General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, dead from a heart attack at 91. Yet another Latin American dictator who lived a long, free life, successfully evading the hands of justice that are so notoriously slippery in the region. Naturally, in 1973, Pinochet was a welcome addition to Latin America’s power elite in Washington’s eyes, which Nixon, Kissinger and others conveniently averted to the floor as Pinochet’s quest to quell communism equated to mass executions and torture in Santiago’s fútbol stadium. U.S. interests were much safer under Pinochet than his deposed predecessor, socialist physician Salvador Allende, and through the implementation of deregulation and privatization, American economists frequently quoted the “Pinochet example” as the formula for economic growth in the region.
Today, Chile does enjoy one of the best economies in South America, thanks, in part, to Argentina’s collapse, but she also enjoys it at the expense of the tens of thousands of her countrymen who were murdered and tortured over the course of nearly two decades of assassinations and detentions. DINA (Chile’s secret police), the Caravan of Death army squad responsible for the coup that brought Pinochet to power, and the multi-national Operation Condor’s counter-terrorism and intelligence activities formed a bloc of state-sponsored violence and repression that kept dissenters at bay and dictators at the helm of many Latin American countries. Now, Chileans are mourning and celebrating the dictator’s death. Certainly most are mourning not just for the loss of Pinochet’s life but for the lost chance to hold him to account for the countless human rights abuses for which he is undeniably guilty. Others are lauding him as a staunch Cold Warrior who led the fight against the spread of Marxism in Chile and in the region at large, and a genius whose Chicago Boys (a group of U.S.-educated economists) jump-started the country’s economy by immediately reversing the nationalization Allende had implemented.
Pinochet’s death, unfortunately, doesn’t signify the end of an era of repressive and violent dictators, and certainly he isn’t the first to live a long and free life, unaccountable for his crimes. One need not look any further than Chile’s neighbor Argentina, where only a few leaders of the military junta that reigned from 1976 to 1983 have been held accountable for crimes that included, but were not limited to, ejecting dissenters from airplanes into the ocean below. However, this year certainly looks like the beginning of a new era, or perhaps simply a return to the political atmosphere that preceded the anti-communist fervor that all but eliminated socialism in Latin America for the last two decades. Indeed, voters this year in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela have decided to take a gamble with socialism yet again: la gente have hedged their bets on a smattering of “new Left” candidates, and the old issues have come back full force: anti-imperialism; agrarian reform; equitable distribution of natural resources; a focus on poverty and human rights; a fight against corruption; the recognition of indigenous rights; accountability; and reconciliation. In the aforementioned countries, socialist candidates either won for the first time or were re-elected. Argentina and Uruguay didn’t have elections this year, but both countries already have center-left presidents. The only exceptions are Colombia and Mexico, whose presidents are considered to be center-right. However, voters turned out in enormous numbers for the left-leaning candidates running for office in these countries as well.
It is an obvious trend that can be neither ignored nor discounted. The last time Latin Americans voted in leftist candidates was the 1960s, and the United States’s fear of communism dictated its interaction with the region. That resulted in Washington-supported political coups, military interventions and financial austerity measures that were meant to prevent not only the nationalization of resources and the seizing of U.S. interests but also the implementation of policies perceived as “communist”. Despite the insistence that foreign direct investment and cutting social programs would shrink the income gap, create a “trickle down” effect to the region’s devastatingly poor and be the answer to the region’s problems, the last four decades in Latin America have been miserable ones indeed, plagued with rampant poverty and corruption, a growing income gap, and a declining standard of living.
Whether or not the U.S. had good intentions is moot; Washington’s intervention in Latin American affairs over the last forty years has done more to harm the region than help it. The Washington Consensus of the 1990s, which proposed privatization, foreign direct investment, deregulation and fiscal conservatism in Latin America, is now widely regarded as a set of failed policies that did less to narrow the divide between rich and poor and more to line the pockets of foreign multinationals. Certainly, these four decades of failed policies and their reverberating effects have contributed enormously to the resurgence of Latin American populists who promise to put the people first and not worry about whether or not they are pleasing Washington.
Many questions arise, and with time we are likely to see the rise of even more questions in the place of answers. Will Washington intervene again, or will it leave Latin America alone? What are the positive and negative consequences of each of the two possibilities? Brazen Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — with his anti-imperialist rhetoric, his adoration of Fidel Castro, and his chummy relationships with members of the “axis of evil” — certainly appears to concern Washington, and it may behoove Chávez, who has emerged as the new leader of the Latin American Left, to tone it down so that his objectives and those of other leftist leaders are taken more seriously by the rest of the world. The goals of the new socialist regimes sound like they would be music to the ears of millions of poor Latin Americans, but it is a tune they know all too well. Oftentimes, campaign promises end up only reaching the half-way point, many others are long forgotten by the time the elected president takes office, and the end result is a discontented populace full of malaise, a leader scorned and ousted by popular uprisings, and here we are, back at square one: elections are held again and candidates from dozens of political parties posture and promise to “not be like that guy before me.”
Furthermore, socialist agendas most likely will sound like funeral dirges for foreign businessmen. Certainly, investors are going to be wary about putting their money into an uncertain region undergoing such a dramatic face lift, and although many economists in Latin America are quick to point out the harm foreign direct investment has caused the region, they need look only as far as Cuba to see the alternative. However, thus far, none of the newly-elected presidents region-wide has implemented drastic policy reform that would compromise foreign investment and foreign-owned companies operating in the region. As long as they refrain from doing so, Washington may keep its nose out of Latin America’s business. But the longer they decide to accommodate multi-nationals and hold off on real reform, populism’s bad reputation for being nothing but hot air will subsist, and so will Latin America’s lack of hope and faith in its leadership.
Interestingly and ironically, Fidel Castro, long the leader of Latin American socialism, has not appeared in public since he underwent an emergency intestinal surgery in late July of this year. The ideals of socialist revolution that Castro has presided over as the president of Cuba for nearly half a century are often invoked by Hugo Chávez, and much of the region’s poor still fall for the romanticism and the false hope of the Cuban example. Although the Cuban government optimistically asserts that Fidel is recovering, the 80-year-old’s long absence and the relinquishing of power to his brother Raul are not signs indicative of a clean bill of health. It is a distinct possibility that the bearded one is breathing his last breaths, which could profoundly change the stagnant state Cuba has endured for almost half a century.
However, the death of Fidel will more than likely not signal the death of socialism in Cuba. Cubans are quick to lament the regulation of trade, the press, and personal freedoms under Castro, but they are just as nimble at singing the statistics that mark Cuba’s successes in health care and education. Furthermore, acting president Raúl Castro commented that “the populist and revolutionary movements are becoming robust, and despite Washington’s barefaced multi-million-dollar campaigns of disinformation, blackmail and interference, new and experienced leaders are assuming the leadership of their nations.” This is not the language of a leader willing to hand the reins of the island over to the United States — and American-style capitalism — after nearly fifty years.
The wave of support for left-leaning leaders and policies in Latin America isn’t just a political thunderstorm passing over the region; it has become a sentiment endemic in the young people who have seen the last few decades bring nothing but more poverty and more inequality, as well as in those old enough to remember life under the crushing hand of dictatorship. But how long will that storm last? Will Latin Americans be patient as their newly-elected presidents attempt to tackle the problems that have plagued their nations for so many years, or will frustration lead to more revolving-door presidencies? Will Washington listen to this mandate and keep its hands off the region it has insisted on manipulating since the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine? Is “left” the right direction for Latin America? As old dictators die and new presidents assume office, only time will tell.