Fifty years ago, political scientist Charles W. Anderson referred to Latin America as “a living museum.” By this he meant the co-existence of regimes that seemed to belong to very different eras, if not centuries: traditional military dictatorships like Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, as well as bureaucratic-authoritarian ones like Argentina and Brazil; old-fashioned, patrimonial autocracies, like Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and François Duvalier’s Haiti and established multiparty democracies like Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay; two-party systems like Colombia and Venezuela, and one-party-dominant ones, like Mexico’s.
Today’s Latin America is more along the lines of “a living theater.” Comedy (closer often to farce), tragedy and drama are all in full display in presidential palaces throughout the region, with comic opera and operetta making occasional appearances on the playbill. Events in late February in Cúcuta, a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border, are Exhibit A of this new theatrical performative tendency.
Orchestrated by Colombian President Iván Duque, who played the leading role, and with supporting actors like presidents Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Mario Abdo Benítez of Paraguay, it was portrayed as a grand operation to restore democracy in Venezuela. This veritable “diplomatic encirclement” was to bring to an end the Maduro regime, or so the script went. Dozens of trucks with humanitarian aid were poised to cross the bridge from Colombia to Venezuela over the Táchira river. As if on cue, the Venezuelan Armed Forces were then supposed to open the border, defect from the government and allow the self-proclaimed acting president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, to take over from President Nicolás Maduro. Although banned from leaving the country, the 35-year old, photogenic Guaidó slipped into Cúcuta, and was the undisputed star of the show. So much so, that Piñera and Benítez found themselves scrambling through Guaidó’s bodyguard-line to get their photo-ops next to the beaming young engineer.
Led by billionaire-cum-celebrity Richard Branson, a rock concert (“Venezuela Live Aid”) to raise $100 million for the whole endeavor was held in situ and included attractions such as Colombian cumbia singer Carlos Vives. The high note of the day was provided by Spanish singer Miguel Bosé (who sang for Pinochet in the 1980s in Viña del Mar), when he elegantly asked former president of Chile and now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, “to move her butt and get herself to Venezuela” (both the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross had refused to be part of the show—including the concert and the shipment of humanitarian aid).
In the end, no truck crossed the San Martín bridge, a ship loaded with humanitarian aid sent from Puerto Rico to Venezuela returned with its full cargo to the island, and Maduro strengthened his grip on the country.
Rarely has the region seen such an undiluted diplomatic fiasco. But then, perhaps that was the point. Stagecraft has replaced statecraft.
Not to be outdone, a few days later in Paraguay, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, paid homage to the man who ruled that country with an iron fist for 35 years, dictator Alfredo Stroessner, in the presence of his counterpart, Abdo Benítez, the son of Stroessner’s private secretary. Yet, lest he be accused of showing too much affinity for the old right, Bolsonaro soon pulled other rabbits from his hat. An avid Twitter user, during Brazil’s Carnival Bolsonaro outdid himself by tweeting the picture of a naked man touching himself as another man urinated on him. Later the president posted another, asking, “What are golden showers?” Displaying his common touch and appealing to his base, while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Brazilian president had lunch by himself in a supermarket cafeteria, rather than to do so with other participating heads of state in posh hotel suites. He has though, agreed to visit the White House on March 19, when presumably he won’t eat at the food court in Pentagon City.
Coups, cocaine, corruption, and Cúcuta
In Honduras, the farce has gone into overdrive. In 2009, the country experienced one of the last old-fashioned military coups d’etats, which included the signature feature of detaining the incumbent president at the crack of dawn, and hoisting him, still in his pajamas, into a plane and out of the country. The ostensible reason for the coup, as those who led it said themselves, was the government’s initiative for a new constitution, which might have allowed the possibility of presidential re-election, forbidden in the current charter. This is such a no-no that a coup was mandatory. Yet, the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, a leading supporter of the coup, and elected in 2013, got the Supreme Court to waive that constitutional ban to allow his re-election in 2017, in what was declared by independent observers and The Economist a fraudulent vote.
After stealing the election, the United States recognized him as the president and the region has hailed him as one of the Americas paramount democratic leaders. President Hernández’ younger brother, Juan Antonio (“Tony”) was arrested last November in Miami for long-term drug-trafficking to the United States on behalf of the Sinaloa cartel. His closeness to narcotics traffickers was such that he even allegedly had a type of cocaine named after him. Tony is now behind bars.
Yet, even countries that have done well these years find it hard not to be pulled to the stage. Peru has had among the best economic performances of any nation in the hemisphere this century, growing at an annual average of 6.1 per cent from 2002 to 2013. Yet, every single elected president in this period, Alberto Fujimori, Alan García, Alejandro Toledo, and Ollanta Humala—barring the most recent—is either in prison or has an arrest warrant over their head, a world record that led the New York Times famously to ask, “Does Peru need a special prison just for former presidents?” And even the most recent, Pedro Pablo Kuzcinsky, a banker-turned politician, elected president in 2016 under an anti-corruption platform, was forced to resign in 2018 when it turned out he had received payments from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company, while holding public office.
Across the Andes, in Argentina, things are not much better. Once among the top five richest countries in the world, and blessed with the best agricultural land anywhere (the pampa húmeda), and untold (though mostly under-exploited) mineral wealth, Argentina regressed from development to underdevelopment, and fluctuates from boom to bust with bipolar frequency. After its most recent international default (in 2000-2001), and a roller coaster ride under the Kirchners (Néstor Kirchner, 2003-2007, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, 2007-2015), Argentines and the international community held out hopes for conservative Mauricio Macri, a millionaire businessman who, it was said, would balance the books and straighten out Argentina’s foreign debts. A businessman would clean up the mess left by the peronista politicians, or so the fairy tale went. Yet, a little over three years into Macri’s term, Argentina is drowning in red ink, the peso has hit rock bottom—requiring the International Monetary Fund to shore up the country’s Central Bank reserves—and talk of yet another default has already started.
Venezuela, the country with the biggest oil reserves in the world, and once so rich that Venezuelans in Miami were known as “dame dos” (“give me two”, as whenever they wanted to buy something, they bought not one, but two items ) now undergoes periodic blackouts, and is unable to feed its people, let alone provide basic services. Its president, Nicolás Maduro has found it hard to fill the shoes of his once boss, Hugo Chávez, whose “21st century socialism” model is now in tatters.
Much is made of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, and rightly so. Yet, in some ways Haiti’s humanitarian crisis is a lot worse, although nobody pays much attention to it. The country never recovered from the January 2010 earthquake that devastated it. Despite the billions of dollars committed by the international community for reconstruction, nearly ten years later, refugee camps still abound, and even the white stucco, birthday-cake-like presidential palace is still in ruins. Imposed from abroad, hapless Michel Martelly, a former crooner who had never held public office nor run anything before becoming president (2011-2016), limped through as the leader of the hemisphere’s poorest nation. His handpicked successor, Jovenel Moise (2017-present) has not fared much better. A businessman, accused of pocketing some of the proceeds from the discounted oil provided by Venezuela to Haiti under the Petrocaribe scheme, Moise has faced weeks of popular protests. The opposition managed to shut down the country for a week in February, and U.S. and Canadian travel advisories have decimated the tourist industry. Haitians have emigrated to countries as far away as Chile, which 100,000 of them now call home.
As if the large number of existing regional organizations were not enough, a new one has been announced with great fanfare. It carries the imaginative name of PROSUR, taking a leaf from the export-promotion agencies (ProChile, ProColombia, ProMexico) that populate foreign ministries. The lead has been taken by a number of countries ( Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina) that left another, previous organization, UNASUR, alleging it was “too ideological”—which this one presumably isn’t, even though it is launched by another side of the ideological aisle.
Cúcuta was a trial run for what we can expect from PROSUR. The show goes on.
Jorge Heine is a public policy fellow at The Wilson Center is Washington DC. His latest book (with Brigitte Weiffen) is 21st Century Democracy Promotion in the Americas: Standing Up for the Polity (Routledge, 2015).