In the eight years since the death of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, at the age of fifty-eight, his vaunted “Bolivarian” revolution to unify the Andean nations of South America has gone the way of most fever dreams. The region remains in ferment, beset by varying degrees of social, economic, and political chaos. Beyond their shared geography, the seven countries have analogous histories, beginning with the Spanish conquest. The colonial period ended, after independence wars led by Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, in an equally bloody carve-up into nation-states. They are mostly still newcomers to democracy, having endured periods of military rule and, in some cases, civil war, into the late twentieth century. Venezuela and Colombia ended their military dictatorships in the late nineteen-fifties, but Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru did not experience democratic restoration until the late seventies and early eighties, and Chile was the last to see off a dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1990.
Now hopes for a sustained democratic rebirth have waned, again, in the face of rampant official corruption and unresolved social inequities. Populism, authoritarianism, and military participation in politics remain in vogue. (The syndrome also holds in non-Andean neighbors, notably Brazil, as well as in the Central American nations of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.) During the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation much worse. Latin America accounts for less than nine per cent of the world’s population but nearly a third of the global pandemic death toll, which can be explained, in part, by the bungling or negligence of a number of governments. In most countries, the vaccination rollout has been abysmal, and without major outside assistance the pandemic will persist long after it has been contained elsewhere. Last year’s economic downturn in the region has plunged millions of people into poverty. Unattended social, political, and economic maladies sparked social unrest in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia before the pandemic. Now, entirely predictably, the unrest has returned—most seriously, so far, in Colombia.
In April, President Iván Duque proposed a tax increase, which was met by a general strike, mass protests, and clashes with the police that have continued for weeks–even after Duque withdrew the increase. Some fifty people are reportedly dead from the unrest, and hundreds have been injured. After a year of economic deterioration, in which the G.D.P. dropped by nearly seven per cent—the largest decline in half a century—and an estimated more than forty-two per cent of Colombians lived in poverty, the proposed tax increase, which would have affected working-class incomes by increasing the cost of food staples, was an unbelievably obtuse initiative.
Duque, who is forty-four, took office in 2018. His mentor, the former President Álvaro Uribe, who served from 2002 to 2010, is an ultraconservative. (Uribe has been under investigation for years in connection with a suspected sponsorship of right-wing paramilitary violence, which he has denied.) Duque’s own administration has been dogged by several scandals, involving corruption and spying on political opponents. He has also criticized the peace deal that his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, signed with the country’s FARC guerrillas, in 2016, after fifty-two years of war. In that deal, thousands of guerrillas laid down their arms, but in the years since hundreds of former fighters and social activists have been killed in paramilitary campaigns. Several thousand former fighters have now returned to the battlefield. Duque’s failure to fully implement the peace agreement is one of the protesters’ main complaints, Sergio Jaramillo, a former senior government official and a lead negotiator in the peace talks, told me, adding that a large part of the problem is Duque’s “total incapacity to read the historic moment,” which, he said, “is pushing us back to ‘conflict’ mode.”
Duque and Uribe’s camp has repeatedly linked the social unrest to alleged plots hatched in Cuba, Venezuela, and even Russia, to bring the extreme left to power. The charges are unproved, but they carry weight with the traditionally conservative armed forces, which are, depending on how it’s calculated, the second or third largest in the Western Hemisphere. The political journalist María Jimena Duzán told me, “There is a President who governs completely disconnected from the reality of his country. And the youngsters of the slums, in their majority the offspring of war-displaced parents, are fed up with his lack of empathy.” She added, “Their strike slogan was: ‘Uribe paraco’—the slang term for a paramilitary—‘el pueblo está berraco’—the people are pissed off.”
Some see Duque’s approach as a show-of-force preamble to next year’s Presidential elections, although he himself is not eligible to run—since 2015, the country’s Presidents are limited to one term. As in 2018, his party’s chief rival is the leftist senator Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá who had been a member of another guerrilla group, the M-19, in the late seventies and eighties. Duque beat Petro by a twelve-per-cent margin, but, in recent months, Petro has led in the polls. Just as Duque and Uribe’s circles blame the protests on foreign groups, they frequently claim that Petro is behind the protests, alongside Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, which, according to Duque, “sustains itself with the resources of drug trafficking” and “shelters terrorists.” In a country that has rarely been at peace with itself—notwithstanding its ability to convene elections every four years—it’s perhaps unsurprising to find that Colombia’s democracy is far from healthy.
It has been twenty-two years since Chávez first won election in Venezuela, but his syncretic brand of populist government still dominates the nation’s politics. Maduro, since succeeding Chávez, has managed, with the military’s support, to entrench himself, despite the virtual collapse of the oil industry, U.S. sanctions packages, and various ham-fisted attempts during the Trump Administration to seek his removal. Maduro’s ability to stay in power may well be his main political virtue. Roughly eighty per cent of the population was believed to be living in extreme poverty last year, and some five and a half million people are thought to have left the country. Urban slums and great swatches of the rural interior are the turf of criminal gangs, and sections along the border continue to be sanctuaries for generations of Colombian guerrillas, some of whom are said to be covertly aligned with Maduro’s government and engaged in clandestine economic activities that include drug trafficking and gold mining. (Since late March, Venezuelan troops have reportedly been fighting with a faction that would have broken the terms of an agreement under which its presence was previously tolerated.)
Earlier this year, the Biden Administration reaffirmed its support for the opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who declared himself, essentially, a parallel President, in 2019, and was recognized as such by the Trump Administration and other governments. At the time, Juan S. Gonzalez, President Biden’s Latin America adviser on the National Security Council, told me that the Administration wants to “see some leg” on fair elections and other issues before entering into any dialogue with Maduro’s regime.
In the past few weeks, Maduro has made what appears to be some good-will gestures. He transferred six executives of Citgo, the U.S.-based, Venezuelan-owned oil-refining company, from prison to house arrest in Caracas. The so-called Citgo 6 have been held since 2017 on charges of corruption; they have denied any wrongdoing. Maduro also agreed to let the World Food Program begin conducting humanitarian relief in Venezuela. Last month, the government-controlled National Assembly appointed a new National Electoral Council to oversee gubernatorial and municipal elections to be held next November. Significantly, two of the council’s five principal members are linked to the opposition. Meanwhile, Guaidó, who has had millions of dollars channelled to him by the U.S., made an offer of dialogue. Maduro agreed to communicate with the opposition if, among other things, the U.S. government would lift its sanctions against Venezuela.
So far, the White House has adopted a wait-and-see stance. But Representative Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called on the Administration to seize upon Maduro’s moves as an opportunity for engagement. This week, Gonzalez, Biden’s Latin America adviser, acknowledged the new developments. “The Maduro regime has taken some recent steps that show promise but which can be quickly reversed,” he told me. “There also appears to be steps to begin a dialogue with members of the opposition. We are supportive of such efforts, and if this continues to move forward we will be supportive, and may even be able to take some good-will gestures, but what we really want to see is movement toward free and fair elections.”
The Venezuelan democracy activist Roberto Patiño also welcomed the recent opening to the opposition. “I think there are some very interesting signs,” he said, but he advised caution, calling it a “first step.” “We have to try to see that the seed that has been planted, with the presence of these two persons in the National Electoral Council, can be germinated and bring about other important things needed to improve the quality of life of the Venezuelan people,” he said.
In Ecuador, a second round of voting was held in April to find a replacement for the outgoing President, Lenín Moreno. It ended with an upset: Guillermo Lasso, a sixty-five-year-old former banker and mainstream conservative, beat the thirty-six-year-old Andrés Arauz, a leftist protégé of Rafael Correa, a three-term former President, who was, in turn, a Chávez protégé. (Correa, a populist who aligned Ecuador with Venezuela and Cuba and brought in major Chinese investments, is now in exile, in Belgium; last year, an Ecuadorian court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison, on corruption charges. Correa’s critics feared that an Arauz victory would have paved the way for the former President’s comeback.)
When I asked the journalist Sabrina Duque whether she believed that Lasso’s election means that Ecuador had ended its long flirtation with populism, she answered, “I won’t deny that I breathed a little more easily when Lasso won, and also since seeing his Cabinet picks. I never expected to see a gentleman who belongs to Opus Dei”—the ultraconservative Catholic organization—“name a human-rights activist and feminist as one of his ministers.” She also noted that Lasso’s acceptance of a recent Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape shows a willingness to seek broader social consensus. (In Ecuador, as in most of Latin America, abortion is illegal; last year, Argentina became the third South American country to legalize it, after Guyana and Uruguay.) But, she added, “Ecuador has populism in its DNA, and I believe that there is no remedy for that until the day when ordinary people are able to meet their basic needs. And, the fact is, the construction of a state that guarantees health care and quality education is still not on anyone’s agenda.”
Beyond the political uncertainties, Ecuador has an economic crunch looming. In 2019, then-President Moreno said that the national debt stood at nearly seventy-five billion dollars, a significant amount of which was accumulated during Correa’s Presidency on costly infrastructure projects and is owed to China. Jorge Imbaquingo, the political editor of the leading daily, El Comercio, pointed out that it will be difficult for Lasso to meet debt-interest payments, and that any austerity measures he tries to enact “will be seen as an affront by the popular classes, and another uprising could erupt, just like the one in Colombia.”
In Peru, which has seen the greatest degree of political atomization of any of its neighbors—with five Presidents in the past five years (one of whom lasted just six days), the suicide of a former President, and the jailing or house arrest of four others on various charges—a second round of voting in a general election is scheduled for June 6th. In the first round, in April, two candidates emerged from a field of eighteen in a bid to replace the interim leader, Francisco Sagasti, a respected academic and congressman who was voted in by the Parliament, for stability’s sake, in November. The contenders represented a baroque sampling of Peruvian society, including a wealthy businessman who flagellates himself in a daily reaffirmation of his Catholic piety. He came in third.
No less baroque, in a sense, are the candidates who came in first and second. The front-runner, a provincial schoolteacher named Pedro Castillo, who habitually wears a traditional straw hat, terrifies the business élites and right-wing voters, who see him as openly embracing socialism. Castillo did describe the current political contest as “between rich and poor . . . the master and the slave.” His rival, Keiko Fujimori, is a perennial also-ran. Dubbed a right-wing populist, she is the daughter of the former President Alberto Fujimori, who held office for ten years in the nineties and is currently serving twenty-five years for corruption and crimes against humanity, including two massacres conducted by a military death squad during the government’s battle against the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. Keiko Fujimori herself recently emerged from her third stint in detention, on charges of laundering money, including from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, to finance her previous Presidential runs. She was released, owing to COVID considerations, and has spent a total of nearly seventeen months in detention thus far. (She has denied the charges and refused to testify in the Odebrecht case, citing bias among the prosecution.) She faces a thirty-year sentence if found guilty; if she is elected, she would be immune from prosecution. Gustavo Gorriti, one of Peru’s top investigative journalists, who was kidnapped in 1992, a crime for which Alberto Fujimori was found responsible, is known as a cool-headed man. But he confessed to feeling shaken by the current impasse. “I’d hoped that by now we’d be heading toward a healthier society,” Gorriti said. “Of course, we must never abandon faith in the possibility of finding a path forward, but this is profoundly depressing.”
The candidates are waging a media war that reflects the polarized nature of the race. “Think of the Future of Your Children: No to Communism,” anti-Castillo billboards read in Lima, while a banner headline on the front page of the conservative tabloid Correo noted that, in one speech, Castillo had uttered the communist-sounding word “pueblo”— the people— forty-four times. Opponents accuse him of wanting to do in Peru what Chávez did in Venezuela. Even Mario Vargas Llosa, the conservative Peruvian novelist, who ran for President in 1990 and lost to Alberto Fujimori, and who fiercely opposed Keiko Fujimori’s previous bids, warned that Peru “faces an abyss” and urged his countrymen to vote for her now as “the lesser of two evils.”