May 27, 2019

Chasing the Reds in the Americas

Andrés López Obrador, the president of Mexico, at a morning press conference.
Andrés López Obrador, the president of Mexico, at a morning press conference.

Latin America can’t ignore the impact of globalisation forever.

Our world has been shaken a lot during the past ten years. A decade ago the incredible came true: Barack Obama was elected president of the US. Eight years later, another inconceivable development was realised: Donald Trump. National and regional agendas have been shaped by recuperating from the financial crisis, by the migration crisis and by an environmental crisis, that is sounding the alarm ever louder. The Groundhog Day we call Brexit and nationalist conservative policies—first in Hungary and Poland, and now right here at home in Estonia—are increasing tensions.

In this context it is fascinating to see whether developments in Latin America will align with the EU-US axis or if those countries will try to play a different game on the other edge of this interconnected political world. In this article, I’ll explore recent changes in Latin American countries: Brazil’s sudden turn to the right and Mexico’s to the left; deflation of the leftist bloc that carried the ideals of the Cold War (in Venezuela’s case, going out with a bang); the fading of the pink tide; and new allies and enemies on the continent.

What’s New?

  • The final phase of removing Maduro from power begins; the leader of the opposition calls supporters onto the streets and to military bases.
  • The multiple-term former president of Peru commits suicide when investigators knock on his door with allegations of corruption.
  • Brazil is led by crazy US toadies who have destroyed the country’s reputation , says the popular ex-president Lula da Silva in his first interview after spending a year in prison.
  • “Brazil mustn’t become a gay paradise—come and have sex with our women instead,” self-proclaimed homophobe president Bolsonaro tells the press.

This is just a small selection of Latin American news from one week in April this year. The headlines, ranging from the tragic to the tragicomic, astound us every day. An especially captivating soap opera is going on in Brazil, where the radical right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro (who came to power on 1 January 2019) and his three sons are firing off bizarre ideas and orders on social media, without thinking about whether they are at all feasible. Recently the president tweeted about a plan to close down the philosophy and sociology curricula of all universities and direct the resources that would become available to productive specialities—a fascist measure that upon second look turned out to be unconstitutional.

Another recent flighty idea came from the keyboard of the minister of education—each school day was to start with singing the anthem and repeating nationalist slogans. This was supposed to be filmed and the clips were to be sent to the ministry. Welcome to the new North Korea? All of this is happening in a country that was among the world’s greatest just a decade ago, integrated South America as the regional leader in both economic and political terms, and facilitated global South-South cooperation.

Brazil and Peru are struggling the most with the greatest corruption scandal of all time, which has shaken the entire continent. Many more presidents and top politicians from other countries will be imprisoned, as it has so far been proved that leaders in 12 countries participated in the scheme.

If we look at history, we can see what else besides corruption has brought Latin America to the point where an extremely inept and dangerous person who is already boycotted in several countries has been elected the president of a once leading state. The American Museum of Natural History was the latest to refuse to organise a banquet in honour of Bolsonaro, as the honouree fights against everything natural scientists stand for. The Brazilian president’s attacks on universities, especially in social sciences, is part of his fierce campaign against the devilish embodiment of all evil—being left-wing. This is what drives him. Thus, we need to examine the left–right spectrum in Latin America to understand his actions. I will begin my look at the region from one end of the scale: the so-called “old school” leftist countries, which have been exposed to the Marxist ideology familiar to us from history. Blind opposition to the commies has led to looking at the world with blinkers and has created new catastrophes in both North and South America.

Beware of the Communists!

The Cold War had a greater impact on South America than people usually think. The few successful leftist revolutions were directly supported by the Soviet Union; the US role as a counterweight and a force that interferes in others’ internal affairs to protect its own interests has left a mark on all Latin American countries. Throughout the 20th century, the US used actual or invented fear of communist ideology as the main excuse for trying to control the entire western hemisphere. Historians have calculated that, during the past century, the US successfully interfered in replacing governments in Latin American countries 41 times, i.e. about once every two years. The US takes keeping its “back yard” clear of the Red Peril very seriously.

Against this background, it seems unbelievable that any projects working towards Marxist ideals still exist, albeit on the wane. Cuba is gradually changing through reform and opening up, Venezuela is in an acute crisis and Nicaragua, which depends on the former two and Russia, has been in decline longer than Venezuela. The media cover the situation there less intensively because Nicaragua doesn’t have a resource that the world’s major powers consider very important: oil. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, called these red triplets a “troika of tyranny”, which is a slightly milder pet name than “axis of evil” but still a moniker that invites dropping bombs on them.

The antagonists of the Cold War are raising their heads again. Russia is not prepared to hand over the global remote control to the US completely and is doing everything it can with its strategic ally, Venezuela: it vetoes US initiatives and sends its military to help Maduro. In late March Donald Trump simply announced, as he is wont to do, that “the Russians must leave” and threatened again that “all options” were on the table to resolve the situation. There are very few experts in the world besides Donald Trump and his closest circle who think that a US military intervention in the Venezuela crisis would be a positive solution. The Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared president, Juan Guaidó, has attested that this would be a terrifying and appalling road to take and some other option should be chosen for ending the crisis. Some analysts think that Venezuela would become the new Afghanistan if an offensive were launched. We will soon know; tension is at its highest.

The remote-controlled Cold War was rather hot and deadly in the Central America of the 1980s, where US-backed right-wing dictators were driven from power with lots of casualties and a decade-long war. When the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (who came to power in Nicaragua in 1979 as a result of a Marxist revolution but soon lost his position) became president through democratic elections in 2006, people were very optimistic. They hoped that, this time, leftist ideals would be realised with laws instead of Kalashnikovs.

It is clear today that things went differently. First, Ortega became power-crazed and didn’t want to hand over his presidency when the prescribed time came. Second, the Marxist bloc has been starved of oxygen everywhere in the world step-by-step, and Nicaragua’s economy is wasting away in isolation. In the highly globalised world of the 21st century, one can’t simply cook a rich meat soup in one part of the pot while the rest have to make do with chicken broth. Venezuela, which used to be the only player capable of setting its own rules besides Russia, is struggling with an incapable leader and plummeting oil prices, yet it is suffering the most due to Washington’s harsh economic sanctions.

El Salvador’s Saviour: The Swallow

Nicaragua’s neighbour, El Salvador, is a fascinating example of trying to find a path to a new and more successful future right now, in 2019. El Salvador has a trajectory similar to its neighbour—a long and bloody civil war in the 1980s between US-financed government forces and leftist guerrillas. A peace accord was concluded in 1992, and the people suffered through 20 more years of right-wing and ten years of left-wing governments. Sweeping neoliberal reforms were made even before the end of the civil war. The national bank, telecommunications, the energy industry, sugar and coffee exports and the pensions system were privatised with the kind help of the US; ultimately the country did away with its currency and replaced it with the US dollar because it was more convenient for American corporations.

In economic terms, adopting the US dollar hit the population hard, contributed to the growth of organised crime and increased emigration to the US by leaps and bounds. The racist Los Angeles police force and the policy of restricting immigration in the late 1990s helped to create one of the most powerful gang systems of the western hemisphere, the so-called maras. Marginalised Salvadorean youngsters didn’t integrate, and many were sent back home with a dowry of the criminal culture they had adopted in the US slums and prisons. At home, the maras grew to a new level in the poor environment of weak post-civil war institutions; the government’s so-called Iron Fist crackdown radicalised them even more. A network very like the mafia developed—almost 20% of El Salvador’s population is now involved in it as protection racket “clients”. Before elections, representatives of all presidential candidates visit the mara bosses in secret (although everybody knows that they do it). First they need to conclude an agreement that a candidate may campaign in an area controlled by the mara without getting killed; second, they buy votes (gang-leaders take money from all parties and choose which candidate they order their people to vote for—candidates who promise to grant amnesties and improve prison conditions have a better chance). If we also take into account unemployment, which neither right- nor left-wing governments have managed to alleviate, it is no wonder that, every couple of months, a caravan of illegal immigrants from El Salvador and the slightly poorer Honduras sets out north, where Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border to greet them.

In several Latin American countries that have recently held elections, the people have said clearly that they want change. So-called anti-establishment candidates are usually successful, although in some cases their means of opposing the established elite are nothing more than throwing a punch. Candidates from opposite ends of the political spectrum may achieve power with similar rhetoric: a raging right-winger in Brazil, a left-winger in Mexico.

In El Salvador, however, Nayib Bukele (nicknamed “the Swallow”), the son of Palestinian immigrants, won the elections on 5 February 2019 by a landslide. He claims it is time to move on from the distinction between left- and right-wing politics. “We can finally leave the Cold War behind today, 30 years after the civil war ended,” said the 37-year-old Bukele to the crowd gathered on the central plaza in San Salvador on election night, when it was becoming clear that he had beaten the big left- and right-wing parties by a wide margin across the entire country. His term, which starts in June, will show whether his noble plan to create a digitally sophisticated government with the help of the best specialists will actually work. In any case, it is inspiring to see a president of the new generation who is moving towards other values on a continent that has been extremely polarised in terms of the left–right political spectrum for centuries.

The Pink Tide Came to Nothing

The desire to look past the left–right spectrum expressed by El Salvador’s young leader is nothing special in itself; many talk about it, including the political party Estonia 200. At this point, it is worth mentioning an earlier innovative political initiative that actually started in Latin America. During the so-called “pink tide” of the early 21st century, moderate left-wing governments came to power in most Latin American countries and began to look for an alternative to neoliberal policies prevalent in the world without wishing to veer off to the other end of the scale, i.e. angry opposition to capitalism. Thus, primarily Brazil under Lula, but also Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, developed a new model—a cooperation-based country with left-wing social policy where international business would also feel at home. Regional integration also developed, and there was an attempt to create a community similar to the EU.

Today, the wind has changed in most of these countries and cooperation is weakening. Ecuador and Bolivia are interesting examples of countries continuing with 21st-century socialism without much media fuss. Having distanced themselves from Marxism, they are much milder than Maduro’s Venezuela, for example. Research shows that their actual policies on the main domestic topics, such as land law, are not that different from those of their neoliberal neighbours, Colombia and Peru—globalisation just doesn’t leave many reasonable choices. On the other hand, they have managed to achieve remarkable innovation thanks to their ideology, which differs from the global mainstream: Ecuador has an exemplary approach to the environment and nature has been attributed rights, while Bolivia has a strong position on indigenous people.

Mexico: The Big Exception

While only a few ripples have remained of the roaring turn-of-the-century pink tide, and while larger states like Brazil, Argentina and Peru have clearly turned to the right, one important player—Mexico—is marching to its own beat. Here, US-friendly moderate right-wing forces that looked after the elite’s business but maintained a nationalist bottom line were in power for ages. Mexico was led by a funnily named party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for as long as 70 years. An endless, institutionalised revolution—how intriguing!

In December 2018 there was a sharp turn to the left and Mexicans seem happy and content, at least thus far: no previous head of state has had a better rating after their first 100 days in power than López Obrador, who is supported by four-fifths of the electorate. The Mexican president has adopted an approach completely opposite to that of his US and Brazilian colleagues, for whom the “mainstream” media are the enemy and who fire off their unedited messages to the public’s smartphones through social media. Every working day, Andrés López Obrador greets journalists at 7.00 in the morning and gives an overview of the situation in the country. In this way, he appears like a statesman who must humbly report to his people, not like an arrogant boss. During his 100 days in power, the Mexican president has strongly restricted the benefits of officials and his closest circle and launched new social programmes. Obrador admits, however, that he hasn’t had a breakthrough with one of Mexico’s main concerns—getting crime under control.

He maintains a reasonable relationship with the US and avoids conflict, although Trump’s immigration policy and border wall obsession probably make it quite hard to remain friendly. The president himself is extremely happy that he has managed to replace the accusatory attitude of his predecessors with a genial and cooperative approach. With this, he is showing that the traumatic historical relationship with the US doesn’t always have to mean old-school left-wingers (like Maduro) barking threats at the north, while the right wing idolises and imitates its northern neighbour (like Bolsonaro in Brazil).


To conclude: the red Marxist balloon that was left lying around in the room is deflating quickly and could go with a bang, as seems to be the case in oil-producing Venezuela. The innovative pink tide of the early 2000s has mostly come to nothing, but the very progressive Uruguay as well as Ecuador and Bolivia continue steadily with their projects. Peru, Argentina and Brazil have turned to the right; the last of them extremely so. Mexico remains on its course despite its recent shift to the left.

There seem to be no common trends. At the same time, a change has clearly taken place in comparison to the previous decade. Then it seemed that a new model of existence was cooking in the South American laboratory; finding a balance between global capitalism and social responsibility was just a step away. It makes sense that this alternative should have been born in Latin America, where there is huge inequality; for example, we can exaggerate a little and say that Brazil is a caste-based society masked as a democracy.

We can see today that the pink wave didn’t turn into a tsunami that rocked the world, but there are little pools here and there where new political ideas are still making ripples and may grow into something the rest of humankind can emulate in the future. However, most of Latin America seems to have abandoned its characteristic ethos and tapped into the global nervous pragmatic circulatory system that reacts to every passing gust of wind.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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