What to Make of Trends in Latin American Presidential Elections?

By Eric Hershberg*

No Left Turn road sign/ Frisky007 / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The results of the June 19 presidential election in Colombia will surely fuel claims about a putative shift to the left in Latin American politics, but as with the so-called “pink tide” that reached a crest during the 2000s, that is probably not the most significant takeaway from the triumphs of Gustavo Petro and other left-leaning candidates in Latin America. To be sure, over the course of the past year and a half the pandemic-plagued region has witnessed left victories at the polls in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, and now Colombia. But dig deeper and there’s much more to be said.

Scholars, journalists, and pundits are always inclined to think of political trends in Left-Right terms, reflecting the competing political options in Latin America over the past 30 years as elsewhere. When “neo-liberal” governments promoted market-oriented reforms in the 1990s, and were frequently re-elected after restoring macro-economic stability to economies buffeted by inflation and debt, it was seen as a rejection of the statist development models associated with the Latin American left and of “populism.” When the “pink tide” governments abandoned some neoliberal tenets and opted toward more redistributive policies in the 2000s, the notion was that the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, and when inequality diminished modestly amidst a commodity boom, a number of presidents secured re-election. Then, briefly, one heard that a new phase carrying to office leaders such as Macri, Lacalle, Bolsonaro, Duque, Moreno/Lasso, Bukele, and others signaled the triumph of conservatism in the region.

These conclusions ignore, however, that Latin American public opinion has overall been remarkably stable on citizen self-placement along the left‑right divide, with only a modest, and non-linear, shift toward the left. More significantly, the driving logic of Latin American politics since the advance of democracy in the 1980s has been to punish leaders who have presided over a decline in wellbeing, and to reward presidents who are perceived to have delivered material or symbolic rewards to large segments of the population.

  • That is what drove re-elections of leaders who a) conquered inflation during the 1990s (Cardoso, Menem, Fujimori), or b) increased incomes during the commodity boom of the early 21st century, including the Workers’ Party in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Chávez in Venezuela, the Frente Amplio in Uruguay, Correa in Ecuador, and Morales in Bolivia. The dynamic has undercut both sides. Neoliberals suffered in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but “pink tide” governments lost power a few years ago where economic stagnation combined with growing popular disgust at corruption. Countries such as Chile and Colombia were swept by protests prior to the pandemic, and alienation from those in power intensified with the impacts of the pandemic.
  • Leaders and governments typically categorized as “left” are by no means a monolith. Max Cameron and I argued 15 years ago the “pink tide” was a series of “Left Turns,” plural. Chavismo shared little with Uruguay’s Frente Amplio, and the Bachelet governments in a highly institutionalized political system such as Chile’s were never plausibly going to resemble those of Rafael Correa in institutionally hollowed-out Ecuador. Today, the Castillo administration emerges from a fractured party system that makes Peruvian politics extraordinarily different than those of Argentina or Brazil, with their enduring Peronist and Workers’ Party institutions.

In the era of Trump and Bolsonaro, when many political actors across the ideological spectrum are running roughshod over basic norms of democratic governance, it is hugely important that failed rightwing candidates in Honduras, Chile, and Colombia have promptly recognized the victories of Xiomara Castro, Gabriel Boric, and now Gustavo Petro. It is encouraging to see instances where electoral counts were clean and even the most unlikely democrats behaved in ways consistent with democratic rule. This opens space for guarded optimism regarding prospects for Brazil, which is holding elections in November, and even conceivably could bolster the cause of electoral democracy in the United States two years later.

  • In Honduras, Chile and Colombia, the margins were not as close as anticipated, in part because of high turnout (particularly among increasingly mobilized youth, who do seem often to tilt toward the left) and because of painstaking efforts by social justice advocates to mobilize their constituencies politically. Pressures from Latin America’s left, which borrowing political theorist Benjamin Arditti’s account can be understood to represent those sectors of the polity that aim to advance the ideals of the French Revolution –drove important cycles of political protest before the pandemic hit and were sustained over the course of the electoral campaigns of the past year. That poses both opportunities and a real challenge for governments in places like Honduras, Chile, and Colombia, which though vastly different in all sorts of ways find themselves with newly elected progressive leaders having to govern amidst tough economic times and restive populations.

June 21, 2022

*Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University.

Colombia: Inspector General Tipping Scales Against Petro

By Charles H. Roberts*

Secretary General Luis Almagro (second from right) of the Organization of American States (OAS) meets with Colombian Inspector General Margarita Cabello (second from left)/ OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons license

Colombia’s Procuraduría General de la Nación (PGN) – constitutionally barred from intervening in politics – has taken actions during the 2022 election campaign to the detriment of left-of-center candidate Gustavo Petro (Pacto Histórico), undermining its own image and casting a shadow over the second-round vote on Sunday. It has disciplined officials of other parties too, but the pattern of its actions – and inaction – reflect a clear bias against Petro.

  • Last month the PGN, invoking its authorities as the Office of the Inspector General, suspended for three months the mayor of Medellín for tacitly endorsing Petro. That mayor and another were accused of violating Article 60 of the Disciplinary Code, on “breaches related to intervention in politics,” because they publicly indicated support for one of the presidential candidates. The disciplinary actions were taken with no finding of criminal liability by a court of law – a violation of Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), according to the consistent case-law of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
  • The PGN has failed, however, to take equally decisive action when senior officials who favored Petro’s opponents in the presidential election – Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez (Coalición Equipo por Colombia) and Rodolfo Hernández (Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción) – made similar partisan statements. President Iván Duque, Defense Minister Diego Molano, and Army chief Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro all spoke out explicitly – and in violation of constitutional and statutory prohibitions – against positions taken by Petro and his campaign. (The Law on Electoral Guarantees of 2005 contains specific prohibitions on the President and Vice President’s activities, and the Constitution expressly prohibits members of the military and oversight agencies like the PGN “from taking part … in political controversies.”) Legal experts and civil rights activists, long concerned about PGN politicization, cite such actions as compromising its neutrality.

The failure of Procuradora General Margarita Cabello to refrain from involvement in political matters is part of a broader trend in the Duque Administration to weaken the rule of law and judicial independence. She was Minister of Justice under Duque until January 2021 and was nominated by him for her current job. Critics say she has violated the very same principle – that public servants should remain above politics – that she claims she is enforcing by suspending officials she believes cross the line. When Duque attacked Petro, she did not even reprimand him despite precedent: In the 1970 elections, then-IG Mario Aramburo chastised President Carlos Lleras Restrepo for intervening in the election debate.

  • Cabello’s actions ignore decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. When then-IG Alejandro Ordóñez removed Gustavo Petro as Bogotá mayor in 2013-2014, the Court found that the action violated Petro’s political rights and those of the voters of Bogotá who had elected him by acting without “sentencing by a competent court in criminal proceedings.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a precautionary measure that Colombia implemented, restoring Petro to office just one month after his removal. In its July 2020 final judgment in the Petro case, the Court told Colombia to modify its regime to bring it into compliance with the ACHR, and gave it until October 2021 to do so. (Colombia ratified the ACHR in 1973 and integrated it into its 1991 Constitution.) The Court, whose position is that the PGN is an administrative organ and therefore cannot exercise judicial powers, in a November 2021 resolution found Colombia out of compliance with its judgment. The government has yet to comply. 

IG Cabello’s recent actions raise serious doubts about the Procuraduría’s neutrality and has prompted renewed debate about reform and the need to protect democracy and the rule of law. In a recent interview after the latest suspensions, Gustavo Gallón, director of the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, highlighted the need to “oversee the overseer.” Other long-time observers, such as Rodrigo Uprimny of Dejusticia, have called for shutting the office down, noting that its functions are all redundant with other oversight institutions – or, at a minimum, for it to comply with the Court’s decision. 

  • Candidate Petro advocates placing the Procuraduría under the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía). His opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, is running on an anti-corruption platform, but he hasn’t made public remarks on the PGN’s recent actions. Given the PGN’s tilt against Petro and apparent willingness to wade into political waters, however, an Hernández presidency may well seek to harness the office to spearhead his promised anti-corruption drive. No matter who wins the election, Colombian democracy is weakened when the PGN, a unique institution with unique powers, turns its back on Colombia’s commitments to democracy and human rights. 

June 17, 2022

*Charles H. Roberts is a lawyer and translator based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Top-down Accountability vs. Electoral Democracy: The Case of Colombia’s Inspector General (and in Spanish), published by the Accountability Research Center in March 2021.

Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art

by Juliana Martínez*

Juliana Martinez’s Haunting Without Ghosts, recipient of the 2020-21 William M. LeoGrande Award/ University of Texas Press

Colombian literature, film, and art are haunted by violence. Analyzed through the optic of “spectral realism,” these works yield a richer understanding of the country’s diverse historical, social, and geopolitical challenges. The thousands of people lost to the decades-old ideological, political, and social conflicts as well as the country’s infamous narco wars, haunt its rivers, mountains and towns, as much as its literary, cinematic, and artistic production. But if Colombia is a country of missing people and silenced stories, it is also a country of survivors and storytellers who for decades have been grappling with the question of how to address such violence without simplifying, exoticizing, or commodifying it. 

My recent book, Haunting Without Ghosts, Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art, combines a comparative and cross-media approach with in-depth analysis to examine select works of contemporary Colombian novelists, filmmakers, and artists who I claim use spectrality as a productive mode of storytelling to tackle the ethical and aesthetic challenges that violence poses to artistic representation. (Spectrality is primarily concerned with relations between modes of production and violence. It asks destabilizing questions about the erasures underlying dominant ways of producing goods, knowledge, affect, history, and time and seeks to mobilize alternatives, primarily from within the cultural and academic realms.) The theoretical corpus on spectrality, scholarship on literary realism, and recent Colombian studies on literature, film, and art provide a foundation for “spectral realism”, an original, multi-disciplinary analytical concept that can assist scholars in examining and understanding ethically oriented cultural production that addresses historical violence. 

Spectral realism should not be confused with the fantastic, or with its famous “magical” predecessor. Rather, it is a mode of storytelling that takes the ghost seriously but not literally. It formally assumes the disruptive potential of the specter, shifting the focus from what the ghost is to what it does. Spectrality is in the form, not in the plot.

  • The works analyzed are not “ghost stories”; they do not speak of ghosts, at least not literally. However, in the disruptive force of spectrality, they all find a way to explore the unresolved absences and truncated histories that haunt them. The language of the specter is then justified not by the presence of ghosts in these works but by spectrality’s potential to highlight the violence that underlies hegemonic processes of economic, social, symbolic, or epistemic production. It provides the tools through which symbolic, physical, and sexual violence can be not so much seen, but intensely felt
  • Spectral realism points out common ethical concerns about the representation of violence and highlights similar modes of addressing them. It offers a broad but recognizable critical grammar that brings together the apparently unrelated works of various cultural practitioners. Also, like all things ghostly, spectral realism knows no boundaries. Hence, the questions explored, the theoretical framework proposed, and the methodology used can serve as a productive analytical blueprint to address literature, film, and art about violence in diverse socio-historical and geopolitical contexts.

Spectral realism is productive because the specter does not want pity; it wants action and demands that its story be taken into account in the name of justice. As the ghost of his father tells Hamlet, “Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing.” In moments of profound national soul-searching, spectral realists’ works stand as powerful symbols of the yearning for mourning, remembrance, and justice that resonate with many Colombians, particularly when extreme violence truncates such processes or when powerful political and economic interests actively discourage or thwart them.

  • In a world plagued by technologies of hypervisibility ready for consumption, the exploitative and exoticizing gaze of many works that deal with historical violence in and about Colombia often prevails. Spectral realism explores the ethics, limits, and unreliability of visibility and proposes alternate modes of perception. Ethical issues cannot be separated from representational ones, and we need to ask questions about the varied and often intersecting forms of violence that underlie processes of appropriation and distribution of lands and resources in late capitalist modernity.

April 27, 2022

Juliana Martínez is Associate Professor at the Department of World Languages and Literatures at American University. Haunting Without Ghosts, Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art was published by the University of Texas Press, in the Border Hispanisms series. It is winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2020–2021.

Chile: Crunch Time for Constitutional Convention

by Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

Chilean protesters advocate for constitutional reform/ Jose Pereira / European Consortium for Political Research / Creative Commons License

Chile’s Constitutional Convention is fast approaching a point that will determine whether it produces a draft magna carta that, even if approved by referendum, fails to heal the splits in Chilean society that drove its creation, or that is delayed so long that supporters of keeping the 1980s-era charter succeed in blocking its approval. The original nine-month period established by law for the Convention to complete its tasks has expired, and its single three-month extension started on March 21 and ends on July 25. The body could conceivably ask the Congress and government for a second extension if it can present a viable timeline for completing the document.

  • Most observers agree that the current draft is flawed but that a majority of voters, eager for the process to end, would probably vote for it. Some polls show popular resentment toward convention members’ “highly paid easy job.” Enthusiasm for the new Constitution is showing signs of waning, however, so efforts to improve it could actually torpedo its passage.

Squabbles between the left and right are wasting precious time rather than moving the draft into the important “harmonization” phase for reviewing the whole text to ensure its coherence and internal consistency. 

  • The Bill of Rights is subject of great posturing and contention, with the left trying to rush through significantly expanded rights and long-contentious policies. For example, the left wants to nationalize sanitary services, highways, and mining, raising concerns about the implications for foreign investment. The right opposes such efforts and, confident that time is on its side, is stalling for time.
  • The left’s push for a new chamber of the Legislature to replace the current Senate has also caused controversy and delay. The proposed partición would have the ability to originate budget proposals, previously the exclusive domain of the President. Critics fear that it will not be subject to traditional checks on its power.
  • Disputes over protecting pension funds have been pitched. The Convention rejected a popular initiative, #ConMiPlataNo (Not with My Money), which was to block the eventual replacement of the private pension system with a public alternative in the wake of “voluntary withdrawals” that the Congress approved in 2020 and 2021 (even though such decisions are the prerogative of the Executive). This action further threatens popular support for whatever the Convention produces.

President Gabriel Boric also appears to be in a bind – ambivalent on how to harness the Constitutional process to support his own political goals. His opponents call him the Volteretas (cartwheels) because he has alternately supported and opposed further delays. He has said he supports giving more time for the body to “listen to the people,” but his spokespersons have said that his government’s crucial reforms depend heavily on prompt approval of the left-leaning Constitution – before further deliberations probably it water down. In fact, aside from tax reform, all of Boric’s significant proposals depend on a new left-leaning Constitution. 

  • Boric set September 4 as the date for the “exit referendum” on the new Constitution, apparently for the symbolism of September with Independence Day (on the 18th) and the anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup (the 11th). His interest, like any president’s, is in launching his programs and building a firm electoral base for himself or a successor. Polls show his popular support slipping – now in the mid‑30s range – further suggesting that the window for him to push his agenda is closing. While his prospects at home seem to be in limbo, he is pushing hard outside Chile, such as with a high-profile trip to Argentina, to project himself as a strong regional leader.

The leftist or left-leaning leaders of the Constitutional Convention seem to be underestimating the need to use their document as originally intended by the 2020 plebiscite directing the drafting of a new Constitution: to heal deep splits within Chilean society and build a new consensus based on the highest common ideals of the nation. It’s natural for them to fight for a framework they find advantageous for their own ideological perspectives, but they risk squandering a historic opportunity to make institutional structures more effective instead of just asserting social rights.

  • Boric’s anxiety is understandable. Chilean Presidents’ honeymoons have been getting steadily shorter; positives can hold steady, but negatives now mount sooner in their terms. Former President Michelle Bachelet, for example, started her first term (2006) with over 50 percent approval, which didn’t begin to erode until five months later. During her second mandate, her approval hovered around 50 percent for several months but her disapproval rate increased drastically – from 20 percent to 32 percent – after just one month. Boric’s been in office a little over a month and already is seeing approvals drop below 50 percent and negatives rise to 30 percent. His political capital to push the Constitution is not likely to increase.

April 22, 2022

*Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government. Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). This updates their recent AULABLOG article on the topic.