Archive for the ‘The “Right” in Latin America’ Category

On Chilean Presidential Politics and Ongoing Ties to the Pinochet Era

July 2, 2013 Comments off

As Brandi mentioned yesterday, the dust has settled in the Chilean presidential primaries. On the one hand, the Concertación elected Socialist Party candidate and former president (2006-2010) Michelle Bachelet to run for re-election for the coalition. On the other hand, the right-wing Alianza coalition selected the Independent Democratic Union’s (UDI) Pablo Longueira to represent it in the election. In addition to Longueira, Bachelet will face challenges from two candiates to the left, Marcel Claude and Miguel Enríquez-Ominami. With well over two years of student protests that call for educational reform and that enjoy a substantial amount of support among many Chileans, a right-wing coalition confronting the need to overcome unpopularity of current president Sebastián Piñera, and two challenges from the left to an ex-president who left office with very high approval ratings, the elections set for November will be interesting for any number of reasons.

What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the way ties to the Pinochet era continue to shape presidential electoral politics. When Piñera was elected in 2010, some saw it as the right finally breaking with the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship. Indeed, some analysts suggested Frei’s loss was in part because the center-left Concertación coalition that had governed since Pinochet’s exit in 1990 continued to campaign against the Pinochet era, while Piñera insisted on looking forward – a politically tactful move, given the right’s long-standing ties to the regime. It seemed at the time that Piñera’s victory was going to finally force the Concertación to broaden its appeal beyond anti-Pinochet rhetoric (though such rhetoric was understandably and justifiably not going to completely disappear).

And yet, here we are in 2013, with two major candidates still tied directly to the Pinochet dictatorship: on the one hand, the Concertación re-nominates Michelle Bachelet, who as a youth resisted the military regime and whose father the Pinochet dictatorship murdered. Meanwhile, the Alianza, left in the lurch after heavy favorite Laurence Golborne had to remove himself from the race, nominates Longueira, who worked as an assessor in the Pinochet government and who, according to Pinochet’s daughter Lucía Pinochet Hiriart, received support from Pinochet when Longueira first began his political career. And so, in spite of some analysts’ conclusions about the significance of the 2010 election in marking a new phase of post-Pinochet politics, both major candidates have direct, albeit very different, ties to the regime.

Nor is it just the personal connections that demonstrate how Pinochet-era politics continue to resonate nearly a quarter-century after he left office. While educational reforms will be a major topic for presidents to contend with as students continue to take to the streets, reforming the educational system is just part of the broader institutional challenge. Educational reforms have been slow in coming in no small part because the Constitution of 1980 that Pinochet issued is designed in such a way as to make reform very difficult, allowing governmental inertia to dominate (as well as including a Pinochet-era anti-terrorist law that the Chilean government has used against indigenous groups, both under Piñera and, before him, under Bachelet.) The ongoing rule of a dictatorial constitution has increasingly become a sticking point, and figures to be a key issue in the campaign: Bachelet herself has said that Chile needs a new Constitution. Though it has been 23 years since the Concertación first won election as Pinochet was forced to leave office, and though this September will mark 40 years since the coup that overthrew democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende and ushered in Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, and even nearly 7 years since Pinochet died, the influence, legacies, and outcomes of his regime on both the left and the right continue to shape politics well after he has left the political stage.

No doubt, there will come a time where the regime, although important to history and national memory, will not be so present in national presidential campaigns in such a direct and obvious way, be it through the candidates’ own backgrounds or through the reforms and visions they have for Chile. But what is clear is that, in spite of those who thought 2010 might force a re-calibration of politics that tried to appeal to a generation that did not live under Pinochet’s repression, the dictatorship still casts a long shadow over Chilean politics. There will be a time where that is the case, but in both the major coalition candidates and the issue of constitutional reform, it is clear that 2013 is not yet that time.

Paraguay’s “Argo”

February 25, 2013 Comments off

Apparently, Argo wasn’t the only stranger-than-fiction story of its kind. In Paraguay, former members of Argentina’s Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army; ERP) hatched a similar plan to assassinate Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Anastasio was the third in a line of Somozas who had exercised dictatorial authority in Nicaragua since the early-1930s. By 1979, the Somoza family owned 20% of the soil in the country, and had practiced both widespread repression and corruption so grotesque as to defy any sense of decency. When a massive earthquake struck in 1972, destroying much of the capital city of Managua, Somoza pocketed much of the $250 million in foreign donations that came in to aid the country. Somoza quite literally profited off the blood of his subjects: among other things, he owned a blood plasma factory that paid the poor $1 for their plasma, then sold it to the US at a profit. These blatant abuses of power were too much for Nicaraguans to bear, and the middle class and elite joined the opposition Sandinistas who had formed in the early-1960s and who sought his overthrow. By 1979, even the US withdrew its support, and Somoza went into exile as the Sandinistas marched into Managua in July.

Which is where Paraguay’s own “Argo” enters into the story. After Jimmy Carter denied Somoza asylum, he headed to Paraguay, where General Alfredo Stroessner’s right-wing military regime governed. Outraged at the presence of this symbol of right-wing repression, corruption, and greed, according to archival materials four men and three women from the ERP pretended to be actors and producers working on a film about Julio Iglesias. Renting a house under the auspices of working on the “movie,” they plotted the assassination of Somoza. On September 17, they successfully carried out their plan, ambushing Somoza near his home and killing him. Paraguayan authorities managed to arrest only one of the seven, Santiago Irurzún, who died under torture. And so it was that one of the most infamous of 20th century dictators in Latin America died, and Paraguay was host to its own strange “Argo.”

On Brazil’s Involvement in Operation Condor

December 17, 2012 Comments off

Brazil’s Truth Commission continues to conduct hearings and accept testimony from a variety of witnesses as it investigates human rights violations during the military regime of 1964-1985. Much of this testimony has been helpful in further fleshing out details that were previously assumed or generally known, helping to further enrich our understanding of the regime’s repressive measures and their impacts on those who were tortured or suffered political persecution in both the short- and long-terms. However, some of the testimony has been a bit surprising, perhaps most notably the testimony of Jair Krischke, who claimed that Brazil’s military regime was the “mastermind” behind Operation Condor.

Suffice to say, this is a somewhat surprising claim. Thanks to John Dinges’s excellent work, in which he worked in the (at the time) relatively-underutilized “Archives of Terror” in Paraguay, we know a good deal about Operation Condor. At its most basic level, the intelligence services from right-wing military regimes in Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru collaborated in political repression, torture, and “disappearing” alleged “subversives” from the region in an attempt to stamp out what they viewed as the communist threat. Through Operation Condor, which formally (albeit secretly) began in 1975, these countries would trace exiles’ movement throughout the region, and assist one another either by arresting and extraditing political targets to their home countries, or by torturing, murdering, and disappearing exiles from other countries (e.g., Argentina’s repressive forces would arrest and torture a Chilean exile). Operation Condor took the repressive violence of these regimes into the international arena, including not just the torture and disappearances of political opponents in the region, but even the attempted assassination on Chilean Bernardo Leighton in Rome in 1976 or the successful assassination of Orlando Letelier in a car bomb in Washington D.C. in 1976. Though the military regimes of South America collaborated, scholarship suggests that Augusto Pinochet’s government played the central role in Operation Condor’s operation, from its creation in 1975 onward, something Dinges’s work compellingly argues.

Which is why Krischke’s recent claims about Brazil’s role as a “mastermind” in Operation Condor are intriguing. Krischke points to Brazil’s use of torture and political repression in the immediate aftermath of the 1964 coup and in the increasing repression of the “years of lead” under Artur Costa e Silva (1967-1969) and Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969-1974) as setting the stage for broader international collaboration between the new right-wing dictatorships in Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973), Argentina (1976), and Peru (which joined Condor in 1980).  Admittedly, Brazil did set the stage for many of the military regimes that followed (only Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship, begun in 1954, preceded Brazil’s), something that scholarship tends to overlook (too often, one sees phrases along the line of “the South American dictatorships of the 1970s”). Likewise, Brazil (and Paraguay) were among the first to use the types of repression and terror that would come to define the right-wing dictatorships throughout the region, albeit to varying degrees. But Krischke’s claim that Brazil “created” Operation Condor seems to stretch Brazil’s role to somewhat incredible degree. The mechanisms of repression and torture may have appeared in Brazil before in Chile and elsewhere, but Dinges’s work again does a very good job of showing just how involved Pinochet was, and how much the establishment of Operation Condor was a Chilean initiative. Indeed, by 1975, when these countries formed the secretive pact, Brazilian president Ernesto Geisel had already begun the process of “distensão,” or a gradual move away from the most repressive phase of the Brazilian dictatorship. Though Brazil was involved with Operation Condor, it was not nearly as dominant as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay. That’s not to deny culpability or responsibility to Brazil’s regime, but it is to contextualize what we know about Operation Condor, and different member countries’ involvement in it. Either Krischke’s claims are overstated, or we will be forced to completely reevaluate Condor’s origins and history; given the detailed research from people like Dinges and Peter Kornbluh and the political context of Brazilian military politics at the time of Operation Condor, it seems likely that Krischke’s claims, while perhaps not-incorrect in some regards, are an overstatement of Brazil’s involvement in Condor.


Contextualizing “Electoral Authoritarianism” in Latin America

July 30, 2012 1 comment

I’m a bit late to this (I’ve been spending the past two weeks moving from one home to another), but the Washington Post recently ran a lengthy post on what it described as “Latin America’s new authoritarians,” with a focus falling heavily on Hugo Chávez, though it also includes Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega in the group of “new authoritarians.” Right off the bat, the tenor is pretty clear:

More than two decades after Latin America’s last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.

Both Jay Ulfelder and Greg Weeks do a great job of pointing out some of the complexities that the Washington Post overlooks in this narrative. Ulfelder rightly comments that “this is not a ‘new kind of authoritarian leader,'” and while he takes a more comparative, political-scientist approach, I’d add some more historical contextualization. He is, of course, correct – this is nothing new. Indeed, if one looks at South America in the 1930s and 1940s, one sees a wave of leaders swept into power through democratic elections and then consolidating their hold on power, most notably in the figures of Juan Perón, who was elected in 1946 and ruled until 1955 in Argentina, and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, who was elected in 1930, formed the “Estado Novo” dictatorship in 1937, and remained in power until 1945 (he also was re-elected in 1950 and served as president until committing suicide in 1954). These leaders were certainly dealing with different contexts – in particular, Vargas was attempting to create a more centralized nation-state after the federative First Republic of 1889-1930 – but the fact remains that they display an historical precedent for what the Post‘s article describes as “new.”

Both Ulfelder and Weeks do a great job of also pointing out that the narrative of the article endows entirely too much power/agency in the supposedly “new authoritarians” by focusing on their alleged “charisma” while disregarding the not-insignificant social groups that either support or oppose such leaders. Greg in particular does a great job of adding context, pointing out that the opposition to these “new authoritarians” is often weak and disorganized, has its own history of undermining democracy, or both, meaning that ultimately, there is no “truly democratic end-game” on the part of the “new authoritarians” or their opposition. As Greg contextualizes it:

[C]onsolidation of power is not solely a matter of using the machinery of the state, but also is tied to the failures of the opposition. In the countries most commonly cited–Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador–the right is in shambles, deeply discredited for past failed policies. In small countries with weak institutions like Honduras and Paraguay, the right refused even to wait for the next presidential election.

I agree with both of these critiques. From a historical perspective, I’d add that the Post once again glosses over or ignores very complex historical processes that led to the popularity and support for these leaders (to say nothing of equating Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia with “Latin America,” a characterization I’m sure Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, etc. etc. etc. would at least challenge). And as Greg says, it’s not like we don’t have very-very recent evidence of the right undermining democratic processes.

Additionally, the actions and policies of these leaders are not happening in a vacuum; rather, as Greg alludes to, these men are dealing with a long line of social and economic inequalities and are often working to undo the equally-undemocratic histories of right-wing governments from the mid-nineteenth century onward up to the late-20th century.  At the most general level (and there are very real problems with and caveats to the most general level), to presume that there’s some new history of authoritarianism in a region that has enjoyed a long history of widespread popular democracy is, to put it concisely, bunk. That is not to say that these “new authoritarians” are taking the right path; but to treat them as a unified bloc is to again fall back on a narrative in which the “left” is out of control and undermining democratic processes, a highly-problematic narrative the Post has advocated before. One can certainly make an argument that some governments are consolidating power in the hands of the executive and judge whether or not that is worthwhile. But to presume a similarity and to equate Chávez, Morales, Correa, and Ortega without any understanding of the current or historical political and social contingencies that differentiate the individual countries and leaders leads to the kind of flawed reasoning that gives the leaders far more agency and power than they have without considering the ways in which societies and people themselves play a direct role in shaping the politics and histories of their countries.

Today in Non-Breaking News…

July 16, 2012 Comments off

Fernando Henrique Cardoso is still a hack:

Former Brazilian president Fernando Enrique Cardoso said that his country is rapidly loosing [sic] influence in South America to Venezuela, following on remarks about the suspension of Paraguay from Mercosur.

“Brazil is loosing [sic] influence: before we had undisputed, automatic and non announced influence in the region”, said Cardoso from the opposition Social Democracy of Brazil party, PSDB, in an interview with the magazine Veja, which has the largest circulation in the country.

“Now with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela another pole of influence has been created and I am under the impression that Brazil does not want to counter him, it’s as if we belonged to the same family, he’s my cousin, he’s a ‘lefty’, I would prefer he wasn’t but he is my cousin. Brazil represses itself in taking decisions so as not to be seen as someone outside the family”, argued Cardoso.


“There was a lack of diplomacy to address the Paraguayan situation, and not only from Brazil. Anyway if I had a say, I would say the suspension of Paraguay must be avoided when there is only ten months of government left. The action in Paraguay was thundering, politically inconvenient, but it was not illegal” underlined the former president.

Cardoso has often said hackish things since his party lost to the PT in 2002 and Lula succeeded him as president (followed by the PT’s Dilma Rousseff in 2010). Still, this is particularly ridiculous, for any number of reasons. First, Brazil is still a powerful actor in the region, and Venezuela, with its smaller population, smaller economy, smaller regional influence, and so forth, does not exactly threaten; nor does Brazil need to be a total hegemon to shape regional politics, trade policies, etc. Secondly, Cardoso’s evaluation of Brazil’s diplomatic failure completely overlooks the actual process that led to the expulsion of Paraguay from Mercosur, since Brazil used its regional authority and diplomatic influence to deter Argentina’s efforts to impose sanctions on Paraguay (thus suggesting that, contrary to Cardoso’s belief, Brazil still exercises no small authority). And that’s to say nothing of Brazil’s more moderate and nuanced approach to the removal of Fernando Lugo compared to more immediate reactions from Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Regardless of what one thinks of the suspension of Paraguay from Mercosur, it’s certainly a more diplomatic approach than total sanctions, making his claims Brazil that did not demonstrate any “diplomacy” in dealing with Paraguay visibly and patently ridiculous.

But of course, none of this is surprising from Cardoso at this point. Cardoso has long allowed his personal contempt and distaste for the PT and for its leaders to make hackishly partisan claims that have no substance whatsoever, often even resorting to baseless personal insults. There are very real and legitimate criticisms people can level against Lula, Dilma, and/or the PT. But those criticisms do not and most likely never will come from an inexplicably spiteful Cardoso, as he has once again reminded us.

Neoliberalism and Military Regimes – A Follow-Up

July 9, 2012 Comments off

To follow today’s earlier post on Friedrich Hayek and the Pinochet Regime, Corey Robin adds even more evidence of just how inextricable the ties between neoliberalism and restrictions on democracy in favor of unfettered capitalism. His new post includes favorable quotations regarding apartheid-era South Africa from Hayek, as well as quotations from Ludwig von Mieses, who was also a member of the Austrian school, a severe economic liberal, and a major influence among today’s libertarian movement in the US, and who generally praised Fascism for its refusal to completely break with liberalism (in contrast to Soviet Russia). Perhaps the best summarization/giveaway of neoliberalism’s distaste for political democracy comes from a Hayek quote regarding Margaret Thatcher’s England:

If Mrs. Thatcher said that free choice is to be exercised more in the market place than in the ballot box, she has merely uttered the truism that the first is indispensable for individual freedom, while the second is not.

As Robin points out:

That statement is certainly in keeping with much of what Hayek wrote throughout his career, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him state quite so pungently his belief that capitalism is more important to freedom than democracy.

Indeed, and that point cannot be stressed strongly or regularly enough. Chile, Apartheid-era South Africa, Fascist Europe, even Thatcher’s England – in every case, neoliberal theorists favored heavy-handed right-wing governments that regularly violated human rights, so long as they adopted some semblance of neoliberalism. In applied theory, neoliberalism has no room for human rights or for political democracy.

Was the Impeachment of Fernando Lugo a Coup?

June 23, 2012 2 comments

As mentioned late yesterday, Paraguay’s Senate had voted to remove President Fernando Lugo from office barely 24 hours after the Chamber of Deputies had brought forth articles of impeachment. Although Lugo had originally appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the impeachment was unconstitutional as he had not been given due process and time to adequately prepare his defense, after the Senate’s ruling, Lugo said he would respect the decision, and Vice-President Federico Franco assumed the office of the Presidency. Many people in Paraguay were understandably outraged; Lugo had in particular championed for the rights of and equality for the landless and the poor, positions that ultimately played no small role in his impeachment. There were clashes in the streets through the night, as police used tear gas and water cannons against those who protested the removal of the democratically-elected president. (AS/COA has a great roundup on the events and of some of the long-term causes behind Congress’s sudden impeachment.) Meanwhile, the region quickly condemned the Congress’s actions, and Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Venezuela have already announced they will not recognize the new government, while it is unclear as yet what position the United States will take. Suffice to say, the removal of Lugo from office more than a year before the next president is scheduled to take office has thrown the country in turmoil, to say nothing of the sudden exertion of authority from Paraguay’s Congress.

All of that said, in the immediate fallout of the impeachment, the question has emerged: Was the impeachment effectively a coup?

Some say yes. Twitter was abuzz with the word “coup” last night, with some even saying Paraguay shows the Honduras coup having hemispheric impact. I don’r really buy that latter argument – in Honduras, the military forced President Manuel Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint and then had Congress and the Supreme Court retroactively legalize the action; even the internal Truth Commission’s investigation in Honduras ruled that Zelaya’s removal was a coup. By contrast, in Paraguay, the military sat on the sidelines awaiting the results, and Lugo was not forcefully exiled out of the country. However, that does not mean it wasn’t a coup.  Beyond Twitter comments and speculations, Brazilian magazine Carta Capital  made a more compelling case that it was a coup, in that Congress undid the will of a plurality of electors and undermined the very basic operations of politics and political power in presidential models.

Others are more circumspect, with Boz arguing it technically isn’t a coup, as Congress followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the impeachment law. Technically, that is true – Congress did not once waver from the process of impeachment as outlined in the Constitution. However, Lugo did not do anything unconstitutional (as the Paraguayan constitution defines executive powers), so while the impeachment was technically legal, the motivations behind his removal were clearly partisan and not based on any real constitutional violations of powers. That Congress can now remove a president in just over 24 hours reveals there are some gaping loopholes in that law as it’s currently defined.

Additionally, as I said yesterday, the impeachment has revealed a true institutional threat to electoral politics and checks and balances in Paraguay; if Congress can remove somebody they do not like that quickly, it not only undermines the people’s power in choosing their presidents; it also undermines the power of the president himself, at least greatly reducing (if not eliminating) the checks and balances that are constitutionally supposed to define the dynamics of power between the Paraguayan President and Congress. The fact that this impeachment was successful simultaneously establishes the precedent for Congress to annul the people’s choice for president and grants Congress considerable power over the President.

So….was it a coup? I’m inclined to say “no” – at least, not in the traditional sense, generally associated with the overthrows of democratically elected governments that took place in Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, or even Honduras in 2009, to give just a few examples. However, I think the idea of an “internal coup” here might also be useful. While we tend to refer to military regimes as monolithic, unified, monodimensional entities, scholars of military dictatorships often point out that military regimes themselves are full of competing and differing voices, and that the power struggles and dynamics of dictatorships are not just a case of a repressive state over dissenters, but also military officials and their allies jockeying for power behind the scenes. There are numerous examples of these types of power struggles – Pinochet’s marginalization of the commanders of the other armed forces in Chile after 1973 is a good example. However, these power struggles could and did lead to what are known as “internal coups,” in which one faction effectively maneuvered (again, usually behind the scenes) to remove their opposition.

Brazil’s military dictatorship is a particularly useful case in understanding these processes. The so-called “moderate” wing of the military governed from 1964-1967 [though it still employed torture, censorship, manipulation of laws, removal of political rights, etc.]. However, in 1967, the “hard-liners” took over and governed until 1974. In 1968, as street protests and opposition increased, the hard-liners used an incidental speech from  Congressman Marcio Moreira Alves to usher in the most repressive phase of the dictatorship, in what came to be known as the “coup within the coup,” or, put another way, an “internal coup” that fundamentally shifted the direction of the dictatorship.  when “moderate” Ernesto Geisel became president. By 1977, the hard-liners were concerned about Brazil’s gradual return to democracy as Geisel had envisioned it, and some armed forces, led by Army Minister Silvio Frota, planned a revolt that would overthrow Geisel and return the hard-liners to power – thus, an “internal coup.” However, Geisel managed to outmaneuver Frota, ultimately preventing the planned internal coup and removing Frota from office, preventing the hardliners’ internal coup from removing the moderate wing, and Geisel and his hand-picked successor, João Figueiredo, governed Brazil until the end of the military regime in 1985.

While Paraguay is certainly not a military dictatorship, I think the institutional dynamics of Brazil’s internal coups, which were simultaneously legal from a technical perspective but had the express intent of removing those in command at the time, provides a useful means to understand what happened in Paraguay. Indeed, I think what we’re seeing in the case of Paraguay is what an “internal coup” looks like in democratic (but still elite-dominated) politics in Latin America in the early-21st century.

Certainly, I could be convinced otherwise – these are just early observations on a process that will play out across the following months and even years – but I think understanding this as an example of how an internal removal of an elected official over partisanship can occur in a democratic system is useful, as it also allowing for an understanding that, even if Congress technically did not violate the constitution, neither did Lugo; Congress simply used the vagueness in its constitutionally-defined power to impeach to overthrow a man whose (legal) policies it did not like – an “internal coup” in democratic Paraguay.


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