governing, to say nothing of the varying contexts of their nations, the issues facing their individual countries, or the pluralities in their electorates. Lula’s clear that Chávez’s outspoken methods were not necessarily the type he would adopt, and when he says that “one might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology,” it seems reasonable to suppose that Lula includes himself in that category (current president Dilma Rousseff herself also pointed out that Brazil didn’t always agree with Chávez). Leaders can share similar goals – greater inequality, economic growth, more democratic openings, etc. – without being of the same ideology. Lula’s aware of this fact; would that more North American media commentators were as well.

Gearing up for Latin American Presidential Elections

March 13, 2013 Comments off

The US certainly excels at trying to guess presidential elections way too early (guessing-games that prompt entirely-reasonable responses). While 2016 is still too far off, 2014 is not, where several Latin American presidential elections will occur. In Central America,  Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama are all holding elections in February, March, and May, respectively. Mike Allison has an excellent summary of the three races right now. Read his whole post for the breakdown, but the shorter version is that runoffs seem likely in El Salvador, where the right-wing ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano, has a slight lead over the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren, and in Costa Rica, where Partido Liberación Nacional [National Liberation Party] candidate Johnny Anaya polls ahead of candidates like Epsy Campbell and Otto Guevara (who has previously run in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 elections). Meanwhile, Panama’s situation is more tenuous, as the public speculates (and fears) constitutional reforms that would allow re-election.

In South America, Uruguayans will go to the polls in October to pick José Mujica’s successor. Bolivia is set to also hold presidential elections in December 2014. And of course, Brazil will have its presidential elections next October as well, for a total of at least 6 presidential elections next year, with campaigning having unofficially but visibly begun. Incumbent president Dilma Rousseff of the PT remains very popular as she faces reelection. After years of flirting with candidacy, Aécio Neves, the former governor and current senator from Minas Gerais, is finally running for the presidency for the center-right Partido Social Democracia Brasileira [Brazilian Social Democracy Party; PSDB]. While the PT and the PSDB are currently the two strongest parties for presidential politics, their hegemony is far from absolute; they continue to rely on the coalition-building that defines Brazil’s parliamentary-presidential system, and that means that there could be legitimate threats from other parties. Former environment minister Marina Silva, who had a strong third-place showing for the Partido Verde [Green Party] in 2010, has formed the new Rede Sustentabilidade [Sustainability Network]; while it is not yet clear whether her new party will focus on presidential politics, legislative elections, grassroots mobilization, or some combination of the three, certainly the path for her to be presidential candidate in her own party is open. In recent years, the PT and the PSDB have become the two strongest parties in Brazil’s parliamentary system, and Rousseff and Neves are understandably the front-runners. Indeed, while campaigning has not officially begun, Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the founders of the PT and the PSDB, respectively, and former-allies-turned-political-foes, have already begun trading barbs back and forth, trying to discredit the other party [and, consequently, the candidates]. Though Brazil’s presidential campaign cycle only officially lasts 3 months, it’s clear that it’s moving to informally expand campaign season through surrogates. It’s too early to say whether a runoff will take place, but expect more candidates to enter into the race; even if Rousseff and Neves remain front-runners in the latter half of 2013 and into 2014, dark horse candidates like Marina Silva, who could build on her 2010 success, or others may challenge the PT and PSDB.

And all of that comes after Venezuela and Paraguay both hold elections to fill controversial mandates [Venezuela with the death of Hugo Chávez, Paraguay 10 months after the forced removal of democratically-elected president Fernando Lugo], while Chile goes to the polls in November to elect a successor to embattled president Sebastián Piñera [when a 38% approval rating marks an "improvement," it seems safe to say things have not gone well for a president]. And of course, in November, Honduras will have elections for the first full term since the 2009 coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya. All of that sets up for no fewer than ten presidential elections in the coming 21 months, marking a period of political transition that will have a deep impact on politics, economics, and social relations not only for the citizens of the respective countries, but for the region as a whole.

Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan Military

March 12, 2013 Comments off

One of the big questions in the wake of Hugo Chávez’s death was whether Nicolás Maduro, who had never served, would be able to maintain the support of Venezuela’s military. While it remains a significant question, one that will most likely last beyond April 14’s election, it seems Maduro has at least some military support.

[I]n a move that has elicited criticism from opposition leaders who say the Constitution bars the armed forces from taking sides in political campaigns, the top military official in the cabinet, Defense Minister Diego Molero Bellavia, has already explicitly backed Mr. Maduro by calling on voters to “give a good thrashing to all those fascists” of the opposition.

The head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer who took part in Mr. Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt, has also pledged to support Mr. Maduro. Mr. Cabello, who is one of the most powerful figures in Mr. Chávez’s political movement and has broad support in the army, is often viewed as a potential rival to Mr. Maduro.

Certainly, these views belong to powerful men in the military, but it should go without stating it seems unlikely that they perfectly  reflect the entire military institution’s attitudes. It’s a good sign for Maduro that he has such support, but, should he win the election, whether or not he will be able to maintain it will be a key issue in his administration. And, unlikely as it may seem, should Capriles win the election, the stance of some in the military indicates he himself will be in a difficult position. Either way, the Venezuelan military will have plenty to say in politics, be it through vocal declarations or through silence.

Around Latin America

March 8, 2013 Comments off

While Hugo Chávez’s death has perhaps understandably been the main focus of news from the region this week, it’s far from the only event of note. Here are some of the other stories coming out of Latin America this week.

-With Chávez’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro is set to be sworn in at 7PM local time tonight. And Margaret Myers’ always-excellent blog on China-Latin American relations has a post up on Chinese bloggers’ responses to Chávez’s death.

-Of course, Chávez’s death has overshadowed another important and more violent death in Venezuela. Somebody shot and killed indigenous leader and rights activist Sabino Romero, who had recently asked for government protection. The government announced an investigation into the murder before Chavez’s death; hopefully the investigation will continue and Romero’s killers can be brought to justice.

-In Argentine justice, a court convicted ex-president (and current Senator) Carlos Menem for illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia while Menem served as president between 1989 and 1999.

-In Haiti, former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier is under investigation for human rights violations during his regime 1971 and 1986. Several victims of his regime testified to torture and other abuses this week. Meanwhile, Duvalier entered into a hospital after providing his own testimony. Given how many former dictators, from Pinochet to Argentine generals, have tried to hide behind [often-fabricated] “medical issues” to avoid facing justice, at least for now it is difficult to take Duvalier’s own admission to the hospital as much other than a ploy to try to avoid justice and/or drum up sympathy.

-New documents reveal that Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) provided $115 million in aid to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime during the latter half of the dictatorship [English version of story available here]. The document reinforces and adds to our understanding of the ways in which South American dictatorships collaborated and serves as yet another reminder that the portrayal of one group of Brazilian military presidents as “moderate” is a misnomer for regimes that still supported the violation of human rights, be it in their own countries or in other countries.

-Speaking of regional collaboration in violating human rights, in Argentina, military officers from the dictatorship era there (1976-1983) are on trial for their involvement in Operation Condor, the international collaborative efforts between Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru to arrest, torture, and “disappear” so-called “subversives” in each other’s countries.

-In Brazil, an indigenous community disillusioned with the lack of governmental action is taking over efforts to combat deforestation, recently seizing trucks used in illegal logging.

-Lawyers for those imprisoned in Guantanamo filed a claim that the conditions and rights of prisoners were deteriorating, and this was before troops fired “non-lethal bullets” at inmates who agitated at the prison, the first time in 11 years bullets had been fired at prisoners.

-In an overlooked part of Central American history, Panama’s indigenous Guna peoples celebrated the 1925 Guna Revolution last week.

-Finally, in a step towards greater equal rights, Haiti is set to improve women’s rights by aiding rape victims who seek justice against their attackers, allow abortion in the case of rape, and make marital rape illegal.

Chávez’s Ghost and Further Thoughts on Venezuela’s Future

March 6, 2013 Comments off

With Hugo Chávez’s passing, some further remarks on issues facing Venezuela in the immediate future.

First, there will almost inevitably be some political bloviating that his death marks the “end of the left” in Latin America (primarily because such articles have appeared periodically for nearly a year). Suffice to say, such narratives will be as lazy as they are wrong. Though many of Chávez’s opponents in the US media have liked to portray him as the head of some uniform bloc of Latin American leaders, nothing could be further from the truth. Even while he had close allies in people like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both of those men were their own politicians with their own domestic backgrounds in their own countries, elected by their own electorates based on their own policies. The idea that they were pawns in some bizarre hemispheric chess match is absurd. While they may have sympathized with Chávez regularly, they have had their own agendas and their own methods of ruling, methods that have regularly demonstrated significant distinctions from Chávez. Though Chávez was a vocal individual, he was far from a ringleader or a commandant for others; as President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (another of these allegedly-“left” countries, and no slouch in regional politics by any stretch of the imagination) put it, Brazil “did not always agree with Chávez.” Narratives that treat him as the leader of a monolithic left in Latin America will show nothing but the authors’ own ignorance of the region.

Second, the process for selecting the next president will be worth watching. According to the Venezuelan constitution, a new election must be held in the next thirty days. Vice President Nicolás Maduro, acting on Chávez’s behalf for the past few months, has certainly had a chance to learn the ropes, but the constant focus on Chávez’s health even in his own governmental declarations has not really shed light on how he might govern should he win the office, nor how capable he is of governing; and even if he wins the election, it is not clear if he will be able to maintain the support from a variety of groups that Chávez sustained.

And then there’s the opposition, which inevitably will hope to take advantage of this new opening, but which has been unable to really create a concrete platform that might appeal to the majority of Venezuelan voters. Indeed, whether the opposition can remain unified witout Chávez, who was the key component in bringing a heterogeneous group of voters together, remains to be seen. Certainly, it seems Maduro has a leg up on the opposition in this context, what with his ties to Chávez, his (brief) tenure as de facto president, the emotional appeal many Chávez supporters will feel in continuity with Maduro, and the brief amount of time the opposition has to try to organize a successful campaign. Either way, though, whoever follows Chávez in the longer-term is in many ways going to have to contend with  Chávez’s ghost, a  task that could prove particularly burdensome if the economy and social programs that oil has supported for so many years begin to deteriorate.

What role the military will play going forward is another matter looming over Venezuela’s immediate future. While Chávez was able to sow strong ties with and support from the military (due to his own military background), Maduro does not have such ties, nor is it clear whether any opposition figures who may seek office can find support among the military. Given how instrumental the military was in Chávez’s rise, especially in the early years, there is a real question of how the military will respond to this new context: whether it will sit on the sidelines or actively work to support a particular candidate remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that it will be a silent actor in the process of succession or in the implementation of policies going forward.

Additionally, and perhaps somewhat tied to the outcome of the previous three points, we’ll finally get a sense of if Chávez’s reforms can and/or will be institutionalized, and how different groups (Maduro, the next president, the military, the public) might assert themselves in the process. In many ways, this is the crux of defining Chavismo; whether it was a movement that transformed society, or a movement that was defined in a man, will become apparent in Chávez’s absence.

As for portrayals of Chávez himself, they have tended to focus on the monolithic and the simplistic, thanks in no small part to his own efforts to appeal to a personalist populism-of-sorts, to say nothing of the way media focus on his health in the last year-plus added to the individualistic narrative that equated Chávez-as-Venezuela. That said, there’s no question he was a complicated figure, having effected some real improvements for many Venezuelans even while making some bad moves that could display a singular use of power against his opponents.

Simply put, Chávez was neither as terrible as his most strident detractors maintained, nor as perfect as his most ardent supporters insisted. Beyond that, only time will tell the long-term impacts Chávez’s fourteen years of governance, social reform, and international relations will have on Venezuela.

RIP – Hugo Chávez

March 5, 2013 Comments off

Hugo Chávez has died. Rumors had swirled around about his impending end for years, but it appears his cancer and its side-effects finally caught up with him. Suffice to say, uncertainties for Venezuela abound going forward. Nicolás Maduro will continue to serve as de facto president while the country prepares for elections. Whether Chávez’s reforms can be institutionalized in his absence, and who could potentially be responsible for institutionalizing them in a post-Chávez context, remains to be seen. Likewise, how the opposition responds to a new political context where they do not face the figure of Chávez had a military background that Maduro does not, and that could matter in the latter’s efforts to remain in the presidency. The opposition has operated primarily on an anti-Chávez platform for years; will they finally be able to provide an actual platform of policies in Chávez’s absence? And how might a Venezuelan population that by and large saw an improved standard of living under Chávez receive such platforms? How will the economy, which has seen both growth and inflation in recent weeks and months, respond? And then there is the role of the military going forward. Chávez had a military background that Maduro does not, and that could matter in the latter’s efforts to remain in the presidency. How will the military respond to his death? Is Maduro’s recent denial that there was a rift between him and the military just a minor issue, or the source of deeper political tensions?

These are just a handful of the immediate questions in a country facing real challenges and sudden, if somewhat expected, uncertainties at the highest level of governance. Indeed, in many ways, the fact that there are so many uncertainties facing Venezuela in the wake of Chávez’s death seems like an appropriate end of an era that was full of both uncertainties and accomplishments. I’ll have more thoughts on what all this might mean for Venezuela tomorrow, but for now – rest in peace.

Curiouser and Curiouser

March 5, 2013 Comments off

Venezuela expels the US Air Force attaché after suggesting that Chávez’s cancer was the result of “enemies” inflicting him (even while questions of governance and reforms beyond Chávez remain on the sidelines). Ch. This isn’t the first time that Chávez or his allies have made such a claim. Regardless of the veracity or falseness of the claim, it’s yet another weird thread in an already-strange story.

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