Back in the fall of 2003, “Arrested Development” first aired on American TV to critical acclaim. The witty comedy centered on a dysfunctional family’s struggles after its patriarch is imprisoned for murky deals with Saddam Hussein. Around the same time, audiences worldwide were introduced to a more extended family: one of popular, leftist leaders elected into office all around Latin America.
Last Sunday, that family influence was maintained in Argentina for at least another four years, as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the wife of President Néstor C. Kirchner, was elected as her husband’s successor. Unfortunately, this regional political family provides only material for a tragedy in the real world, rather than a comedy on Fox.
After the Bush administration disengaged almost completely from Latin America following 9/11, the power vacuum was swiftly filled with leaders that grew up during the age of military juntas. In the ’90s, the neo-liberal agenda of fiscal responsibility and privatization failed, tainted by endemic corruption and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) unsuccessful recipes for growth. At this point, any marketing expert would have guessed what the Latin American public wanted to hear.
It was only a matter of time before someone like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez came to power to challenge the influence of foreign capital and call for an anti-imperialist crusade. His authoritarianism is attractive because, instead of letting foreign companies make money from high oil prices, nationalization has channeled those funds to welfare at home, a policy that has given him a populist aura among the disenfranchised masses. Though his anti-imperialist rhetoric finds millions of receptive ears in the region, the growth of a clique of leftist leaders harkens back to an even more catastrophic and authoritarian past than the failed neo-liberal ’90s.
Chávez is most definitely not alone, for he has actively funded his ideological allies to allow them to take power across the region, especially when America remains disengaged. Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the everlasting Castro in Cuba, and Kirchner in Argentina have all benefited from Chavez’s petrodollars in the form of infrastructure deals, bond buy-outs, and outright gifts. And yet, even for self-declared neo-socialists like the Venezuelan president, there is no such thing as a free lunch. With different degrees of support, all these leaders are involved in the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas,” conveniently named to equal the translation of “dawn” in Spanish (ALBA).
The commodity of choice may change across the region from gas in Bolivia to farming in Argentina, but the reincarnation of Chavez’s Bolivarian economic model does not: The federal state generates grassroots support by highly-advertised social spending with little regard for long-term planning.
For example, Argentina is now facing the consequences of a lack of investment in its energy infrastructure before and during Kirchner’s administration. Last winter, it had to cut electrical power to fast-growing industries to avoid leaving homes without heating. But because this year is a (re)election year for the governing couple, the obscure ministries of Social Development and Federal Planning now take charge of more than half of the state’s budget. To make things even worse, President Kirchner has amended laws to give his cabinet discretionary power over budgetary allocations without bothering with the legislature. According to many, the government has also tweaked price indexes, as if discourse could influence the tangible reality of inflationary pressures. But thanks to petrodollars, at least there is always plenty of money for official advertisements in the subdued national media.
When compared to media-junkie Chávez, Kirchner is but an amateur. Even when busy with the project of modifying the constitution to allow for indefinite re-election, the Venezuelan president finds time to revoke the broadcasting licenses of TV stations opposed to his regime and be on the air every Sunday for his “Hello President!” show. On a regional scale, his ALBA alliance aims toward the integration of Venezuela into the Mercosur trade bloc and the creation of a Bank of the South to challenge the IMF. This has region-wide parallels on the ideological front in the form of teleSUR, a continental TV station to disseminate Bolivarian ideology.
Simón Bolívar, the nineteenth-century liberator that inspires “Bolivarianism,” indeed dreamt of a single Latin America where language, Iberian heritage, and a predominant religion would allow for united polity. That is a fine dream, and further integration inspired in by the European model may very well be what the region needs. Chávez’s deadly sin, however, is omission: His rhetoric selectively forgets that an aged Bolívar fell into disgrace by declaring himself dictator by “organic decree” in August, 1828.
Through this vicious cycle of shortsighted plans, Latin America remains trapped in arrested development. Politics there have become a tragedy; and the revival of an authoritarian past, a historical farce.
Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House.