Hola, President Biden. Latin America Has a Message for You.
“A scene from a banana republic”
is how former President George Bush described
the violent attack on the Capitol in Washington on January 6.
Authoritarian caudillos who promote a demagogic nationalist populism
have been a constant in Latin American history.
Focusing on the cases of Brazil and Mexico, this article’s author
tells Joe Biden what his priority should be in Latin America.
The particular case of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua,
though not mentioned, is implicit in the message.
The dystopian image of a militarized Washington D.C. converted into a fortified city, with some 30,000 security personnel on hand to protect the peaceful transition of power to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—not from a foreign enemy but from a domestic terrorist attack—demonstrates the main challenge facing the new government of the United States.
are already present here
Although it is an extraordinary priority, President Biden’s greatest challenge is not just to get a handle on a pandemic that has taken more than 400,000 US lives, destroyed millions of jobs and plunged the United States into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Donald Trump has left the world’s most powerful country wounded and under threat of becoming a far-right national populist dystopia. Joe Biden’s great mission is to repair the damage nationalist populism has inflicted on the country’s system of democratic governance and stop the advance of those who represent it.
However, the challenge of avoiding the further erosion of democracy by this dystopia and the self-serving demagogy of egomaniacal leaders goes beyond the United States. Dangerous variations of nationalist populism have taken root throughout Latin America through neo-authoritarian governments since the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999 and are currently at their peak in several countries of the region. As a reporter, I covered the rise of Chavismo and as a Venezuelan, I suffered the havoc of the omnipresent corruption and extremism that caused the total destruction of Venezuelan democracy and society. The United States, where I now live, is fortunately far from falling into the heart of that darkness, but the dangerous social cracks seen in other societies affected by nationalist populism are already present here.
A new era of relations
should be a top priority
When protecting democratic governability, it is no longer enough to argue that each nation is sovereign, as set out in the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed in Lima in 2001. However, promoting democracy in Latin America does require discarding the United States’ old imperial paradigms, which violated the basic tenets of international law and left our histories so scarred. Repeating threats from the past in Latin America would be a gift to today’s demagogues.
A new era of relations between the United States and Latin America must make the protection of democracy in the hemisphere a top priority. And Latin Americans should welcome this, given that a weak democracy is a threat to all nations in our hemisphere.
Bolsonaro and López Obrador:
Populism in Brazil and Mexico
According to Marta Lagos, director of the polling firm Latinobarómetro, 2018 was the “annus horribilis” of Latin American democracy, marking the lowest level of support since it was first measured regionally, in 1995. The dissatisfaction with democracy and nationalist populism run off the same fuel: a mixture of disgust with corruption in the political and business classes, economic and social stagnation, and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Among Latin America’s most notable victims of populism, whether from the left or the right, are Brazil and Mexico, the region’s two largest democracies. In Brazil, the far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, a confessed admirer of the military dictatorships that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, has encouraged militias and keyboard warriors to attack his adversaries. Militias like “Brazil’s 300,” which attacked the Brazilian Supreme Court in June, are the South American counterparts of US paramilitary organizations such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters, which participated in the assault on the Capitol. These groups are ready to mobilize and create mayhem at the slightest encouragement from their leaders: be it to defend the Republic from an alleged Democratic Party conspiracy, or to harass those who criticize Bolsonaro for his terrible handling of the pandemic in Brazil.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, also tends to exploit the emotional bond with his followers to incite them against his critics and to discredit the press, mockingly referring to journalists as “sissies.”
against science and truth
It is said that charismatic populist leaders like Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), Trump and Bolsonaro aim to rely on a “politics of affect,” removing reason from public debate, reducing it to pure emotional reaction, fanaticism and radical loyalties. Behind this strategy lies an ill-concealed effort to instigate polarization. Its purpose is to discredit the facts and destroy the idea of truth to prevent a collective consensus on reality and to make power even more inscrutable. An example is López Obrador’s latest attack on the independence of autonomous institutions that protect transparency in Mexico, such as the announced elimination of the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Personal Data Protection (INAI).
What these three leaders of the Americas—Trump, Bolsonaro and AMLO—have in common is their scorn for science and reason in justifying their negligent handling of the pandemic. Their arrogance undermined the response capacity of their countries’ health systems, reflected today in the number of COVID-19 victims.
It’s no coincidence that the US, Brazil and Mexico are among the countries with the highest numbers of coronavirus infections in the hemisphere. However, this disdain aspires to achieve the total opposite to democracy: to subvert the institutional mechanisms that function as counterweight to a President and to impose the undisputable will of a leader shielded from the obligation of accountability.
Aspiring caudillos abound
As the pathetic Trump case shows, the electoral authorities did not succumb to his threats and blackmail, Congress withstood the authoritarian onslaught, and democracy, at least for now, lives to see another day.
Trump, described by many US citizens as one of the worst Presidents in the country’s history, left the White House through the back door, marking the end of his revolting reality show and hopefully the beginning of his descent into oblivion. Yet the shadow he cast over democracy in the United States is a warning for countries with weaker institutions and more obsequious congresses, like Brazil, Mexico and El Salvador, where the formula of nationalist populism remains appealing and has traction.
As democracy breaks down, disappointed majorities continue to succumb to the populist spell, electing leaders who invariably promise, like Trump, to “drain the swamp”, or to put an end to “rotten and corrupt leadership,” as Chávez promised, or “root out the corrupt regime,” as López Obrador said he would do through the Fourth Transformation. And they are not the only ones, of course. There is no shortage of aspiring caudillos in Latin America.
Joe Biden’s cornerstone
in Latin America
The agenda of a new era of multilateralism covers specific issues of commercial and political relations between the United States and Latin American countries. However, the cornerstone should be to improve democratic prospects in the region. To promote democracy south of the Rio Grande, Biden must first lead by example by re-establishing a functional democracy at home. Aside from the critical need to strengthen institutions, bridging the opportunity gap is an important step toward tackling rising social and racial gaps in the United States.
Biden has put forth an immigration reform proposal that would legalize millions of migrants, in large part Latin Americans, many of whom work in some of the most demanding and essential sectors of the US economy. He has also said that he will allocate substantial economic aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to prevent the most vulnerable from having to migrate from their countries, and grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans who fled Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship. He has also offered to promote broad collaboration on climate change.
All of these measures will help improve relations with the region. Recovering the light of the continent’s largest and oldest democracy however, will make it much easier for Latin Americans as well to see the choice between nationalist populism and democracy as the product of reason, not desperation and fanaticism.
Boris Muñoz is a writer and journalist, editor of “opinion” in Spanish and senior staff editor of “opinion” in English for the New York Times. this article was published in that newspaper’s Spanish-language edition the day of President Biden’s inauguration, January 20, 2021. Substiles and English translation by envío.