As South Africa and the world mark the passage of Nelson Mandela, some thoughts come to mind.
In an op-ed posted last April, Dan Stevens shows his disappointment at how Costa Rica tries to mimick the American political system but cannot effect many laws, while at the same time its government is rife with corrupt officials and sells the country off to China. He is looking for a new Mandela, but also asks whether corruption has taken over the governments of the world (including Costa Rica’s, it seems) to the point that there will be no more Mandelas elected to office. Stevens’ point does strike a nerve: The 2011 wave of the Latinobarómetro surveys revealed that 24% of respondents throughout Latin America believe that bribing government officials is the only way to get anything, but also that 48% think that reducing corruption is missing from its democracies — more than citizen participation or social justice. (55% of Costa Ricans agree with that statement.) To demand a Latin American Mandela is legitimate but, as the LB pollsters conclude, “social fraud [represented by corruption] is a consequence of the perception of discrimination and is combated with social transformations that make society more equitable, not just with a state more capable of enforcing the law [my translation].” Such transformations go to the heart of why Latin American liberal democracy did not live up to the expectations set in the 1980s and 1990s and should be a priority on the agenda of the Latin American Mandela.
But then, what about the social transformations occuring in the region since 1998? Are they not already creating equitable societies? If by “social transformations” we are referring to the transformations occuring in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, we can only say “yes, but…”. Latinobarómetro 2013 has revealed that what really counts for Latin Americans is not the mere existence of democratic institutions but their tangible results; on that note, it also revealed that Venezuela registered the most dramatic increase in support for democracy since the 2011 wave. Arguably, government programs like the missions explain this outcome. However, as I have commented in a prior post, Venezuela is also dominated by a polarizing populism. Most eulogies of Nelson Mandela agree on characterizing him as the founding father of a new country, but it would be more accurate to characterize him as someone who built a new polity from the ruins of the past. That makes him similar to the other Latin American “re-founding fathers” that appeared with the “pink tide” of the 1990s, with the late Hugo Chávez at the top of the list. Yet it is also there where the similarities end. One thing Mandela did, and for which he is also eulogized for, is to encourage and foster reconciliation between white and black South Africans after decades of systematic racism and violence committed by both sides (see the movie “Invictus” for one way he managed to do it). That, as much as an indestructible integrity to his cause, earned him the moral high ground. In turn, Latin America’s more radicalized governments have done just the opposite of what he did and, in the process, have mimicked the haughty attitude of the former powers-that-be, dividing society and sabotaging the democratizing potential of the social transformations they intend to effect. They have the good intention of including the excluded, but imposed their own exclusions as well.
The Latin American Mandela not only has to be a champion of human rights, as Dan Stevens hopes for and the late Mandela was, but also has to be a champion of social equity. It must also defend both principles in a way that represents a break with past animosities, not a repetition of them. But Stevens is right in deploring the absence of a figure within the region that can follow his footsteps. Latin Americans may not be political junkies, but they are starting to demand a better life. The time is right for them to demand better politicians.