How the left blew it in Latin America

A Venezuelan protestor wears a sign that reads in Spanish: “Maduro you are starving us to death, there are no medicines, leave, now.”
A Venezuelan protestor wears a sign that reads in Spanish: “Maduro you are starving us to death, there are no medicines, leave, now.” AP

In the end, the populist revolutionaries who swept to power in Latin America a decade ago proved to be worse than the corrupt oligarchs they replaced. Instead of ushering in a new day of good governance and transparency, the Bolivarian revolution is fizzling out under the weight of its own massive corruption, ties to organized crime, intolerance and megalomania.

The promises of the rule of law, democratic openings, and authentic “people’s power” were mirages that have vanished. It will take years for the continent to recover from the wreckage of authoritarian populism that many initially thought held so much promise.

What is most disillusioning is that this discredited generation of revolutionary leaders had a real chance to substantially remake Latin America by offering a more inclusive, fair and less corrupt model of government.

Many of the leaders (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his successor Dilma, Rousseff in Brazil; Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua; Salvador Sánchez Cerén in El Salvador) had actually put their lives on the line to defeat the old authoritarian and exclusionary order. Others like Rafael Correa in Ecuador; Hugo Chávez in Venezuela; Evo Morales in Bolivia were genuine political outsiders with a real opportunity to create new governance models unmoored from the chokehold of traditional elites. Some, like Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, were simply megalomaniacal. All failed abysmally.

Hugo Chávez, who used his oil wealth and personal popularity to help elect his regional Bolivarian allies eventually presided over narco-state that made the massive corruption of his predecessors seem like child’s play. His successor Nicolás Maduro, is president of a country with the largest oil reserves in the world yet unable to provide food, toilet paper, medicine or employment for an increasingly restive population.

Lula and Dilma, a labor leader and former guerrilla, are now enmeshed in a sprawling corruption scandal far larger than the webs of thievery spun by their predecessors. Their attempts to secure immunity have further tarnished their legacies.

Ortega has become so blatant at fixing elections and having his family vacuum up all public contracts and oil revenues that his wealth far surpasses that of Anastacio Somoza, whom he overthrew. Sánchez Cerén’s government and party control hundreds of millions of dollars that do not pass through the national budget or oversight, and whose origin is entirely opaque.

The financial volumes flowing through the parallel structures for personal and party benefit are orders of magnitude greater than the right-wing oligarchs that once paid death squads to hunt down those they accused of being communists. Fernández de Kirchner’s personal wealth — just that declared publicly — rose by more than 1,300 percent during her time in government. Law enforcement investigations have documented the movement of millions of dollars by her closest associates to offshore havens and front companies.

Many in Latin America, given the failure of past models, held out hope for the revolution, often in the face of overwhelming evidence of its failure, The chickens are finally coming home to roost for the leaders of the Pink Revolution promising a new Socialist utopia.

Fernández de Kirchner’s handpicked successor lost despite the widespread illegal use of government assets deployed to save him. Maduro presided over electoral system rigged to ensure his victory yet saw the opposition gain a two-thirds majority in the Congress.

The same record of failure distinguishes the other self-proclaimed revolutionary leaders.

Morales, the one-time peasant leader now fond of $200 haircuts and questionable multi-million dollar contracts for his mistresses, lost many of the most important cities in the last year’s congressional elections then lost his bid to authorize his own reelection earlier this year. Correa, facing an impeding economic calamity, has announced he will not seek reelection. Sánchez Cerén is presiding over an unprecedented rise in violence that has seen El Salvador rocket to the least coveted title of most violent nation in the world.

The looming question is what comes next. At a time of massive global changes, simply returning to the past will only insure continued instability and violence. The populist revolution’s political repression effectively decapitated an entire generation of young leaders who could have brought true democratic change.

What remains is an inchoate movement striving to sweep out the venal and incompetent leadership, caught between the failure of the cronyism of the neo-liberal reformers and the rank incompetence, hypocrisy, intolerance and kleptomania of revolutionaries proclaiming Socialism for the 21st Century.

It is incumbent on the functioning democracies of the region such as Chile, Uruguay and Colombia, along with the United States, the Organization of American States and European allies to lend political and economic support to whatever new models and leaders emerge, as long as they are genuinely democratic and transparent.

Argentina’s Macri and the OAS’s Luis Almagro have begun a healthy trend of publicly confronting the anti-democratic forces in the region and demanding accountability. Others should follow suit to help the region find a viable democratic way forward.

This piece has been updated at the author's request in the 8th paragraph to make it clear that many of those killed by death squads were not actually communists.

Douglas Farah is the senior non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.