Charla de Merienda: Authoritarianism and The Rise of The Right in Latin America


Populist and nationalistic movements are nothing new. No country or state is immune to the emergence of politicians or general political figures that espouse such beliefs and preferences. But, it may be important that the rise or emergence of such movements do not occur in a vacuum or independent of material, economic, and institutional conditions. American philosopher Richard Rorty, in a now very prophetic passage, hinted at the possible conditions that might lead the U.S. to accept an authoritarian-like leader espousing populist and nationalistic policies:

 Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

These sentiments and the conditions that led to the rise and promotion of populist and nationalist policies are not unique to the United States. As this discussion will demonstrate, Latin American has also experienced a rise of populism and right-wing ideology for similar reasons. But, there are also unique strands and conditions that led Latin America’s current espousing of authoritarianism. To help us wade through these unique issues and concerns, our discussion will be led by Rafael Martins, Laura Hobson, and Caio Castro.

Authoritarianism in Central America

Laura Hobson Herlihy   

History is painfully repeating itself in Nicaragua. Just 39 years after the last armed revolution, Nicaraguans today are in the throes of another, more civic revolution. This revolt is aimed at ousting President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist socialist revolutionary, representing the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

 Ortega first became President of Nicaragua in 1984, but then lost the 1990 election to Violetta Chamorro. He was elected and returned to power in 2007 and remains President today. After abolishing constitutional term limits before the 2012 elections, and real opposition candidates prior to the 2016 elections, he essentially had declared himself President for life. Now 72 years old and of ill health, his wife and current Vice-President, Rosarillo Murillo, was positioned to succeed him in the next general election, scheduled for 2021.

 On April 19, 2018, the Nicaraguan pueblo awakened and said, “Basta ya!” (“No more!”). They realized the former leftist guerilla fighter had become the new dynastic dictator. The protestors chanted, “Daniel, Somoza, son la misma cosa!” (“Daniel and Somoza are the same thing!”) Anastasio Somoza was the US-backed dictator, whom Ortega and the Marxist-socialist Sandinistas helped to overthrow in 1979. The Somoza family dynasty had ruled Nicaragua since 1936.

 The Nicaraguan pueblo in the last 11 years had grown tired of Ortega’s increasingly autocratic ways: he had gained control of all three branches of the government, the electoral college, the Army, the National Police and most news stations. The Ortega-Murillo’s children owned five pro-government propaganda news stations and held high positions in tourism and Chinese investment ventures, including the HKND inter-oceanic canal plan. His in-laws controlled the police and networks of oil distribution. The pueblo also deeply resented Ortega’s betrayal of Sandinismo—he had created pacts with big-business, cozied up to the IMF, and made alliances with the Catholic Church, even making therapeutic abortion illegal. And then, the money dried up from Venezuela, Nicaragua’s main benefactor, due to Venezuela’s own financial crisis.

 On April 18th Ortega’s government unilaterally enacted a reform to the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (the INSS). The protests began on April 19th in Managua over cuts to retiree pensions and increased taxes but quickly turned into a popular uprising against the Ortega-Murillo regime. University students initiated the revolt, but the private sector coalition (COSEP), the campesinos, and civil society soon joined. By the time Ortega retracted his reform measures to the INSS, it was too late. The dye was cast; the seed was sown for “civic revolution.”

 The young April 19th protestors demanded basic liberties--human rights, justice, and democracy in Nicaragua. Their main weapons were civil disobedience and peaceful resistance; they organized nation-wide marches, paros, (stoppages, where streets remained empty and businesses shut down) and built roadblocks (tranques). The tranques had brought the country’s already ailing economy to its knees. Ground transportation was severely disrupted, causing food and fuel shortages.

Paramilitaries and Sandinista Youth gangs (turbas), backed by the police, killed over 500 and injured over 2,000 Nicaraguan citizens during the protests; in a country the size of the US, this would be the equivalent of 25,000 dead and 100,000 injured. Following the state’s violent crackdown, Ortega called for peace but rejected the Civic Alliance’s proposal to hold early presidential elections. He criminalized the opposition, calling them “golpistas” (coup-mongers) and “enemies of the state.”

 In a second stage of state repression using the judicial system, the state began arresting protestors, accusing them of terrorism--for planning to overthrow the government. Repression and censorship escalated. The state took hundreds of political prisoners, many of whom were tortured and sexually abused. Fearing for their lives, 25,000 Nicaraguan citizens migrated to the neighboring country of Costa Rica.

In the seven months since the April 19th Movement began, the Nicaraguan economy has lost hundreds of million dollars in trade and investment. The tourist industry has disappeared, and airlines have cancelled flights and services. The country’s economy is reportedly broken and projected by the private sector to shrink by 6% growth in 2018.

 Pro-government political analysts claim the opposition protests are part of a greater right-winged conspiracy, aimed to take down the remaining “leftist” governments in Latin America, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. They argue that the US Nica Act, now passed through the House and Senate, and the US Global Magnitsky Act, enacted against six top FSLN officials closest to Ortega, including his wife and Vice President, are veritable acts of war committed by the US government against the Nicaraguan state.

 Yet, several old-guard Sandinista leaders, who defected from Orteguismo in the mid-1990s, assert that beyond the influence of the US, something much bigger and seemingly unstoppable is occurring in Nicaragua. They believe the movement is authentic, that it comes from the streets. Former Vice-President under Ortega, Sergio Ramirez stated, “Daniel has lost control of the streets and Nicaragua will never be the same.”

 If Daniel is forced to step down due to peaceful protests and economic pressure from US sanctions, Nicaragua may become a model for civic revolutions defying authoritarian rule in Latin America. However, Daniel shows no sign of relinquishing power and is eyeing the 2021 election. As with most authoritarians, stepping down from power would mean the potential loss of his family fortune, an estimated US 60-million-dollars stolen from poor Nicaraguans, and a life in exile or worse, in jail for crimes against humanity. Perhaps Daniel justifiably suspects that any offer of amnesty would later be revoked.

The Rise of Authoritarianism and the Right in Brazil

Caio Castro

“Brazil above everything. God above all”.  This is the motto of Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected President of Brazil. He is seen by many as the savior who is going to be tough against corruption and violence, after twenty years of hegemony of two parties in the Executive Power: left-wing Workers’ Party and right-wing Brazilian Social-Democracy Party. To others, he represents a threat to important achievements in gender and racial relations.

In 1994, Right-wing Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected President of Brazil and was succesful in controlling inflation rates that desolated the country’s economy until the mid-90´s. Re-elected in 1998, and by the end of Mr. Cardoso´s  second term, in 2002, 12 million people were unemployed, an alarming increase in the unemployment rate; there was also a crisis in the supply of eletricity, forcing the population to ration its consumption for more than six months between 2001 and 2002; a deprication of the local currency in relation to the US Dollar, at its lowest since 1995, the year the Real was implemented as the official currency of Brazil. Those were some of the factors that hurt Cardoso´s popularity and led the population to elect left-wing Lula da Silva, in 2002.

During President Silva´s two terms as President, he enjoyed high levels of popularity due to Brazil´s economic growth, unification of social programs elaborated by his predecessor, the creation of Federal Institutes and Universities, among others. However, his Party was involved in highly publicized scandals of corruption. Between 2005 and 2006, many of the Worker Party´s congressmen were involved in a scandal called Mensalão, in which the Party bribed other Representatives in order to aprove projects that were favorable to Silva´s Party.

Despite the scandal, Lula da Silva´s popularity helped his ally, Dilma Rousseff, to win the elections in 2010 and again in 2014, after a fierce dispute against Social Democrat Aécio Neves.  However, her first and second terms were marked by a large-scale criminal investigation called Car Wash Operation, that is investigating  a set of irregularities involving primarily the members of the Worker´s Party (PT), the Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement  (MDB). The irregularities involved illegal negotiations between politicians and big companies. That has resulted in the arrest of the president of the Chamber of the deputies, Eduardo Cunha, former president Lula da Silva, his former minister Antonio Pallocci and many others. In 2016, Dilma Rousseff suffered a controversial impeachment due to the called “pedaladas fiscais”, a maneuver to artificially maintain a surplus. Many, however, refer to her impeachment as a coup.

With the three main Parties involved in scandals of corruption, the people who rejected the Worker´s Party began to pay attention to Jair Bolsonaro, a Federal representative who prides himself on his “honesty” stating that “He has never been involved in any scheme of corruption”. Also, his conservative speech gained the support of important evangelical leaders (more than 20% of the population in Brazil is evangelical). Despite a limited budget for his campaign, Bolsonaro used social media in order to gather supporters, who seem to agree with his sexist, racist, xenophobic and homophobic rhetoric. Independent movements, such as Movimento Brasil Livre, used the internet to spread conservative values and an anti- Workers´ Party sentiment, often via fake news. Conservative YouTubers, such as Olavo de Carvalho, Nando Moura and Artur do Val played an important role in convincing his subscribers to vote for Bolsonaro, who won the second round run against Fernando Haddad, the replacement for Lula da Silva as a candidate due to him currently serving time in jail.

The popularity of Jair Bolsonaro, who declared he intends to govern for the majorities and the minorities will “either have to adapt or they should run away”, reflects what our society is: extremely racist, classist and homophobic. It is worth mentiong that in Brazil, one LBGT was murdered every 16 hours in 2016.

Impacts of the Carwash Operation: The New Right in the Context of Latin America*

Rafael Martins

As I write these lines, federal judge Sergio Moro, the most popular face of the Carwash Operation in Brazil, concedes his first collective interview to the media at large past accepting the offer to assume the head of the Ministry of Justice, thereby joining the core cabinet of President-elected Jair Bolsonaro.

Carwash Operation is a vast anti-corruption investigation started in 2014, task-force style led by the Brazilian Federal Police, the Agency for Law Enforcement and Prosecution of Crimes, and members of the judiciary at various levels. The operation has revealed that the political parties in power had established a scheme of embezzlement within virtually all of the state-controlled companies, especially Petrobras, for the purpose of financing their electoral campaigns, buying congressional support for their political projects, and, obviously, self-enrichment. Briefly, the scheme consisted of highly overpriced contracts between state companies and private corporations whose additional values would return to the parties and politicians in power.    

Notwithstanding its origin in Brazil, the task force has impacted the entire Latin America, since the Brazilian corporations maintained fraudulent contracts, now under investigation, with the governments of Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Mexico. The Carwash Operation has revealed not just a traditional corruption scandal; rather it has opened the guts of a deeply broken political economic modus operandi of continental proportions.

The companies involved, public and private, are giants of essential infra-structure construction and energy supply for very large populations who now watch at least as many as 45 major projects, various of which go well over several billion dollars, to be stalled or completely abandoned. The suspension of those projects has translated into major negative impacts such as bankruptcies, millions of jobs terminated, divestitures, and, most directly to the population, fast corrosion of the quality of fundamental public services in transit and transportation, energy supply, law enforcement, education, and healthcare. Daunting numbers for proof abound. According to the International Labour Organization, Brazil’s rate of unemployment easily goes beyond 14%, meaning 14 million people. Law enforcement-wise, situation is even worse: according to UN figures, with just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for 33% of global murders, and in Brazil at least 63.000 people are murdered every year, of which less than 1% of cases are solved and even less go to final court decisions.   

If the negative economic impacts of corruption in Latin America have been rough in the streets, equally rough have been the lives of many once powerful political leaders throughout the region, who now are either being investigated, prosecuted, or already serving time in prison as in the of Brazilian Ex-President Lula da Silva. In face of this scenario, with ex-presidents in prison, rotten political institutions, organized crime, and murder around the corner, many people in these countries have wondered: how can one live in such an environment of lawlessness? The number of Brazilians seeking to live in other countries has never been so high and rising so fast.

And that is not yet the whole story. The economic meltdown of Venezuela has been feeding an enormous migration crisis between its larger neighboring countries Colombia and Brazil, and the region at large. At least 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014. The most cruel of the dimensions of this crisis has been its impacts in public health such as the upraise of malaria, yellow fever, diphtheria, dengue and tuberculosis, as well as HIV, and even measles. The neighboring Brazilian cities have reported virtual collapse of total infrastructure, especially public healthcare institutions due to the everyday-arriving Venezuelans walking away from unbelievable distances. Brazil has consistently failed to seriously manage the tension along the borders. And surprising to me, Brazil and Colombia have not yet attempted any moves in concert to address the problem.  

As a result, in various countries such as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, and Brazil, the response has come in the form of a sheer turn to the political right, in the economic, and often social and cultural dimensions. The proposals have ranged around principles of economic liberalism on the one side and hardening criminal laws on the other. My take on this question is positive. In my view, the reasonable route to follow now includes a series of institutional reforms such as the remodeling of the public pension system, extensive privatizations, stricter laws, and harsher penalties for high-profile corruption. However, none of those possible remedies are perfect solutions, and so I would like to have this large movement to the right taking place in Latin America for evaluation in this discussion. Is this turn the correct political route to follow at this moment?

*this article has been reprinted from our previous discussion on immigration and migration.