“The Great Lies of (Neo-) Pinochetism”

After another couple of months off, I post a blog entry I read this morning, in observance of the 45th anniversary today of the other 9/11 — the Chilean military coup of 1973. Its author, Fernando Mires, is Chilean and a professor emeritus of political theory at the University of Oldenburg (Germany).

As I did in a previous post of mine about the event, I dedicate this entry to Steven Volk, a historian and witness to the coup whom I had the chance to meet personally several years ago in Ohio, through my dear friend and fellow Latin Americanist Tom Walker. Volk was close friends with Charles Horman, an American journalist who also witnessed the coup but, unlike Volk, did not live to tell the tale. (He died in military custody.)

Mires’ blog entry will be presented here in its entirety (except for two minor edits) and has been translated by me from the original version in Spanish. All parentheses appear in that version. Brackets have been added for clarification.

This is a very, very long post, but worth reading. It will be followed by my own thoughts, to be posted separately.


No murderer will ever say that he kills because he likes it. Humans try to legitimize their evil deeds; it is in their nature. Those are the traps of reason that Kant told us about. With larger reasons when it comes to mass murders, genocides, or great massacres like those committed throughout the universal history of infamy. Even Chile – so far away from the world, a peaceful and relatively democratic country – witnessed one of the bloodiest tragedies in the continent.

The tragedy that began to take place starting on September 11, 1973 is documented in photographs, films, testimonies. It is undeniable. And the more it is, the larger has been the effort of the perpetrators and those who cheered them (and still cheer) to give it historical legitimacy. Most of those legitimizations utilize the coup alibi under the guise of “historical necessity”, as if history followed a pre-determined logic and reasoning.

The dictatorship looked for its legitimization from the first days of the coup. It was carried out, said the generals, against a Plan Z, destined to assassinate non-Marxists. The UP [Unidad Popular, Salvador Allende’s governing coalition] had secret weapons caches and a clandestine army was ready to take the state by force and declare a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. And many believed those lies not because they were credible, but because they needed to believe them. Today, there are still some who argue that Chile has a historic debt [of gratitude] with “its” army. Pinochet, despite making “mistakes” here and there, had saved Chile from becoming a second Cuba.

45 years after the coup, the myth of “Pinochet, defender of the Fatherland” has increased in intensity, among other reasons, because of the political helplessness of the victims of three Latin American dictatorships: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. There is no shortage of people in those countries that yearn for the appearance of a Pinochet – someone that can expel the communists, impose discipline and order, and above all steer their nations to prosperity. These, and others, are reasons to ponder once more about those events that happened 45 years ago.


Let us go back in history. Since mid-1973, Allende’s government had reached its decline phase. In fact, it lost the support of the middle class. Students protested in the streets. The SOFOFA (Sociedad de Fomento Fabril), the SNA (Sociedad Nacional de Agricultura) and CONFECO (Confederación de Comercio) – that is, the three pillars of the economy [industry, agriculture, and trade, respectively] – declared war on the government and negotiation with them was no longer possible. Even worse: the UP lost the copper and steel unions. The internal elections of the CUT (Confederación Unitaria de Trabajadores), traditionally a communist-socialist redoubt, were objectively won by the Christian Democrats [center-right]. Without the two chambers [of the Chilean Parliament, meaning no legislative majority], Allende was ruling by decree.

All polls gave the government less votes than those it obtained in the 1970 presidential election. To appear having the force it lacked, Allende appointed generals to ministries, so the government was in fact taken over from the inside by the military. Sure enough, the coup started before the coup. The military carried out searches without judicial warrants and armed soldiers were seen everywhere in the streets by mid-August, while jet fighters crossed the skies on “drills”. The navy was being purged and pro-Allende sailors, accused of plotting, were arrested and tortured. In all, Allende lost power before losing it.

These facts must be taken to account when making a judgment, for the September 11 coup was not carried out against a triumphant revolution, but against a weak government on the verge of collapse. Why was it so bloody, then? The official version of Pinochetism was unanimous: to prevent Chile from becoming another Cuba.

However, one of two conditions was required for Chile to become a new Cuba: a loyal army and/or strong international support. The army was already won over by the right, especially amongst commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and Allende knew it. The second condition was international: a new Cuba would be possible only with the support of the Soviet Union and it is a fact – not speculation – that it denied its support to the Chilean process.

From the economic standpoint, Chile could not advance an inch if it did not pay its foreign debt. Almost humiliatingly, in December 1972, Allende went to the Soviet Union to request a line of credit that would allow him to pay off some of the debt (in practice, to suspend the $350 million that Chile paid to the Soviet Union), but he returned home empty-handed. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union was suffering a period of economic stagnation. Cuba alone cost more than a million dollars every day. Also, détente with the US was coming and [Secretary of State] Kissinger demanded that the Soviet Union should not intervene in South America in exchange for the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. That was the reason why Chilean trade with the Soviet Union, under Allende, was lower than Soviet trade with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Colombia.

The Soviet Union did not want another Cuba. That is a geopolitical fact explaining why the Soviets maintained shortly afterwards trade and – above all – political relations with the Argentine military junta. Indeed, where geopolitics dominate, there is no politics. Pinochet knew about this; after all, he was a geopolitics professor. In all, Chile could not be another Cuba and, although the Cubanization of Chile served as propaganda, Pinochet decided to carry out the coup for reasons that had little to do with Cuba. What did they have to do with?

Remember that Allende, after his failure in the Soviet Union, met with all UP leaders and crudely stated the situation. His government was isolated nationally and internationally. Only one possibility would prevent total capitulation: a plebiscite. He was correct. If Allende won, his government would be strengthened. If he lost, there had to be new elections. If the Christian Democrats won then (and that was the most likely outcome), it would not be by absolute majority and, consequently, the new government would have to rely on UP support, inverting the relationship that materialized in October 1970 and allowed Allende to be elected president after intense negotiations with the Christian Democrats. Even with a plebiscite loss, UP could keep some positions for the future.

Allende’s good plan faced, however, two obstacles. The first was well known: his own Socialist Party blocked the plebiscitarian alternative. The second was known later: the army (actually, Pinochet) saw in the plebiscite a threat to a military solution to the conflict. Hence, precisely in the days that Allende was preparing to announce a plebiscite, Pinochet decided to hurry up with the coup. Therefore, Pinochet not only carried out a coup against UP, but against a political solution that, given the conditions in September, could not be anything but plebiscitary. In some way, the struggle against “Marxism” was Pinochet’s pretext to seize all state power.

Shrewd like few, Pinochet established a tacit alliance with the dominant faction within the Christian Democrats, led by Eduardo Frei Montalva [Allende’s predecessor]. That way, Pinochet neutralized supporters of the plebiscitarian option within the Christian Democrats […] in exchange for the promise to carry out a brief transition and later support a center-right government led by Frei. But that “Bonapartist” solution, as we know, was not in Pinochet’s plan. On the contrary, his objective was to establish a long-term military government that would create a new republic without political parties. It was not about a change in government, but to carry out a revolution under an army of liberation led by Pinochet. The coup, seen from this perspective, was a declaration of war to all the prevailing political and social order.

Only in this way can we explain the bloody character of the military coup. It was a coup that was not just a coup; it was the outbreak of a war against politics, its institutions, and – of course – its people. It was a war waged by the best-armed army in the continent against unarmed citizens. Because seriously, the few armed groups in the Chilean left, in comparison with Argentina’s Montoneros and ERP or the Uruguayan Tupamaros, were a joke. Not to mention [Peru’s] Shining Path, against which Fujimori fought; or the FARC, which was unable to destroy the pillars of the Colombian republic despite controlling large swaths of territory.

Pinochet’s war would last throughout his government. The so-called uprising of September 11 was the start of a revolution against all of the Chilean political class, of which the physical extermination of the left was only the initial stage. The right, in open complicity, did not resist and dissolved itself. The March 1975 plot to kill General Óscar Bonilla, Frei’s man inside the army, was a turning point. Frei was no longer needed, and his subsequent assassination [in 1981, allegedly by poisoning] would only be the logical consequence of Pinochet’s revolution, which was carried out not only against the left and its parties, but against politics as a form of citizen life. Pinochet himself said so when derisively referring, whenever he could, to “the political lords” [señores políticos]. In that struggle against politics, the left “only” provided the tortured, the raped women, the prisoners, the exiled, and the dead, above all.

The disproportionate massacres – unnecessary from the military point of view – are not explained only by the sadistic inclinations of Pinochet and his circle, characteristic of all dictators. They were part of the logic of the military revolution: to reach the point of no return. The bloodier were the hands of Pinochet’s followers, the closer the complicity of pinochetistas with death, the more impossible the return to democratic life.

Under Pinochet, Chile became a nation-garrison: no debates, no parties, no politics. That is why Pinochet, unlike other dictators, did not create his own party. It was already formed — it was the army. Nevertheless, he briefly attempted to create a new association: an alliance between the military state and the unions. It was the golden period of his then-son-in-law, fascist Pablo Rodríguez. The alliance did not last long. Pinochet would soon understand that alliances work on compromises and he quickly got rid of Rodríguez and his union power. His place as éminence grise was taken by Jaime Guzmán.

With Guzmán’s advice, Pinochet began to forge his historical project: an anti-political state “in form”, placed above institutions but with a margin of deliberation between former politicians selected from the top. In other words, the members of the Army High Command would become a sort of uniformed ayatollahs, seconded by “notables” faithful to the regime.


What Pinochet did not think about was that he was creating, in the name of the struggle against Marxism and under different ideological forms, a political system very similar to that of Cuba. In the same way the European regimes of Hitler and Stalin were similar to one another, those of Pinochet and the Castro Brothers were marked by signs of similarity. The difference is that the Chilean political class proved to be more resilient than the Cuban political class. But it is inevitable to think that, with Cuba’s violent opening to foreign capital under Raúl Castro, the perfect alliance between market and military state that Pinochet and Guzmán once imagined for Chile was able to materialize. Both of them died without knowing it. And pinochetistas, although they knew about it, accepted it in the name of – according to them – the miraculous economic policies of the dictatorship. Few things have been more fallacious than referring to some numerical successes as an “economic miracle”, itself an wretched expression by Milton Friedman.

Friedman knew the German origin of that term and, by the way, also knew that it referred to a process that was not only different from but also the opposite of what occurred during the Chilean dictatorship: the recovery of [West] Germany’s postwar [post-WWII] economy thanks to an alliance between the state, the business sector, and union-organized workers. The latter gave a Keynesian character to the process and would also originate another term: social market economy (Ludwig Erhard [West Germany’s economics minister from 1949 to 1963 and main promoter of the term]). In turn, Pinochet’s was an anti-social market economy. Or to put it this way: while Allende tried to implement a policy of equity without growth, Pinochet would implement a policy of growth without equity.

To cite one of the most authoritative voices in Chilean academic economics, Ricardo French Davis: “It is true that modernization occurred during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Without doubt, some of it became permanent basis for economic development strategies, but others constitute a heavy burden. Economic growth under Pinochet’s neoliberal regime, between 1973 and 1989, averaged only 2.9% per year, poverty reached 45% and wealth distribution deteriorated notably.”

We then ask, can an economy that, despite showing positive numbers on paper, takes a nation to unprecedented inequality – some of the highest in the world – be characterized as successful? If the objective of an economic policy are not human beings, we wonder what else could it be.

Pinochet’s economic miracle is, if not a myth, one of the biggest lies of neo-Pinochetism. As French Davis himself posits, Chile’s economic growth became more vigorous from the moment the governments of the Concertación [the center-left political alliance that replaced Pinochet in 1989] incorporated public and social policies to their programs. “The Concertación achieved better rates of economic growth, job creation, and income for the middle and poor sectors. Growth between 1990 and 2009 was of 5% (5.3% if we exclude the 2009 recession). (…) This growth plus active public policies reduced poverty from 45% to 15.1% of the population. Regarding the social dimension, poverty was not reduced with public policy alone. In fact, average salaries were 74% better in 2009 than in 1989 and the minimum wage multiplied by 2.37 — a sharp contrast with salaries under the dictatorship, which in 1989 were more reduced than in 1981 and 1970. (…) Hence, Chile grew faster than the rest of Latin America and shortened the gap with developed nations significantly. GDP per capita expanded to an annual average of 3.6%, compared to 1.3% between 1974 and 1989″ […].

Lastly, we must add that there was no single political economy under Pinochet. There were at least four: shock policies between 1973 and 1979 (price increases, budget cuts, reduction of demand, massive unemployment); classical neoliberalism between 1979 and 1982; a neo-statist political economy between 1982 and 1986, motivated by the shrinking of the export system and including expropriations, price controls, and an monetary emissions; and a pragmatic policy that combined free markets with Keynesian monetary boosts. In the end, the only thing that connects these four policies is the constant widening of cuts in social benefits [la tijera social] and an equally constant but low rate of numerical growth.


Having reached this point, here is a thought: if in any case his political economy would turn out to be as successful as his supporters of yesterday and today say, would Pinochet be legitimized, then, on the altar of history? Not at all. Even if Chile was today the wealthiest country in the world, there is no reason to justify state crimes. But some do. Devoid of all ethics, they reduce history to a cost-benefit calculation, despite paying the former in human lives, tortured bodies, destroyed families, broken biographies, and systematic violations of human rights.

According to this sacrificial notion of means and ends, these people could indeed justify the most monstrous regimes in modern history. With the same criteria employed to justify Pinochet, they could have justified Hitler before. Did Hitler not end the disorder generated by the Weimar Republic? Did he not end inflation and unemployment? Did he not build the best roads in Europe? Did Germans not have access to a VW? Did the retirement system not improve? And lastly, did Hitler not impede the advance of communism inside Germany and from abroad? And the Holocaust? Yes, that was a “small mistake”. And is Putin not initiating, at this precise moment, a vindication of Stalin? Did not Stalin turn a country of agrarian serfs into a world economic and military power? And the millions who died in the gulags? Yes, maybe it was “something” hard. And [Spain’s] Franco? Did not he provide stability and disciplined a country that fought a fratricidal war? Did not he save his country from communism? And Fidel Castro? Did not he liberate Cuba from imperialism? Did not he eliminate illiteracy? Do Cubans not have free healthcare? And so on and so forth.

The defenders of tyrants, be they left-wing or right-wing, will still be found everywhere, willing to bow to those from the past and those who will come in the future. Without them, no dictatorship would have been possible.

Damned be all of them!

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The tournament comes with much of the region in a funk because of crime, corruption and sluggish economies. A footballing [soccer] victory wouldn’t change that. But it would provide some joy.

(Conclusion of an article published on June 2018 in The Economist, about the current state of Latin America as it participates in the Soccer World Cup)

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Random Thought: When History Repeats Itself

¡Presente!: A demonstrator killed during a demonstration against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega is taken to his final resting place (June 15, 2018). Photo credit: Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas. Source: Yahoo News Canada

This is a Facebook post of mine from June 1, translated from the original version in Spanish, revised, and expanded

One of the few specialists in Latin American politics that I hold in high regard is a former colleague of mine from Ohio University, Tom Walker. I consider him the most Nicaraguan gringo I know because of the decades he spent studying Nicaraguan politics, especially the Sandinista Revolution. During the 70s and 80s, Tom was one of many voices of disagreement with and protest against US foreign policy in Nicaragua, particularly US support to Anastasio Somoza’s regime and, later, the anti-Sandinista guerrillas known as contras. Tom wrote a book, now with more than 10 editions, about Nicaragua, of which I have an autographed copy that I treasure. In it, he presents an analysis of the Sandinista government established right after Somoza’s ouster, based on the idea that American political pressure through the contras and other means – rather than anything for which the government could be blamed directly – was at the heart of the gradual exhaustion of the political and socioeconomic system it envisioned, eventually leading to the transfer of power via elections to the coalition of opposition parties led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990.

One day at OU, just before his retirement, I asked Tom about his take on what was happening in Nicaragua at that time. In broad terms, he let me know about his disappointment with Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, to the point of accusing him of ditching the Sandinista ideals for which he fought in the past and under which he led the Nicaraguan government between 1979 and 1990. Coming from someone like Tom, with his progressive credentials, that statement was a big surprise back then.

Today, I read about Nicaragua being shaken by street demonstrations and riots demanding the ouster of Ortega, who was elected president three more times after 1990 (two of which after managing to remove term limits). Complaints against him include outright corruption, repeated electoral fraud, and the establishment of a downright autocratic system hell bent on silencing all opposition. Funny, but those were very much the same gripes around which Ortega and his fellow Sandinistas organized the guerrilla offensive that toppled Somoza back in 1979. Now, nearly 40 years later, Ortega ripped a page from the playbook of his political nemesis: he is violently repressing the demonstrations against him. As of today, Ortega’s government says only 34 people have been killed in these demonstrations so far, but human rights activists say the real number is 170; in any case, even one killed demonstrator is simply too many. (Also as of today, the government has agreed to an international probe on those deaths.) Calls for an end to the violence have been made, but basically to no avail. In turn, chavistas see no issue with Ortega’s defenestration of his prior political ideas and, true to form, portray him as a victim of the great neoliberal global conspiracy.

I find out about all this and now think that what my old colleague and dear friend Tom Walker told me years ago about Ortega is not surprising anymore. It is more like proof of his disappointment. And it also compels me to ask how Ortega feels now that he is committing the same abuses that Somoza did.

What is it like to be just another Nicaraguan dictator?

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“I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore”, Brazilian Style (III)

Cue the theme from “Rocky”: Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, holding the Brazilian flag, leads a rally. Photo credit: Ueslei Marcelino. Source: Americas Quarterly

Back in January 2014, months before the Soccer World Cup got underway, I blogged about street demonstrations held in host country Brazil against it. Among other things, I mentioned that what Brazilians likely had in mind was that there were better things to do with the exorbitant amount of money spent on the tournament, given the existence of still unresolved issues such as crumbling mass transit systems, under-resourced hospitals, and deficient schools. By the time the ref’s whistle was blown for the last time, local and visiting soccer fans saw or heard about more demonstrations, but none of those derailed the tournament or caused the same commotion in Brazil as the 2013 protests. What did cause a commotion in Brazil during the Cup was losing to the Netherlands in the third-place match. (Fortunately, though, that relatively lackluster performance was reversed with a dramatic win by penalty kicks over world champ Germany in the gold medal match at the 2016 Olympics, with Brazil’s very own soccer idol Neymar scoring the winning goal.)

In the four years that have passed since the 2014 Cup, things have gotten worse in Brazil, as I have blogged about previously and reports continue to tell us. In a recent essay, Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly and someone who knows Brazil intimately, delivered a stark verdict that puts all the bad news into a depressing context: “The Brazil of mid-2018 is a frightened, leaderless, shockingly pessimistic country. It is a country where four years of scandal, violence and economic destruction have obliterated faith in not just President Michel Temer, not just the political class, but in democracy itself.” (For our purposes, we will define democracy in liberal terms – that is, unfettered electoral competition and political freedoms.) Calls for the Brazilian military to intervene have been made repeatedly as of late, in the midst of a truckers’ strike that has all but paralyzed the country, itself caused by rising gas prices. On top of that, there will be a presidential election this coming October – one of several highly consequential electoral events to be held this year in Latin America.

It is imperative to put those calls for a military intervention in perspective. In the last installment of Vanderbilt University’s AmericasBarometer, Brazil was shown as having the lowest levels of support for the political system in the Americas. Indeed, the pollsters state that those levels have been in decline since 2010 due to the double whammy of corruption and Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In addition, Winter mentions a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, in which 38% of Brazilians thought that military rule would be good for the country. That finding dovetails with three takeaways from the most recent Latinobarómetro poll: 1. Democracy is not supported by the majority of Brazilians (only 43% do so), 2. Satisfaction with Brazilian democracy is almost nil (13%), and 3. The military is one of the most trusted institutions in Brazil (50%), second only to the church (69%). It would not be a surprise, then, to hear about Brazilians demanding a military intervention in politics. At the same time, though, AmericasBarometer also found that Brazilians are politically tolerant – over 50% identify themselves as being in agreement with that hallmark of liberal democracy. Connecting the dots, we therefore should not interpret that public clamor in Brazil for a military intervention as an outright approval of authoritarianism as a form of government. There is no subversion to eliminate, as it was the case for the Brazilian military during its two decades in power (1964-85). What is really at play here is the public clamor to “throw the bums out,” as it happened in Venezuela at the time of the military coup that made Hugo Chávez a household name. One of Winter’s interviewees, a Brazilian political analyst, is clear about it: most Brazilians do not want a coup, but they would support one if it happened. It is not about changing the regime, but disinfecting it.

In any case, Winter also mentions that the likeliest way the Brazilian military will intervene in politics once more is not by way of a coup (at least, not according to President Temer), but by way of riding on the coattails of Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman (with a record, as of last October, of two bills passed out of 171 proposed during his 26-year legislative career) and retired army captain (with a disciplinary action for insubordination on his record) whose popularity has been steadily increasing as Brazil’s crisis has deepened, to the point of positioning himself as a front-runner and, according to some polls, the leading candidate. The incumbent defense minister likes Bolsonaro’s candidacy because he thinks Brazilians are looking for leaders with values like those embodied by the military; and Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the prestigious Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, opines that what explains Bolsonaro’s rise is the current lack of faith in the traditional political class. Already known for speaking his mind first and maybe asking questions later, Bolsonaro once stated publicly that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” and, accordingly, has proposed a solution to Brazil’s overwhelming crime problem: basically, to emulate Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte and declare open season on criminals – both figuratively and literally. However, it is not clear at this point whether this move will increase citizen trust in law enforcement (which Latinobarómetro 2017 puts at 34%) or uproot the pervading culture of corruption within it. And it is not that Temer has been playing the lyre while Rome burns: last February, he ordered the army to take over police duties in Rio de Janeiro State until the end of the year. The only problem with that order, though, is that the army is faring no better than the police. One thing is a certainty, though: hypermilitarized police units like Rio de Janeiro State’s Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE in Portuguese) will be delighted with the chance Bolsonaro will give them to go all out. Racial profiling? Civil rights violations? Extra-judicial killings? Oh, well. C’est la guerre.

Yet for all of Bolsonaro’s electoral appeal, he is not necessarily a shoo-in. Looming large over his chances is Lula da Silva, the former president. Electoral authorities have declared that Lula is barred from running because of his current imprisonment on corruption charges, but his lawyers believe that his ineligibility could be suspended under current law and, consequently, his party is poised to present him as a candidate, hoping that he can be officially added before election day. This is where things get really interesting. Datafolha, a well-known Brazilian polling firm, ran a series of scenarios last April and came up with very interesting outcomes: in a scenario where Lula’s name was presented to respondents, he would receive more votes than Bolsonaro, and in a scenario where Lula was not on the list, Bolsonaro would be the most voted candidate. But in a pool of at least 16 presidential candidates running under a majority rule, as it is the case in Brazil, no one is likely to even come close to the 50% necessary to win outright, which means that there will be a runoff round between the two most voted candidates in late October. In the first Datafolha scenario, that round would be disputed between Lula (31%) and Bolsonaro (15%), and in the second scenario, it would be Bolsonaro (17%) versus 2014 runner-up Marina Silva (15%). And if Lula’s ineligibility stands, his party will hope that any substitute picked from its ranks will benefit from his backing (a different poll says that could happen). In any case, the electoral horse-trading will ensue immediately after the first round, and that means Bolsonaro will have to win over the support of the candidates who did not make the cut, as well as their respective voters. Not every single one of those candidates may support Bolsonaro in the runoff, and those that may could ask for political favors in return under Brazil’s “coalitional presidentialism”, itself a by-product of an overpopulated political party system and how it deprives ruling parties from having solid legislative majorities. Also, according to some analysts, Bolsonaro’s policy proposals and abrasive public persona could scare away moderate voters; for the runoff, that will cost him. Others also raise the possibility of significant electoral abstention, which could also steal invaluable voter support away from Bolsonaro (and all others, of course).

Winter concludes that there is no political consensus within Brazil that could bring about the policies needed to turn things around and, instead, Brazilians are intent on simply tearing down the system. In this sense, many Brazilians see Bolsonaro as a sledgehammer. Stuenkel is more optimistic: the situation stinks but has also spurred Brazilians into action (for example, here). Winter is correct in pointing out that the political class is to blame for what is going on, but after all Rousseau had a big point by stating that political representatives should not deviate from the “general will”. Stuenkel admits that the situation is very hard to remedy, but his optimism makes much sense. Enforcing accountability on the political class, instead of taking the easy way out by electing someone whose outbursts do not jibe with the image of a politically tolerant citizenry, is the most cathartic way to turn things around in Brazil.

In the meantime, this year’s World Cup is about to begin, and Brazil is playing in it. If Neymar and his team manage to win it all, it will be reason enough to throw one hell of a party.

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The Crackdown on Corruption: All Bark but No Bite?

After a long absence due to teaching commitments, I now resume my blogging. During my time offline, the Venezuelan crisis continued to worsen, anti-government protests rocked Nicaragua, Donald Trump ordered Mexico and Canada to renegotiate NAFTA with the US, and Lula da Silva’s fall from grace (or martyrdom, in the view of his supporters) reached its climax, among other news. Indeed, a lot has happened south of America, but teaching Latin American politics and other courses in political science did not allow me to post anything about noteworthy political happenings in the region. Now that my work schedule has cleared up, I can now find time to continue with something I thoroughly enjoy and permits me to share what I know about Latin American politics to the wider public, both inside and outside of academia. That includes posting new material and revising older posts to include updates, clarifications, and corrections.

I look forward to keep myself at it for the foreseeable future.


Pinch-hitters: Mike Pence shakes hands with the Peruvian Minister of Housing upon Pence’s arrival in Peru for the Eight Summit of the Americas. Source: Official Summit website

The Miami Herald‘s Andrés Oppenheimer opined recently that the Eight Summit of the Americas, held in Peru last month, was not a total failure despite Donald Trump’s decision to not show up so he could – says the White House – closely monitor the air strike against Syria that was carried out at that same time. On the one hand, says Oppenheimer, some leaders were discouraged enough by what he sees as a deliberate snub by President America First to not stay in town long enough to kowtow with stand-in Mike Pence. On the other hand, the snub did not put a stop on efforts to coordinate a response to the still-unfolding unmitigated disaster in Venezuela, although Oppenheimer also says that could have been more successful had Trump decided to attend. Those efforts, hammered out in side meetings held during the event, resulted in a statement signed by the US and 15 other countries demanding the restoration of democracy and vowing to not acknowledge the results of this month’s presidential election, itself widely assumed to end as usual – with the “resounding triumph” of the Bolivarian Revolution over its “terrorist” opponents. Simply put, this Summit was more of a single than a grand slam, but that was a lot better than striking out looking.

There is another silver lining. The previous two encounters, held in 2012 and 2015, were characterized by the fact that the US and Latin America mostly agreed to disagree, so neither one ended with a joint declaration, as it was customary until then. (To be sure, there was agreement on points such as the eradication of HIV/AIDS, but that was not enough to forge an unassailable consensus on matters such as which political and economic institutions – either those that have the American stamp of approval or Hugo Chávez’s – are appropriate for the whole continent.) What was different this time, notwithstanding Oppenheimer’s assertion that there were no major agreements, is that there was a final joint declaration, calling for a crackdown on corruption. Indeed, corruption was adopted as the focus of the Summit’s official agenda at the behest of the host country, even if Oppenheimer (who attended as a panel moderator) points out that the most important talks between leaders were centered on both Venezuela and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There is a highly justifiable reason for this Summit to devote its attention to the issue of corruption: it is one of the most pressing issues in Latin America, along with the economy and crime. The loud citizen demand for effective action against crooked public officials is not baseless: according to watchdog NGO Transparency International (TI), perceived corruption by public officials is considerably high in most of Latin America. Conversations on that matter ordinarily include usual suspects like Mexico (where old habits from its seven decades of PRI rule refuse to die) or Brazil (especially now because of the Odebrecht scandal), but perhaps surprisingly, none of them had the highest regional perceptions of corruption in TI’s most recent index. That disreputable distinction fell onto Venezuela, which also has the highest perceptions of corruption in the hemisphere. Only in two countries, Chile and Uruguay, was perceived corruption lower than the regional average.

Why corruption in the public sector, whether perceived or actual, is a problem can be summarized by two general points: first, when some public official lines up either his/her pockets or those of some crony with the people’s money, it is a misuse of funds that should instead be invested in the welfare of citizens; and second, because laws and regulations are always violated when it happens, corruption contradicts the rule of law. Latin America’s corruption problem encompasses both points, as well as a third one: corruption is a misuse of the power emanating from the electoral mandate to formulate and enact policies that increase citizen welfare. The consequences of that point for the future of Latin American democracy are foreboding: according to the 2017 version of the Latinobarómetro public opinion poll, Latin Americans are convinced that their governments have fallen to corruption, contributing to government approval ratings currently set at a dismal 36%. And if government performance is what Latin Americans have in mind when evaluating their democracies (as Latinobarómetro has concluded in the past), the gradual drop in their support for them (from 61% in 2010 to 53% now) and the equally steady increase in the percentage of those who cannot care any less if they live under a democracy or not (from 16 to 25% in the same period) should come as no surprise, either.

It bears noting that corruption has not gone by uncontested. Latin American governments – or rather, government officials with enough moral fortitude – have done something. That is why the Brazilian federal judge overseeing the Odebrecht case, Sergio Moro, became a hero to many of his countrymen (although we can countenance mistakes on his part). That is how Guatemalan attorney general Thelma Aldana, credited with indicting her own president and vice-president on graft charges back in 2015, earned her reputation as an implacable enemy of impunity. That is why the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish), which blew the lid off from that graft scheme, is said to have the support of 70% of Guatemalans. And that is also why it comes across as enormously ironic that the president of the host country of a Summit of the Americas dedicated to the issue of corruption had to resign because he got splattered with Odebrecht’s muck (though that is still yet to be proven conclusively).

Certainly, TI acknowledges that steps have been taken against corruption in Latin America. Sadly, however, Latin Americans do not perceive any progress as much as they perceive corruption itself because, in TI’s view, what has been done so far does not address the core of the problem, partially reflected in existing campaign finance rules and regulations on government contracts with private providers. Latinobarómetro 2017 is equally sobering: only 32% of respondents have a positive evaluation of their governments’ fight against corruption, and another 35% sees progress in it. Moreover, headwinds are starting to blow hard in some places. In one such case, incumbent Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, elected on the coattails of a deafening public outcry against corruption, is allegedly poised to get payback for Aldana’s probe into the financing of his campaign, about which she offered new details a day shy of the end of her four-year term. According to The Economist, Morales may force the exit of CICIG’s director (something he tried to do once before being dissuaded by protests) or let its mandate expire, and some say that his pick to replace Aldana will eventually be forced to choose between integrity and impunity. (Morales may be betting on her to choose the latter.)

Back in 1957, in his famous volume An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs said that the whole point of running for office was not to carry out a party’s policy agenda, but in part to take advantage of the material perks of office. (The other reason is attaining the social prestige associated with public office.) That was a realistic but regrettable observation, for corruption feeds on politicians with that mindset. When Latinobarómetro examined the issue back in 2013, it found that Latin Americans were behaving like the proverbial ostrich. Now, not only do they fully realize that corruption is a big problem, but also that governments (despite exceptions) are not doing anything categorical about it. It is particularly the latter part what does not bode well for the future of Latin American democracy, whether liberal or radical. Fortunately, according to Latinobarómetro 2017, an overwhelming 87% of Latin Americans would do the right thing and denounce an act of corruption. The least their governments can do on their side is to follow suit, and that requires a political will that is nevertheless not that ironclad. If those governments made a public commitment at the last Summit of the Americas to fight corruption tooth and nail, then it is imperative that they do put the money where their mouths are. Otherwise, that commitment will be exposed as a hollow one. And Latin Americans are not in the mood to let it slide.

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Random Thought

Just like the US had the Indian Wars, Argentina had at that same time something that became known as the “Conquest of the Desert”, which involved the seizure of the Patagonia and the pacification (through overwhelming military force, of course) of the native peoples that inhabited it.

In 1971, Argentine comedy troupe Les Luthiers performed a parody entitled “Los noticiarios cinematográficos” (I roughly translate it to “The Newsreel Suite”), which ended with this “sequence” (here, my translation):


Under a radiant, sunny day, the citizenry celebrated a new anniversary of the Conquest of the Desert. A parade of airmen, sailors, and soldiers marks the high point of the celebration with the gallant march of our youth in uniform for the defense of our sovereignty.

Closing the parade is a group of descendants of those brave indians that populated the Patagonian lands by the time of the advent of civilization and progress. They are escorted by a troop of mounted police, four assault vehicles, and border guards with dogs and tear gas guns.

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Götterdämerung to the Tune of a Bossa Nova (II): Lula Returns to the Slammer

Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva attending the inauguration of the new leadership of the Brazilian Workers’ Party on July 5, 2017. Dilma Rousseff sits next to him. Photo credit: Associated Press. Source: MSN

The Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) anti-corruption probe might have fried its biggest fish yet: Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva. In a judicial bombshell, the former Brazilian president has been found guilty of accepting $1.2 million in kickbacks and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison. An appeals court must now either uphold or reverse the verdict, a process that can take months; in the meantime, Lula is still a free man. If he does end up in the slammer after the appeals process concludes, it would not be the first time: in 1980, Lula was jailed for leading a metalworkers’ strike that the Brazilian government, led back then by the military, declared illegal.

Lula’s side sees the ruling in question as the result of a political persecution. The chair of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), which Lula co-founded and in which he currently serves as honorary president, said that it was all to sideline him from next year’s presidential election (indeed, if the ruling is upheld by the appeals court, he will be barred from running). One of the defense lawyers declared shortly after the verdict was announced that Lula was a victim of “lawfare”, or the cherry-picked use and deliberate abuse of judicial procedures against political opponents, adding that there was no evidence to sustain the conviction besides speculation and a probably fraudulent testimony by a co-defendant. Impeached president Dilma Rousseff called the ruling “a judicial absurd” and the leader of the PT caucus in the Brazilian Senate called for massive street demonstrations in defense of Lula.

Back in March of last year, I uploaded two posts on my Facebook account about this trial. I stated on the first post that there may be reasonable doubts on the motivations of the prosecutors; in this occasion, Lula’s defense team gave a very credible case along those lines. The defendant himself, though, accepted (although briefly) an appointment as Rousseff’s chief of staff, and in my other post I thought that it was an act of cowardice that gave the impression that there was something to hide, very conveniently, behind the cloak of ministerial immunity. But fortunately enough, and according to Reuters, Lula eventually gave a defiant, fierce, and long defense (five hours worth of testimony) at this trial, indicating that he did something I also said on that FB post he had to do: confronting his accusers head on. On my first post, I stated that a guilty verdict would be the downfall of a “human success story”, provided that the accusation held water. The case presented by Lula’s defense team in regard to a conviction without hard evidence to sustain it is disturbing enough to entertain the possibility that the prosecution did not play by the rules (see also this post), but the case for this being a political hit job is, at this point, just as speculative. Simply put, who would benefit from Lula being barred from the presidential race? The presiding judge, Sergio Moro, who denies being driven by political motivations? Acting president Michel Temer, fearing that the PT is out for his head after pushing Rousseff out of the president’s seat? The Globo media group, which is accused of mudslinging Lula to no end? The US, which to this date still has as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs a holdover from the Obama administration that Donald Trump may possibly substitute for someone else? To whom or what is the smoking gun pointing to?

That brings us to another point. In an op-ed for the daily Folha de São Paulo published the following October (translated here), Lula gave his explanation for what is behind all this legal brew-ha-ha:

 I try to understand this (witch)hunt as part of the political dispute, although it is a repugnant method of struggle. It’s not Lula they wish to condemn: it’s the political project that I represent, along with millions of Brazilians.

I talked already about the political project he represents, but a few parts of that blog post will be restated and expanded upon because of their direct relevance to this turn of events in the Twilight of the Brazilian Gods. In the op-ed, he calls his political project “a fairer Brazil, with opportunities for all.” Deep down, it is a social-democratic project. There is nothing wrong with social democracy in principle, but its ancillary social expenditures are so significant that they can become unaffordable on the long term without a humming economy. Fortunately for him, Lula was able to deliver millions of Brazilians out of poverty by taking advantage of the deluge of profits coming from Brazil’s share of the Latin American commodity boom of the early 2000s, itself a case study in a mainstay of classic liberal economic theory: Ricardian comparative advantage. In that sense, Lula’s political project could not have been implemented at a better time (and was also sustained by the fiscally disciplined policies of his predecessor, former dependency theorist Fernando Henrique Cardoso). Moreover, unlike Hugo Chávez, Lula did not deliver any diatribes against “the rancid oligarchy”, as he may have done in his younger years as labor leader. As a matter of fact, in the same way that it happened to some of Latin America’s new left parties, the trauma of military rule served to moderate the PT – and Lula himself – very significantly: briefly put, social and economic welfare would now be espoused through liberal-democratic procedures and would not entail open struggle or the end of market economics. The epitome of this transformation was Lula’s very own “Letter to the Brazilian People”, which he made public after winning his first presidential election to calm down markets by promising that the new government would continue to honor its foreign debt obligations, including those with that pillar of neoliberalism – the International Monetary Fund. In all, because Lula never meant to take Brazil far from the same neoliberalism that creates the inequality of opportunity he begrudges, his political project is seen by some as insufficiently transformative. Nevertheless, this project is what Lula and his supporters believe is being shunned from the upcoming presidential election by the guilty verdict he was served. How this harmlessly reformist project became as progressive, radical, and revolutionary as chavismo is not clear.

Assuming that Lula is correct and the political hit job in question consists in suppressing progressivism for the sake of oligarchic interests, it stands to reason that he is no Chávez (and certainly no Maduro), so the Brazilian oligarchy may well be overreacting. Besides, whatever gains were made at the Brazilian stock market the moment Lula was found guilty (reportedly, session highs) can be easily wiped out by what a political scientist with the Getulio Vargas Foundation – a top Brazilian university and think-tank – described to Reuters as “a situation of extreme political tension” the country just entered into, which includes a presidential race so widely open that a real political outsider may win it all, given that other contenders from Brazil’s fragmented partisan mainstream are implicated in corruption scandals. Instability and unpredictability are never good for business, so someone or something may have shot himself, herself, or itself in the foot by hauling Lula to jail.

To be continued, no doubt.

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