Not There Yet: The Limits of Leftist Reform in South America
by Michael Landes
Today, authoritarianism seems globally rampant. Here, Donald Trump takes steps to silence the free press; in Europe, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Nigel Farage embrace racist rhetoric and encourage violence against Muslims and refugees. But public embrace of authoritarian leaders is relatively new in these areas. To see how this trend toward single-leader government may play out, and the effects it can have on national populations, we must look at a continent that experienced similar authoritarian impulses some years back: South America. Across that continent, a “pink tide” since the late 1990s (often thought of as starting with Hugo Chávez’s rise in 1998) has turned countries away from post-Cold War neoliberalism towards socialist dictators, with devastating results for human rights in many nations.
Initially, the distinctions between South American populism and current rhetoric in the US and Europe seem more pronounced than the similarities. Leftism rather than right-wing nationalism was the dominant ideology behind the “pink tide”, and no international conflict like the current refugee crisis aided their nationalist rhetoric. But both trends can be directly related to the failure of neoliberalism. Internationalist policies that caused massive wealth gaps simply affected South American nations before striking the United States and Europe. The result was a desire for “strong man” leaders like Chávez and Luis da Silva in Brazil who nationalized industry across Latin America.
But instead of improving human rights in their nations through Leftist reform, most have expanded the wealth gap via corruption and destabilized politics throughout the region. Thousands protested in Venezuela last summer as a result of an economic crisis, caused largely by corruption and neglect of nationalized food production. The Venezuelan plight has not improved, as food distribution is now overseen by the military, who profit off of black market sales of food staples. Many Venezuelans now travel to nearby Colombia to purchase food, and the government has begun obscuring economic statistics on inflation, causing many to worry for the economy at large.
In Brazil, the first female president, Dilma Rousseff was impeached in May of 2016 on charges of corruption. She received support from the widely beloved and oft-lauded Lula da Silva, but he, too, faces corruption charges now. The country is now led by Michel Temer, who some believe orchestrated the impeachment of Rousseff, and who threatens the rights of many in the country. Soon after becoming president, he not only appointed a cabinet of only men (later amended to include two women), but he even abolished the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights––rarely a good sign. His economic reforms are also criticized for their impact on women.
Even though many of these leaders rose peacefully, their departure is often plagued with disastrous consequences: starvation, poverty, and increases in criminal activity (the three countries with the highest murder rate per 100,000 people are all in Central and South America). With globalization and neoliberalism now collapsing worldwide under a wave of nationalism and increasingly racial politics, it seems unlikely that the conditions for South American countries will improve. But it seems likely that economic and immigration reforms in the United States will adversely affect not just Central American countries but the entirety of Latin America and Latinx people perhaps around the world.
Naturally some immediate reforms can be made to improve the situation for Latin Americans: reduced corruption and stable administrations, food security, and true socialist reforms such as a Universal Basic Income would undoubtedly alleviate the current crises across the continent. But the root cause of this economic oppression and instability is colonialism and the continued economic pillage of Native and Latin American people and resources. True systemic and permanent change would require challenging the ideologies on which these governments and international relations are founded. Then and only then could human rights reform truly take root in Latin America.