Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in last week as Brazil’s new president. Nicolas Maduro, having taken over from the deceased Hugo Chavez in 2013, was sworn in for a second six-year term as Venezuela’s president today. These inaugurations illustrate the threats facing Latin America’s democracy, international alignments and unity.
Bolsonaro is a right-wing former military hothead, with a record of incendiary statements on everything — from gay rights to women, Afro-Brazilians to United States President Donald Trump. He was elected on a wave of anti-corruption and anti-establishment sentiment in Brazil that was further fuelled by a citizenry dismayed by record-high crime (even though his own family is accused of corruption). He immediately proceeded to pick fights with other leaders in Latin America — rescinding invitations to Maduro and Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel to attend his inauguration — and has practically broken off diplomatic relations with Venezuela.
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Jorge Arreaza, said Maduro never considered attending the Bolsonaro inauguration, and few guests will be joining Maduro at his own party. The Latin American Group of Lima, the European Union, and several other countries refused to recognise the legitimacy of his re-election; only the Cubans, Bolivians, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans will figure among Latin American guests, and perhaps an envoy of the new Mexican government, which has clear sympathies for Maduro, but prefers to be discreet about it.
Maduro has egregiously violated human rights, driven the Venezuelan economy into the ground and generated a humanitarian crisis that has forced nearly three million of his countrymen into exile. With prices languishing for oil, Venezuela’s only export, the country will sink even further into chaos.
The political and personal characteristics of these two leaders, inaugurated just days apart, are a recipe for disaster.
Bolsonaro, though democratically elected, has demonstrated authoritarian inclinations. He is in favour of restoring the death penalty. He says he will issue a decree allowing virtually anyone in Brazil to purchase a firearm, including automatic weapons. This would essentially arm the entire population.
He has also threatened to withdraw Brazil from the trade bloc Mercosur — which also includes Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay — the Paris climate agreement. Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, has vowed to clean the government of all public officials with socialist ideas, referring to the members of the Workers’ Party of former Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. For his part, Maduro has militarised all of Venezuela’s institutions — including supermarkets. He has handed out automatic weapons to his militias, and he continues to support Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua with oil money, and has raised tensions once again with Colombia. Maduro was originally elected more or less democratically. But he is now one of a growing group of authoritarian rulers in Latin America who exercise power undemocratically.
Though Maduro belongs to the hard left, and Bolsonaro to the extreme right, they share authoritarian similarities. The clash between these like-minded leaders is a conflict foretold. There are several hundred thousand Venezuelans across the border in Brazil and Colombia. A pincer movement by the two countries’ armies, with more or less discreet US backing, is increasingly conceivable, particularly as the region drifts to the right.
The Pacific Alliance of Colombia, Chile, Peru and Mexico is now governed by three right-of-centre rulers. Argentina, in the throes of its umpteenth financial crisis, may, in spite of everything, re-elect the conservative Mauricio Macri. Mexico’s new left-wing regime will find itself increasingly isolated in the region, having to manage its multiple conflicts with the US on its own.
None of this bodes well for Latin America. From 2003 to 2012, the region went through a long period of strong growth, largely financed by high commodity prices. Then came a slowdown after 2013 when prices fell. But institutions held fast, most of the time and in most countries; democracy was threatened only by an increasing number of leaders who wished to perpetuate themselves in power through electoral means, although dubious ones.
This is now beginning to change. The warning signs are obvious: Left-wing authoritarian regimes in Nicaragua and Venezuela; a right-wing Brazilian president with neo-fascist ideas, which he has begun instituting with surprising speed; an inward-looking Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, unwilling to defend human rights in the region, and a prey to authoritarian lures himself; in Bolivia, President Evo Morales plans this year to seek his fourth five-year term — maintaining him in power for 20 years. A collapse of democratic institutions and respect for human rights in Latin America is no longer unimaginable.
The great absence, perhaps for better than for worse, is Washington. It will almost certainly not play a role in any of these potential or already burning crises, except maybe by clumsily encouraging Colombia and Brazil to overthrow Maduro by force. But it surely will neither lead the hemisphere away from these authoritarian temptations, nor towards greater collective responsibility.
Given Trump’s penchant for making everything worse everywhere, this may not be a bad thing. But US passivity implies one less counterweight in a region that needs as many as it can find.
Jorge Castaneda is a Mexican author and academic who had served as secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico.