Pink tide holds

Published : Dec 16, 2011 00:00 IST

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires after her re-election, holding a picture of her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. - VICTOR R. CAIVANO/AP

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires after her re-election, holding a picture of her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. - VICTOR R. CAIVANO/AP

Incumbent left-wing Presidents romp home in Argentina and Nicaragua while Guatemala elects to the top post a former army general.

ARGENTINA, Nicaragua and Guatemala went to the polls recently to elect new governments. Argentina, the biggest of the three Latin American countries and a regional powerhouse, saw the incumbent President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, romp home with an impressive victory. In Nicaragua, another incumbent President, Daniel Ortega, registered a handsome victory. Both Cristina Fernandez and Ortega are part of the broad left-wing pink tide which has swept the region in the last decade. But the election of the right-wing Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala is illustrative of the fact that the pink tide could be in danger of receding. Perez Molina was a general and the intelligence head in the Guatemalan Army when it was engaged in a brutal campaign against left-wing guerillas during military rule. He is the first person with a military background to become President since the army ceded power after ruling the country with an iron fist for 25 years.

The results did not come as a surprise as opinion polls had predicted wins for all the three. In the case of the Argentine President, it was a remarkable change of fortunes. Until last year, she was sliding in the polls. At one point, popular support had declined to 20 per cent after she picked fights with the powerful farmers' lobby and media groups over the introduction of export quotas. Her party lost control of Congress in 2009. To add to her misfortune, her husband and political mentor, Nestor Kirchner, the former President, died of a heart attack in October last year. He was the man who revived his country's economy after becoming President in 2003. Kirchner stood aside in 2007 and let his wife run for the presidency. He was expected to run again this time, but his death left the leadership of the ruling Peronist Party in the hands of his wife.

Observers of the Argentine political scene attribute her landslide victory to the performance of the economy and the sympathy wave generated by the death of her husband. She got 56 per cent of the votes. Her nearest opponent, Hermes Binner of the Socialist Party, got only 17 per cent. The rest of the votes were divided among other candidates, who included a former President, Eduardo Duhalde, a Peronist who split from the ruling party. Cristina Fernandez's political coalition, the Front for Victory, also swept the race for Congress and governor posts. The Front for Victory is the first coalition since the 1920s to win three successive elections in Argentina. Cristina Fernandez's margin of victory is greater that that of even her idol, Juan Peron. Peron used to win elections routinely on a populist platform in the 1950s and 1960s until his ouster by the military.

Cristina Fernandez, 58, chose Economy Minister Amado Boudou as her running mate. The long-haired, guitar-playing Boudou is very popular among young voters. He is also credited to be the architect of Argentina's economic turnaround. Boudou's stand is that the government's first priority is the people, not international lending institutions.

The Argentine government had refused to introduce the austerity measures demanded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Boudou was also responsible for nationalising pensions and using the country's foreign exchange reserves to bolster the economy. Argentina now has foreign exchange reserves worth $48 billion. Although Argentina suffers from one of the highest rates of inflation in the region, the government has kept the public happy by increasing the minimum wage by 25 per cent, giving a boost to pension benefits and increasing spending on child welfare schemes.

There has been a sustained economic boom in the country since the Kirchners took over. The Argentine economy has grown faster than that of the other regional powerhouse Brazil. In fact, the Argentine economy is the third fastest-growing economy after China's and India's. Unlike in most other countries that have enjoyed sustained economic growth, the Peronist government in Argentina took care to spread the wealth around. For instance, it tripled social spending and in the process bridged the gap between the rich and the poor significantly. Nestor Kirchner was elected President when the economy had become virtually bankrupt. The government of the day declared a record-breaking international debt default in 2001. Argentina has been cut off from major international lending since then. In the last couple of years, the country cleared much of its international debt by dipping into the Central Bank's huge reserves.

After the election results were announced, Cristina Fernandez pledged to continue on the path she had taken. She cautioned workers and the middle class, who supported her policies, to remain vigilant and not be knocked off-track as has happened so many times in our history, ruining projects that served the nation. They are still out there, those who knocked us down, many times directed from abroad.


In Nicaragua too, after Ortega retook the presidency five years ago, the people were happy with the modest economic turnaround the Sandinista government was able to achieve. Since Ortega's return to power, the economy has grown steadily, with exports doubling and foreign direct investments growing fivefold. Ortega firmly aligned his country with Cuba and Venezuela in the foreign policy arena but at the same time managed to build a strong relationship with the still influential Catholic Church and the business community. For instance, he has not opposed the Vatican's antiquated stance on family planning. Ortega's economic adviser, Bayardo Arce, said the experience of the Sandinistas in government in the 1980s taught them important lessons. The experience of the 1980s taught us that you cannot achieve social justice or eradicate poverty by distributing what we have. We have to generate new wealth for social justice, he told the media.

The Sandinista Party introduced many schemes to improve health and education after it came to power in 2009. The poorest of the poor were given gifts of livestock. Its special relations with Venezuela have come in handy for the government. Venezuela provides Nicaragua aid and preferential access to oil. Nicaragua is among the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. The level of poverty has, however, fallen since Ortega assumed power. The former right-wing President Arnoldo Aleman, who ran for the top job again, conceded that it was no longer easy to demonise Ortega and the Sandinista Party. The slogan of his party in the previous election was, The Sandinistas are Communists and enemies of humanity.

Ortega won with more than 60 per cent of the votes, with his nearest right-wing rival, Fabio Gardia, getting 25 per cent. International observers agreed that the conduct of the elections was fair and free. Washington had criticised the decision of the Nicaraguan Constitutional Court to overturn a ban on consecutive terms and to allow Ortega to contest again. It was alleged that the Constitutional Court was packed with judges appointed by Ortega.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in one of his recent Reflections, hailed the overwhelming victory of Ortega. He wrote that Ortega's victory was even more commendable as the Nicaraguan election was held in a traditional and bourgeois style with the pro-American oligarchy ranged against him. The fundamental nature of Daniel's role and the reason for my opinion about his overwhelming victory is that he never distanced himself from contact with the people and the never-ending struggle for their well-being, Castro observed.


The victory of a right-wing army man in Guatemala probably had more to do with the law and order situation in the country than with ideology. Guatemala's homicide rate is among the highest in the world. The violence triggered by the never-ending fight between the drug cartels and the state in Mexico has spilled over to neighbouring Guatemala. Drug cartels, according to many estimates, control 40 per cent of the country. Perez Molina, running on the ticket of the Patriotic Party, had on the campaign trail promised to use the mano dura (iron fist) against the drug gangs. He won with 53.4 per cent of the votes in the final run-off round against Manuel Baldizon of the Renewed Democratic Freedom Party. More than 43 people were killed in election-related violence. The first order of business will be to lower the levels of violence and insecurity, Perez Molina said after emerging victorious.

One of the key issues the new President has to deal with is the question of impunity for those responsible for massacres and genocide during the 36-year-long civil war that wrecked the country. More than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, most of them indigenous Mayans, during the civil war. They were victims of the army and right-wing paramilitary groups. Perez Molina was one of the army's chief representatives involved in the negotiations to end the civil war in 1996. He has been insisting that the army was not involved in acts of genocide or atrocities against civilians despite plenty of documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts showing otherwise.

The United Nations-instituted International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) began work in 2007 to investigate crimes and bring those responsible for them to justice. The other goals of the CICIG are to strengthen governmental institutions and reform the criminal justice system. Paramilitary groups aligned with drug traffickers have exploited the ineffectual and corrupt judicial system to their advantage. The CICIG has already managed to achieve convictions of high-level government and military officials. A Special Prosecutors Office has also been created.

The newly elected President has to renew the CICIG mandate in early 2013. There are suspicions that he is not too keen on the continuance of the CICIG. The elite is not too happy that its members are being targeted. Guatemala is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the region.

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