World Affairs: Latin America

The Left making a comeback in Latin America

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Xiomara Castro, of the Libre Party in Tegucigalpa after the closing of the general election on November 28. She is the first woman to be elected to the post of President in Honduras. Photo: Jose Cabezas/REUTERS

Juan Orlando Hernandez, the outgoing President of Honduras. Photo: CLAUDIO REYES/AFP

Daniel Ortega ready to cast his vote during the general election, in Managua, Nicaragua, on November 7. Photo: Cesar Perez/Nicaraguan Presidency/AFP

The ruling party in Venezuela emerged victorious in elections for State Governors and municipal councils. The U.S. and the European Union criticised the elections. Here, the head of the E.U.’s Electoral Observation Mission presenting its preliminary report, in Caracas on November 23. Photo: Yuri CORTEZ/AFP

Gabriel Boric, the candidate of the Left coalition Apruebo Dignidad, greeting supporters in Santiago on November 21. He got more than 25 per cent of the vote in the first round of the general election. He will face the ultra-right-wing Jose Antonio Kast in the run-off to be held on December 19. Kast got more than 27 per cent of the vote in the first round. Photo: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP

The ultra-right-wing Jose Antonio Kast will face Gabriel Boric in the run-off to be held on December 19. Kast got more than 27 per cent of the vote in the first round, while Boric got more than 25 per cent of the vote. Photo: Javier Torres/AFP

With the Left registering impressive victories in recent elections in Honduras, Venezuela and Nicaragua and expected to win in the near future in Chile, Brazil and Colombia, Latin America seems all set for a socialist resurgence.

There are positive signs that the “pink tide” that had swept Latin America and the Caribbean in the beginning of the last decade is poised for a return. Recent elections in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Honduras have seen the Left register impressive victories. In Chile, the candidate of the Left is predicted to win. In Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula), the candidate of the Left, currently has a huge lead over President Jair Bolsonaro in the opinion polls. The general feeling in the country is that Lula is headed for an unprecedented third term in office. In Colombia, which will elect a new President next year, the candidate of the Left is leading in the polls.

One of the most notable successes for the Latin American Left was the landslide victory in Honduras of Xiomaro Castro. She is the first woman to be elected to the post of President in the country. Her victory comes 12 years after a United States-backed military coup overthrew the popularly elected government of her husband, Manuel Zelaya. She came into the political spotlight after her husband was exiled to neighbouring Costa Rica. She led the massive protests under the banner of the National Front for Popular Resistance.

She remained defiant in the face of the repression the security forces unleashed after the coup. The coup had the open backing of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which feared that Honduras would come under the influence of the socialist government in Venezuela. Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time, backed the flawed election held four months after the military coup.

Xiomara Castro’s Freedom and Refoundation (Libre) Party and its smaller alliance partners now have an absolute majority in the parliament and have also won in the mayoral elections held in major cities, including the capital, Tegucigalpa. Zelaya, the founder of the Libre Party, was her chief campaign manager. This time, the ruling right-wing National Party was unsuccessful in its attempts to rig the elections because of overwhelming popular support for the left-wing candidate. In 2017, the election was stolen in broad daylight. The opposition’s lead in votes was wiped out mysteriously in the last round of manual counting.

The National Party government under President Juan Orlando Hernandez had become deeply unpopular. Honduras has become a major transit point for drug trafficking to the U.S. The President’s younger brother was indicted for being involved in the narcotics trade and is now incarcerated in a U.S. jail awaiting trial. There are reports that Hernando himself was involved in the trade. The country had become a virtual “narco-state” in the last decade. During the election campaign, the opposition focussed on the nexus of top government officials with the international drug mafia.

The last couple of years also witnessed a rise in disappearances of people and killings by death squads. Some of the army-affiliated “death squads” were trained by the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency at the height of the Cold War. The U.S. Air Force base in the country is the biggest in South America. Corruption and unemployment have risen in the last five years. The majority of the impoverished people trying to illegally cross the border into the U.S. are from Honduras. More than 53 per cent of the population is living under conditions of “extreme poverty”. It will not be easy for Xiomara Castro to fulfil her promises to tackle inequality and reduce the cost of living as the outgoing government has left behind a huge debt burden

On the campaign trail, Xiomara Castro pledged to reverse the neoliberal policies previous governments had implemented. She called for the creation of a new assembly to draft a new constitution. Zelaya’s efforts to rewrite the outdated constitution when he was President was one of the major reasons for his overthrow. To allay the fears of the establishment and Washington, Xiomara Castro has gone out of her way to court the country’s business elite and establish a line of communication with the U.S. The Biden administration’s main priority these days is stemming the influx of refugees from Central American countries.

Zelaya said that the new government wanted good relations with the U.S. “I think that sectors of their government have brought the country to an abyss,” he said. “We hope the Biden administration has learnt its lessons and is willing to work with us.” As Vice President, Joe Biden had enthusiastically supported the ouster of Zelaya. The National Party could hold on to power for more than a decade only because of the U.S.’ unstinting support.

Public opinion in the country had turned against the concessions given to the mining sector and to big multinationals in special economic zones. Among the other campaign promises of the Libre Party was the freeing of the political prisoners who have been languishing in jails for years on end and the relaxation of strict anti-abortion laws.

Venezuela

Speaking to her supporters after her victory was assured, Xiomara Castro said that she would talk with her political allies and the opposition to form a government of national unity. “Never again will power be abused in the country,” she pledged. The President-elect said that her government planned to recall to the country a team of international investigators to probe corruption charges. It was expelled last year as it started to look closely into allegations of graft among the close political associates of President Hernandez.

The elections for State Governors and municipal councils held in Venezuela in the third week of November saw the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) emerge victorious. It was the first time since 2007 that the majority of the opposition parties, including some U.S.-backed ones, participated in elections; 300 international observers from more than 30 countries and international organisations were present to witness the electoral process. Only a few incidents of violence were reported during the election campaign and the day of voting.

The Great Patriotic Pole alliance led by the PSUV won an overwhelming victory. The opposition managed to win only 5 out of the 23 contests for Governors. The PSUV and its allies bagged 205 out of the 335 mayoralties despite getting only 45.7 per cent of the votes cast. The split in the opposition votes allowed it to coast through. According to the Venezuelan political analyst Franco Vielma, the electoral victory is significant because it happened in “asymmetric and unfavourable conditions. The revolutionary forces won despite the accumulation of foreign pressure and the damage to the country’s economic structure caused by the blockade.” The turnout was around 43 per cent, 12 points higher than that witnessed in the parliamentary elections held in December 2020.

The U.S. and the European Union, as was expected, criticised the elections. The U.S. State Department described them as “flawed” and “grossly skewed” and claimed that the Venezuelan government had “deprived” its people the right to freely exercise their vote. The U.S. did not provide any evidence of the alleged wrongdoings by the Venezuelan government. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement commending “the political parties and candidates as well as voters who decided to participate in this process despite its flaws to preserve and fight for much needed democratic space”.

Washington had tried its best to sabotage the election process and the ongoing efforts of the government and the opposition to reconcile. A top Venezuelan diplomat, Alex Saab, was illegally detained in the small West African nation of Cape Verde and then extradited to the U.S. on trumped up charges of being involved in drug trafficking. The regional Economic Community of West African States grouping deemed his incarceration and trial as illegal under international law. The Biden administration has meanwhile reiterated its support for Juan Guaido, the self-proclaimed “president” of Venezuela. The U.S. has in fact invited Guaido to represent Venezuela in the “Summit of Democracies” that it is hosting in the second week of December.

Nicaragua

The Biden administration was equally strident in its criticism of the election held in Nicaragua in early November. The veteran Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was seeking a fourth consecutive term in office. Additional sanctions were imposed on the country. Many of the latest U.S. sanctions specifically targeted close associates of Ortega and senior government officials. Even before the election process started, the Biden administration started casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the exercise.

Ortega registered a thumping victory, defeating four rivals. The voter turnout was more than 65 per cent. The election was viewed as a referendum on the welfare policies that the government has been implementing. The social programmes have benefited the most disadvantaged sections of the population. Nicaragua has one of the best and most affordable health care systems in the region. The political front led by the Sandinistas won more than 75 per cent of the votes cast.

The decision of Nicaragua’s election commission to bar the candidature of four politicians known to have close connections with the U.S. angered Washington. Christiana Chamorro, Washington’s most favoured candidate, was disbarred because of proven corruption charges against her. The other candidates who were not allowed to run had played key roles in the violence that rocked the country in 2018. It was an attempt at regime change orchestrated from Washington. The mobs instigated by the right wing not only burnt down government buildings but also targeted small private businesses. More than 119,000 jobs were lost, causing huge damage to the Nicaraguan economy. The majority of the people have not forgotten the painful episode that had an adverse impact on their daily lives.

Chile

The results in the first round of the Chilean election held in November threw up surprises. The Centre Right and the Centre Left coalitions, which have alternated in power since the fall of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, fared dismally. Jose Antonio Kast, an ultra-right-wing candidate who openly expressed his nostalgia for the Pinochet era, came first, getting more than 27 per cent of the vote. Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old member of parliament representing the Left coalition Apruebo Dignidad, came a close second, getting more than 25 per cent of the vote.

Boric became a recognised figure in Chilean politics as the leader of the 2011 students’ revolt that shook the country’s political establishment. Opinion polls had predicted that Boric would emerge as the most popular choice in the first round, but they were proved wrong. Many conservative voters and evangelical church groups coalesced behind the Christian Social Front led by Kast. They were upset with the result of a referendum held in the middle of the year in which Chileans overwhelmingly voted for a new constitution to replace the one drafted at the end of the Pinochet era. The majority of the members elected to the constitutional convention that is in charge of drafting the new document are from left-wing and progressive groups. The new constitution is expected to signal a clean break from the neoliberal policies that have been in vogue in the country since the mid 1970s.

Kast imitated the political campaign style of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro. His particular focus was on marginalised ethnic groups like the Mapuche, who have been fighting to regain control over their ancestral land and heritage. Chile had also become a magnet for people from poorer countries in the region such as Haiti. Like Trump, Kast adopted anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric.

Boric and Kast will now face each other in the run-off to be held on December 19. Both offer vastly differing programmes if elected. Boric promises to greatly expand the social net, while Kast wants to revert to an authoritarian past when the security forces were given carte blanche to deal with protesters and the working class. “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave” is one of the most popular slogans of the Boric campaign.

Opinion polls have suggested that Boric, the standard-bearer of the Left, will prevail in the final round of the election. The majority of Chileans do not want the country to be ruled by somebody whose role model is Pinochet. The Centre Right Christian Democratic candidate who lost in the first round said that he would vote for Boric because Kast represented “the reversal of all advances” Chile had made. Most of the leaders representing the Centre Right and Centre Left parties voiced similar opinions.

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