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A History of Latin America and the Caribbean

Chapter 6: Contemporary Latin America, Part VI

1959 to 2014

This chapter is divided into seven parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

One More Overview
       The Roller Coaster Ride of Economics
       The Abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine
       The Pink Tide
       The Changing Role of the Church
       Getting Along and Meaning It
       The Drug Trade
       Environmental Challenges
Cuba: The Revolution Continues
Venezuela's Democratic Interlude
Brazil: The Death of the Middle Republic
Weak Radicals and the Argentine Revolution
Colombia: The National Front

Part II

Democracy Breaks Down in Chile
Peru: The Revolution from Above
Mexico: The PRI Corporate State
Meet the Duvaliers
Honduras Goes From Military to Civilian Rule
Ecuador: From Yellow Gold to Black Gold
Tupamaros and Tyrants
The Somoza Dynasty, Act Two

Part III

Paraguay: The Stronato
Brazil: The Military Republic
Bolivia: The Banzerato
Red Star In the Caribbean
The Perón Sequel and the "Dirty War"
Panama: The Canal Becomes Truly Panamanian
The Dominican Republic: The Balaguer Era
The Guianas/Guyanas: South America’s Neglected Corner
       French Guiana

Part IV

The Salvadoran Civil War
Belize: A Nation Under Construction
The Guatemalan Civil War
The Southernmost War
Among the Islands
       Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Dominica
       St. Kitts & Nevis
       The Netherlands and French Antilles
Colombia: Land of Drug Lords and Guerrillas
The Pinochet Dictatorship
Peru: The Disastrous 1980s

Part V

The Switzerland of Central America
Nicaragua: The Contra War
Ecuador After the Juntas
Chasing Noriega
Argentina’s New Democracy
Hugo's Night in the Museum
Democracy Comes to Bolivia (at Last)
Haiti: Beggar of the Americas
Peru: The Fujimori Decade

Part VI

Brazil: The New Republic
Cuba's "Special Period"
Chileans Put Their Past Behind Them
Colombia’s Fifty-Year War
Uruguay Veers from the Right to the Left
Daniel Ortega Returns
Ecuador: Dollarization and a Lurch to the Left
The Chavez Administration, Both Comedy and Tragedy
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Part VII

Argentina: The New Millennium Crisis, and the Kirchner Partnership
Guatemala Since the Peace Accords
Can Paraguay Kick the Dictator Habit?
Honduras: The Zelaya Affair
Peru in the Twenty-First Century
Bolivia: The Evo Morales Era
The Mexican Drug War
Puerto Rico: The Future 51st State?

Brazil: The New Republic


José Sarney de Araújo Costa was an unlikely choice to be the first vice president, then the first president, of Brazil’s new republic. Ideologically a conservative, he had supported the ruling junta for most of the Military Republic years; in fact, he became president of the pro-government PDS Party in 1979. It was only in 1984, when he opposed the nomination of Paulo Salim Maluf as the PDS presidential candidate, that he defected to the other side, and worked out a deal with the party of Tancredo Neves that made him the vice presidential candidate of the opposition. The mood in Brazil was upbeat as restored civilian rule got started; a US-style constitution was written, and plans were made for a land reform program, to be completed by 2000. But it takes more than optimism to run a country, and Sarney couldn’t seem to get a hand on the huge foreign debt, runaway inflation, and corruption. By the end of his term in 1990, the debt had reached a staggering $115 billion. Sarney’s motto was "tem que dar certo" ("it has to work out"), but when he applied that to the economy, it never did. Where he was successful was in foreign policy -- he started the process to create the South American Common Market by signing a new trade agreement with Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín -- and he also gave illiterate Brazilians the right to vote for the first time.

The 1989 presidential election was the first since 1960 that allowed Brazilians to vote directly for the candidate of their choice. The first round of voting took place on November 15, 1989, the centennial of the coup that transformed Brazil from a monarchy to a republic, and since no one got a majority, a runoff was held a month later between the top two vote-getters, Fernando Collor de Mello of the National Reconstruction Party and Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers' Party (PT, see footnote #54). Lula’s followers were tremendously enthusiastic, but in the end Collor narrowly won, 53-47. It is generally thought that bad publicity for Lula decided the votes, though it is not clear whether it was a televised debate on Rede Globo, a TV network biased in favor of Collor, or an interview with Lula’s former girlfriend, who claimed that she had an illegitimate daughter with him in 1973, and he tried to get her to have an abortion.

With hyperinflation running as high as 3,000 percent a year(!), that was obviously the top priority when forty-year-old Fernando Collor de Mello became president. He promised to "slay with a single shot the tiger of hyperinflation," and within hours of taking office in March 1990, he announced a "shock program" to deal with that and the government’s deficit spending. In a nutshell, the plan was to squeeze excess money out of the economy; for eighteen months company assets would be frozen, limits would be put on withdrawals from private bank accounts, and there would be strict wage and price controls. On the government side, spending would be cut, state companies would be privatized and the number of people employed by the government would be reduced. To get popular support, Collor launched a propaganda campaign against the self-serving "maharajahs" of the bureaucracy and the "economic crimes" of businessmen and speculators, so you can call this tough program "conservative wine in populist bottles."

The shock program was shocking, all right. The abovementioned austerity measures caused a severe recession, with falling industrial production and widespread layoffs. Collor’s popularity fell as a result, but what ended his presidency was the revelation in 1992 of personal corruption on a vast scale -- large sums of money flowing into secret bank accounts, drug deals and family feuds. This led to huge student protests and a congressional inquiry, and in December 1992, a few minutes after the Senate opened an impeachment trial, Collor resigned. However, he used his connections to avoid going to prison; in 1994 the Supreme Court found him not guilty of bribery, so the only sentence he got was an eight-year ban from politics. Collor moved to Miami, Florida, stayed there until Brazil was no longer mad at him, and ran in elections again after the ban ended. In 2006 he got elected as a senator from Alagoas, his home state, and still holds that seat as we go to the press.

Collor’s vice president, Itamar Franco, served as acting president for the last two years of Collor’s term. Most of the country knew nothing about him when he moved into the hot seat, but his administration showed competence and integrity, so when he was done he left office with an excellent approval rating, 80-90% in the polls. On the economic front, a program called the Plano Real replaced the devalued Cruzeiro with a new monetary unit, the Real, and by restricting government spending and raising interest rates, the country became attractive to investors, and inflation finally came under control.

Despite all the bad news in the 1980s and early 90s, democracy survived. For the 1994 election, Lula da Silva ran again as the left-wing candidate, and was beaten again, this time by Franco’s finance minister, Fernando Henrique Cardoso ("FHC" for short). Under the Cardoso presidency the economy continued to improve, partially because he continued Collor’s policy of privatization and partially because of the launch of Mercosur in 1995. An amending of the constitution allowed Cardoso to run for a second term in 1998, and again he won by a landslide.

For his second term, Cardoso had to guide Brazil through the financial crisis of 1998; the 1997 crash of Asian economies had reached Brazil by then, causing a collapse of the Brazilian stock market (the collapse of neighboring Argentina’s economy in 2002 didn’t help either). He also traveled abroad so often to meet friendly foreign leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton that he was given the nickname of Viajando (Traveling) Henrique Cardoso. In 2000, he ordered the declassifying of some military files concerning Operation Condor, revealing Brazil’s part in the campaign to kidnap and assassinate political opponents of South America’s military dictatorships. Finally, FHC was the first Brazilian president to do something about Brazil’s extremely unequal distribution of wealth, by starting several programs for the purpose of improving the health and education of the poor, and setting up farms on unused land for 600,000 landless families.(142)

Wealth inequality was the chief issue for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, when he made his fourth run for the presidency in 2002. He was starting to look like a perpetual loser, sort of like Harold Stassen in the United States, but this time he cleaned up his act. By toning down the socialist rhetoric, campaigning on the slogan "Lulinha, Peace and Love," wearing a suit instead of jeans, and promising to repay Brazil’s international debts, he won over the moderates and the Rede Globo network, allowing himself to get elected on the second round of voting.

All previous Brazilian presidents had come from upper-class backgrounds, so Lula was the first president who knew what poverty was really like. He came from a family of twenty-two children; his father was a penniless farm hand in the northeast, the poorest, least developed part of the country.(143) As he grew up, Lula had worked as a shoeshine boy and a mechanic, before entering the political scene as a trade union leader. Because of his past association with labor unions and leftist ideology, investors were frightened when he got elected. So frightened, in fact, that the Real was devalued and Brazil’s rating as a safe investment took a nosedive. The big stock brokerage firm Goldman Sachs, for instance, urged its clients to shift their investments to Mexico. However, Lula was pragmatic enough to see that some of Cardoso’s economic policies worked, so he declared that the social engineering which leftists enjoy was years down the road; for now tight controls on the nation’s money supply would have to continue. Those words were enough to make the Real and the credit rating bounce back.

Lula was also pragmatic because he had been forced into alliances in Congress with parties more conservative than his own. Still, he did get some of his ideas enacted: a big cut in retirement benefits for government workers, and the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program, designed to give each Brazilian three meals a day. His most popular program, though, was probably the Bolsa Família (Family Fund), which paid up to 95 Reals (about US $45) a month to Brazil’s 11 million poorest families -- about a quarter of the population. To qualify for that money, families had to keep their kids in school and make sure they received prescribed vaccinations; half of them were in the northeast, Lula’s home area. Finally, the belt-tightening caused inflation to fall, and allowed Lula to pay off Brazil’s $15 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2005, ahead of schedule.

Unfortunately, the Bolsa Familia did not do much to improve the level of education. Another problem that was not completely solved was what to do about those people who lived in the countryside and did not own land. Since the days of the Military Republic, peasants who had been forced off their land for one reason or another, and farmers whose plots of land were not large enough to support their families, moved onto tracts not being used by the current landowners, and set up new farms there.(144) This led to violent clashes between the squatters and the great landowners, especially in the Amazon region. The problem had barely been touched by previous administrations. Leftists, on the other hand, felt that land reform was essential for democracy to succeed, so Lula’s administration resettled 700,000 landless families in four years, mainly on public land or in existing communities. The great landowners got to keep most of their surplus land, though, so the 1.5-million-member Movimento Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST), an activist group set up to help the landless and fight for land reform, claimed that Lula had not kept his promises.

Lula and the Workers’ Party were expected to run a clean, honest government, but scandals broke out anyway in 2005. Accusations of corruption and misuse of authority forced some cabinet members to resign; there was also talk of a cash-for-votes trade in Congress, and the exposure of an attempt by the PT to buy damaging information about the opposition. In addition, continuing drug and gang-related violence in the cities did not make the government look good. Nevertheless, by distancing himself from the scandals, highlighting his success in reducing poverty and unemployment, and remaining popular with the poor, Lula was able to get re-elected in 2006. The main achievement of his second term came right at the beginning, when raised the minimum wage by 8.5%, well above the rate of inflation.

The constitution allowed two terms for the president but not three, so the next presidential election, in 2010, was for Lula’s replacement. The Worker’s Party nominated Dilma Vana Rousseff, who under Lula had been first minister of energy, then chief of staff. To appeal to moderates and conservatives, the Social Democrats nominated the former governor of São Paulo, José Serra. By carrying the states in the north and northeast, as well as Rio de Janeiro, Rousseff was elected as the country’s first woman president.

As expected, Rousseff continued the left-wing policies of Lula; like Lula, she had been a noted activist earlier in life.(145) The main difference of her administration is a determined push to complete several hydroelectric dams in the Amazon River basin, despite pressure from both domestic and foreign groups to cancel the projects, out of concerns over the effect on the environment, the treatment of workers involved in the construction, and knowledge that the dams will flood lands belonging to the local residents, including indigenous tribes.

Through it all Dilma Rousseff maintained a high approval rating, but that did not guarantee her re-election in 2014. The 2014 election was the most bitterly contested in the thirty years since democracy returned to Brazil. Rousseff was usually ahead in the polls, but the pollsters could not predict who her chief opponent would be. The first socialist candidate, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash, and though his replacement, Marina Silva, ran in second place after that, in the first round of voting, Brazilians cast more ballots for the candidate of the Social Democrats, Aécio Neves (the grandson of former president Tancredo Neves). Since nobody secured a majority, a runoff was held between Rousseff and Neves three weeks later, and this time Rousseff won a second term with 51.6% of the vote.

Brazil is a country people can’t be neutral/apathetic about. Since it industrialized in the mid-twentieth century it has advanced boldly towards the future, but it has not forgotten its past; in some areas, to quote William Faulkner, the past isn’t even past. It is a land of pleasant music, famous beaches, fearsome jungles, brutal gold mines and old-fashioned coffee plantations. Over its history it has been attractive and ungovernable at the same time. For a long time it has had the potential to be a world power, but its great resources have been held in check by great shortcomings, especially the economic and racial divisions. Since independence Brazil has always been an important regional player; now that it looks like Brazil is finally overcoming its most serious economic and political problems, we may see in the twenty-first century if it becomes a major player on the world scene as well.

Colombian soccer fan.

Brazil hosted the World Cup tournament in 2014. The World Cup had played in Brazil before, but because Brazilians love soccer (see footnote #52), and they don’t celebrate anything halfway, it still was a big deal. At first the rest of Latin America celebrated with Brazil; the Colombian fan above is showing her team colors at the Colombia-Greece game. In the second-round games, seven of the sixteen teams were Latin American. However, Brazil was eliminated in the semifinals, and while Argentina made it to the finals, it was beaten by Germany. The picture below shows a cake made to commemorate the final game.

World Cup cake.

Next, Rio de Janeiro will host the Olympic Games in 2016. Stay tuned to see how that turns out!

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Cuba's "Special Period"


The crisis Cuba endured at the end of the twentieth century is sometimes called the "Special Period." In the 1980s the Cuban economy continued to decay, because it was still dependent on the Soviet Union and sugar. In the middle of the decade the USSR began to suffer from economic problems it could not solve, leading to its disintegration in 1991. More than 80 percent of Cuba’s trade and 98 percent of its oil were lost as a result; the Soviets had also been the main source for industrial and high-tech goods. Now Cuba found itself deeply in debt, owing $3.5 billion that it had borrowed from Western banks in the 1970s and 80s; in 1990 the Soviets announced that their oil and technology subsidies were worth more than $7 billion, and they expected to eventually be repaid, too. With only a few buyers of its sugar, Cuba could not afford to make payments on these debts.(146) Transportation, electricity and food rationing all saw cutbacks as a result.(147) Eventually this led to famine, made worse because the government refused American donations of food, medicines and money until 1993. Since available food went first to members of the government and the military, there were reports of ordinary Cubans surviving by eating house cats; the animals that disappeared from the Havana zoo during the 1990s (peacocks, buffalo and a rhea) probably suffered the same fate.

As you might expect, it was during the famine and the blackouts that Cuba saw its worst unrest since 1959, coming in the form of demonstrations and more crime. Security forces, including newly organized "rapid action brigades," quickly took care of this opposition, and censorship was increased to keep it from spreading. Another crackdown in 2003 is called the "Black Spring"; 75 dissident thinkers were arrested on charges that they became US agents by accepting aid from the U.S. government.

The regime made it through these years by bringing back a source of income from pre-revolutionary times -- tourism. Several joint ventures with foreign companies allowed the establishment of hotels, and the farms and industries to support them. For ten years (1994-2004) US dollars were legal in Cuba, until this caused economic inequality, because those in the tourist industry, especially workers in the special stores that only accepted dollars, were paid much better than workers in other industries. The income gap between the best-paid and worst-paid workers increased from 4:1 to 25:1, before the government banned dollars again.(148) Cuba also abolished the requirement for exit permits in 2012, making it easier for Cuban citizens to travel abroad. Even so, a full normalization of US-Cuban relations is not likely as long as the Castro brothers are alive.(149)

Cartoon comparing American and Cuban health care.
Liberals in the United States, like author Gore Vidal and film director Oliver Stone, were quick to praise Cuba’s health care system. However, it failed to save Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez when he went there to get treatment for his cancer.

In 2006, Fidel Castro became ill with an intestinal ailment, and almost died. His brother Raúl, who had stayed out of the limelight while he ran the armed forces, took over as acting president. In 2008 Fidel resigned, making Raúl the real president. Because Raúl had worked with Fidel for his whole adult life, his policies have been nearly the same. In February 2013, Raúl was elected to a second term, and he announced it would be his last; he plans to retire in 2018, at the age of 87.

After more than fifty years, the Cuban Revolution has stood the test of time. Before 1959, the island had been a Spanish colony for almost four hundred years, and a US satellite for sixty years, so it was only after Fidel Castro took over that Cuba really developed a national identity of its own. One has to admit that despite the economic austerity, inflation and unemployment have never gotten as bad as they did in the rest of Latin America, and the quality of education is remarkable. As the twenty-first century began, economic and demographic statistics for Cuba ranked it as more "developed" than most Latin American countries, even with the US embargo still in force. And after the economic devastation of the 1990s, Fidel Castro declared, "In spite of this we did not close down a single health care center, a single school or daycare center, a single university, or a single sports facility . . . What little was available we distributed as equally as possible."

While that may be true, in the end Cuba under Communist rule is still a totalitarian hellhole. As before, Cuba’s biggest challenge remains being able to stand on its own feet without depending on a major foreign power to buy its sugar exports. After the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, those countries that remained Communist had the choice of relaxing their ideology and control over the economy, while retaining control over the government (e.g., China and Vietnam), or shutting out the world and pretending that Marxism-Leninism works (e.g., North Korea). So far, mainly because of the isolation imposed on it by the United States, Cuba has followed the latter model more than the former. Thus, when Fidel transferred power from himself to Raúl, to outsiders it looked a little like somebody giving his brother the keys to an old car that no longer works very well. Though Fidel Castro is one of the most recognizable characters in recent history, it remains to be seen whether the revolution he started can ever build a society that is both prosperous and free.

Cover of Tropico game.
While we are waiting to find out, you can play a Castro-like character in a computer game.

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Chileans Put Their Past Behind them


Since the restoration of democracy in Chile, the country has been getting over the traumatic experiences it had between 1970 and 1990.(150) Appropriately the main achievement of Patricio Aylwin, the first president of the new era, was to establish the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in 1991. It conducted the official investigation of human right violations committed by the preceding military junta, and published the results in the Rettig Report. Even so, Pinochet and the military remained a force to reckon with, as nothing had yet been done to cut back the powers they had given themselves in the constitution.

Aylwin was succeeded by another Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the son of the previous president named Eduardo Frei, and he served for a six-year term (1994-2000). The younger Frei made significant progress in improving health and education, and reducing poverty. The former dictator Pinochet also made news again, when he traveled to London for back surgery in 1998, and a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, ordered him arrested. A British judge rejected Pinochet’s arguments, that he had diplomatic immunity and that what happened in Chile wasn’t any of Spain’s business, but the British Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered him released on medical grounds. Chile probably didn’t want Pinochet back anyway, and after he returned in 2000, it was ruled that he was too mentally incompetent to testify in court concerning past crimes. All the justice department could do with Pinochet was put him under house arrest, so they held him that way until he suffered a heart attack in 2006, one week before his death.

The next president, Ricardo Lagos Escobar (2000-2006), was a socialist. After him came Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, another socialist and Chile’s first woman president. But unlike the recent trend in several other Latin American countries, Chilean politics has not moved consistently to the left. Because the president is not allowed two consecutive terms, Bachelet could not run again in 2010, so instead the voters elected a conservative, Sebastián Piñera Echenique. Then with that limitation gone, they re-elected Bachelet in 2014.

5 Chilean presidents.
Chile’s five most recent presidents got together in 2010, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. From left to right: Lagos, Bachelet, Piñera, Aylwin, Frei. From Wikimedia Commons.

Chile also made headlines in 2010 for non-political reasons. We mentioned one in footnote #137, the 2010 earthquake. Another was the Copiapó mining accident; a cave-in at a copper and gold mine trapped thirty-three mine workers 2,300 feet underground, and three miles from the nearest mine entrance. In the past, such an accident would have almost surely meant tragedy, but when an exploratory hole was drilled to where the workers were trapped, after seventeen days, all were still alive. In a truly international effort, three drilling rig teams, most of the Chilean government ministries, expertise from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and more than a dozen multi-national corporations, were all put together to get supplies to the workers, until a special elevator car could be constructed to rescue them. Once the elevator was running, the miners were brought to the surface one at a time, after spending a total of sixty-nine days underground. For Chile it was a proud moment, and a miracle of modern technology and cooperation.

In the spirit of that rescue, present-day Chile has signed extensive free trade agreements with as many nations as possible. At the same time, Chile’s leaders are working to get rid of the last remnants of the former dictatorship: e.g., the binomial electoral system, designated senators, the president’s inability to hire or fire military commanders, and the earmarking of a percentage of profits from the copper mines for the armed forces’ share of the budget. Thanks to Pinochet and the Chicago Boys, Chile stands as an example of what you get when you create a successful free market economy at a great human cost. If the economic gains made to this point are going to last, they will need to be joined by political reforms, to show the nation has a legitimate representative government that honors freedom and social equality. Once that happens, other nations will know that Chile’s troubled past is finally over, and that it is making good on its claim to be Latin’s America’s most advanced nation.(151)

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Colombia’s Fifty-Year War


The next president of Colombia, Ernesto Samper Pizano (1994-98), should have enjoyed an improved situation, with the drug lords on the run. Instead, the election was so close that it required two rounds of voting, and on the second round Samper narrowly beat his Conservative opponent, Andrés Pastrana Arango. Almost immediately Pastrana accused Samper of receiving $6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali cartel between the first and second rounds. The constitution gave Congress the responsibility of pursuing the campaign scandal once the prosecutor general presented the case, but because the membership of Congress was made up mostly of the president’s allies, it chose not to. Still, the widespread belief that Samper had gotten elected with drug money kept him from being an effective president.(152) It showed in the military’s lack of success against the government’s other enemy, the guerrillas. The FARC did especially well at this time; it controlled as much as 40 percent of the countryside, overran several rural army bases, captured a record number of soldiers, and generally made it unsafe to drive on the nation’s highways.

For the 1998 election, Andrés Pastrana Arango ran again, and this time he won, becoming the first president since 1986 who was not a Liberal. Pastrana promised to bring a peaceful end to the war with the guerrillas and to cooperate fully with the United States in fighting the drug trade. But first he had to deal with a growing economic crisis, especially an unemployment rate that exceeded 20%. Eventually he did negotiate with the FARC and ELN, though, and that led to the creation in 1999 of El Caguán, a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland in southern Colombia where the government would leave the guerrillas alone. Negotiations continued on and off for most Pastrana’s term. Unfortunately the guerrillas did not agree to stop fighting or lay down their arms, and in early 2002, after they kidnapped several political figures, including Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate, the Pastrana administration broke off negotiations and terminated the Caguán zone.(153)

Pastrana wasn’t the only one fed up with the guerrillas. This was less than a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, so most of the world was now disgusted by terrorism. In 2002 the United States and the European Union both added Colombian guerrillas to their lists of terrorist organizations. For that year’s election, Colombian voters turned not to the Liberals or Conservatives, but to a right-wing hardliner, Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Uribe came from Medellín, had studied at Oxford and Harvard, and was an example of the proverb "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before"; he was a liberal when he first got into politics, but was turned to the other side by several incidents, starting with the murder of his father by the FARC in a 1983 raid. When campaigning he promised to defeat the guerrillas, not make peace with them. Sure enough, after becoming president he launched a military counter-insurgency. At the same time he used civilian informants to locate suspected members of all three guerrilla groups, and offered lenient sentences to those guerrillas and paramilitary men who gave up their weapons and information. In US President George W. Bush he found an eager patron; while both Bush and Uribe were in charge, US aid to Colombia averaged between $500 million and $600 million per year. This made Uribe stand out in a crowd of Latin American leaders, since it was no longer fashionable in the region to be openly pro-American.

Like Bush, Uribe was also accused of various scandals by his opponents, especially after a controversial amendment was added to the constitution so he could run for a second term in 2006. Still, even the critics had to admit he achieved what his predecessors could not do. Under his watch, the murder rate fell by 40%, and highways could be used again once the FARC roadblocks were removed. Consequently Uribe’s approval rating stayed around 80%, and he had no trouble getting re-elected.

Part of the reason for Uribe's success was that he introduced bounty hunting; his government offered vacations, promotions and other bonuses to the troops for each dead rebel they brought in. Unfortunately some corrupt soldiers decided that going after armed rebels was risky business, even if there was a reward for them. Instead they lured poor civilians -- many of them mentally challenged -- with promises of jobs, and after taking them to the "workplace" out of town, they dressed their victims in outfits a FARC fighter might wear, shot them, and added them to the army's body count. When word of these murders got out in 2008, human rights activists dubbed them the "false positives" scandal. To their credit, the Colombian courts began investigating the murders right away, but as of 2012, some 3,350 cases had come to them, and verdicts had only been reached on 170. At this rate, even the war between Bogotá and FARC is likely to end before the last case is closed.

In March 2008, Uribe approved a raid across the border into Ecuador that killed an FARC leader, Raúl Reyes, and captured computer files which showed the FARC trying to acquire uranium for bombs (the files were later declared authentic by Interpol). However, this also caused an international incident; Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua cut diplomatic relations with Colombia, and the first two countries mobilized troops on the border. Uribe was soon vindicated, though, especially after the computer files also revealed that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez had given $300 million to the FARC.

Supporters of Uribe wanted to add another amendment to the constitution so he could serve a third term, but it was rejected due to a number of irregularities. Thus, Uribe was succeeded in 2010 by his defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón. Though Santos had been one of the planners of the 2008 raid and the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt (see the previous footnote), he has looked for a political solution, rather than a military one, for Colombia’s civil war, which has now gone on for half a century. Peace talks are continuing in Washington D.C., as I write this. In 2014 Santos campaigned for a second term under the slogan, "We have done much, there is much to be done," and was re-elected, so if he wants to be remembered as the president who ended the war, he has until 2018 to achieve it.

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Uruguay Veers from the Right to the Left


Julio Sanguinetti was president of Uruguay from 1985 to 1990. Besides bringing back democracy, he made Uruguay an island of economic stability. Investors pulling their money out of Argentina and Brazil in the mid-1980s found Uruguay a safe alternative. Since then, Uruguay has enjoyed a reputation as a banking center, sort of a Switzerland of South America. And because Uruguay had sizeable gold reserves, it never stopped making payments on its large foreign debt. However, the last two years of the 1980s showed the economy wasn’t completely healthy; inflation climbed to 85 percent in 1989, and the foreign debt grew to US $6.7 billion, more than twice what it had been during the years of military rule.

Finally, like other Latin American countries that had recently returned to civilian rule, there was the question of what to do about the military officers who had committed human rights violations in the name of fighting Tupamaros and Communists. Should they be prosecuted for their crimes, a move that could provoke a violent reaction from the armed forces, or should they be granted amnesty? Sanguinetti chose the latter course; he pointed out that a blanket amnesty had been passed after every other conflict in Uruguayan history, so in 1986 he signed a bill promoting one, called the Ley de Amnistia. However, the law was so generous that it had to be approved again by a referendum in 1989.

The 1989 election showed that Uruguay would not be a one-party state, because the National (Blanco) Party candidate, Luis Alberto Lacalle de Herrera, won and became the next president (1990-95).(154) And in a race nearly as significant, an openly Marxist member of the Broad Front, Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas, was elected mayor of Montevideo. Lacalle focused his attention on economic reforms: raising taxes, spending cuts and privatization. They worked, but in the short run they caused wage cuts and stifled growth, making Lacalle and both of the major parties unpopular; moreover, inflation got worse before it got better. His biggest success was signing the Treaty of Asunción with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay in 1991, thereby ensuring that Uruguay would be a charter member of Mercosur.

As the 1994 election approached, Tabaré Vázquez was the most popular man in Uruguay. In 1991 he had gone to Cuba and signed a trade agreement with Fidel Castro; more recently, however, the downfall of the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites caused him to moderate his opinions. Because of that, and because he had not been involved in the belt-tightening of the Lacalle administration, he was expected to win the presidential race, and indeed, he got 30.6% of the votes, more than any other candidate. However, a quirk in Uruguay’s electoral laws (those laws were now nearly a century old) kept him from winning. The two major parties each ran more than one candidate, and victory went to the party, not necessarily the candidate, that won the most votes. Therefore the real winner was the Colorado Party, whose three candidates got a combined total of 32.3%, a plurality. Thus the leading Colorado candidate, Julio Sanguinetti, was elected for a second presidential term, from 1995 to 2000.

Because the Colorados did not win by a majority, Sanguinetti formed a coalition government with the Blancos. Together they carried out Social Security reform and constitutional reform; the latter included a law which stated that each party could only nominate one candidate per race, to avoid any more controversial elections like the 1994 one. Finally, when not working on those issues, Sanguinetti was able to keep the economy growing without inflation, until the Brazilian economic crisis of 1998-99 caused a recession (one third of Uruguay’s exports were now sold to Brazil), and it lasted until 2002.

No presidential candidate received a majority of votes in the first round of the 1999 election, so in a runoff round, the Colorado Party candidate, Jorge Luis Batlle Ibáñez, beat the Broad Front candidate, Tabaré Vázquez (again). If you read Chapter 4 or Chapter 5, you will recognize the Batlle name; Jorge Batlle was the fourth president from the Batlle family and the son of the previous Batlle president, Luis Batlle Berres. The Colorado and Blanco Parties continued their coalition government under Batlle until 2002, because the Broad Front held 40 percent of the legislative seats, making it the most powerful party if the coalition did not exist. Batlle spent his term coping with the recession he had inherited from his predecessor, and an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in Uruguay’s critically important cattle herds.(155)

By the end of Battle’s term, Uruguayans were fed up with the system. Twelve years of military rule and twenty years of democracy had tried free market economic policies, and both had failed to bring prosperity to the common man. Before the 2004 election, the voters expressed their dissatisfaction by rejecting plebiscites that proposed turning the state petroleum company and the state water company into private corporations. When the election arrived, the leftists could no longer be kept out of power; Tabaré Vázquez was elected as the first president in Uruguayan history who did not come from the two traditional parties or have a military background; the Broad Front also won a majority in both houses of the General Assembly.

The Vázquez government continued to make payments on Uruguay’s foreign debt; however, as you might expect, its priority was an assortment of new programs designed to reduce poverty and unemployment.(156) With the Broad Front majorities in the General Assembly, Vázquez had little trouble getting legislation passed. One notable exception was a bill that would have legalized abortion; the more radical members of the Broad Front were for it, and the General Assembly passed it, but Vázquez vetoed the bill because most Uruguayans were against it. And because the Broad Front had campaigned on a platform of "social justice," Vázquez launched a new investigation of human rights abuses that had taken place under the 1973-85 dictatorship; as a result, anthropologists and forensic experts succeeded in finding a number of unmarked graves and remains belonging to leftists who disappeared during that era.

A leader has to be willing to make unpopular decisions when needed, and Vázquez suffered from lowered approval ratings in the polls when he made them. Still, his approval rating recovered to 80 percent by the end of his term, definitely an Uruguayan record. He was succeeded in 2010 by another member of the Broad Front, José Alberto "Pepe" Mujica Cordano. Mujica’s election, which had him beat former president Lacalle, showed that the transformation of Uruguay’s government, from a right-wing to a left-wing regime, was now complete. In the early 1970s, Mujica had been a Tupamaro leader, and though he escaped from prison twice after being captured, he ended up being locked up for the whole period of the military dictatorship; more recently he had been the Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries under Vázquez.

Mujica is sometimes called "the world's poorest president," because he drives an old Volkswagen Beetle; because he and his wife continue to live on the small farm they own; and because he donates about 90 percent of his $12,000 monthly salary to various charities. Personally he is more liberal than Vázquez; he once said that he would not veto an abortion bill if it came to his desk. On the other hand, to govern the country he has followed a center-left policy like his closest ally, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, feeling it is better to be practical than to be a doctrinaire leftist like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

At this writing, the 2014 election campaign is underway. Observers won’t be blamed if they feel a sense of déjà vu; Tabaré Vázquez is the Broad Front candidate again, while two sons of former presidents, Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou and Pedro Bordaberry, are the Blanco and Colorado candidates respectively. Stay tuned; the results of this election are likely to show if Uruguay is truly following a new political pattern, or if it will go back to the two-party system that characterized it in the past.

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Daniel Ortega Returns


Again, a new Nicaraguan administration inherited a country in ruins. Agricultural production was well below what it should be, and manufacturing, which had always been a small part of the economy, had all but disappeared during the 1980s. Nearly two decades of conflict had severely damaged the infrastructure, so blackouts were commonplace. More than half of the workforce was unemployed or underemployed; the per capita income was less than $500 a year (still above Haiti’s, but not by much). The gains in health and education that had been made when the Sandinistas first took over, had all been erased by now. Probably the only good news was that the economy was too weak to continue ravaging the eastern forests, the way it had done in the 1970s.

Violeta Chamorro had a personal interest in bringing peace to the country; two of her children were Sandinistas, and two were Contras. She decentralized the government, reduced the length of the president’s term in office from six to five years, brought the police and military under civilian control, demobilized the Contras, cut the size of the armed forces from 97,000 (1989) to 15,200 (1993), and granted a general amnesty to the Sandinistas. It was a tricky tightrope walk, because the FSLN and ten of the UNO’s fourteen parties did not recognize her government as a legitimate representative of the Nicaraguan people, but she managed to pull it off.(157) Unfortunately, now that the war was over, the United States lost interest in Nicaragua (US aid was cut off in 1992, when Senator Jesse Helms pointed out that several key positions in the government were still held by Sandinistas). And the economic problems were so formidable, that Chamorro left quite a bit of unfinished business when her term ended in January 1997.

For the 1996 election, Daniel Ortega ran again as the FSLN candidate. To show that the Sandinistas were a kinder, gentler party, he dropped the black and red that had symbolized the Sandinistas previously and campaigned with a less threatening color -- pink! He lost to the former mayor of Managua, José Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo. However, Alemán was a flashback to the bad old days; his father was an education minister to Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and being overweight enough to earn the nickname El Gordo (the fat man), he also looked like the fat cats of a bygone era. As president, Alemán reduced inflation and rebuilt the country’s nextwork of roads and bridges, but he also ran a good old kleptocracy on a grand scale. In 2004, the group Transparency International declared him the ninth most corrupt head of state in recent history, and estimated that he embezzled $100 million from the national treasury during his term.(158) Even after Hurricane Mitch struck Nicaragua in 1998, killing 4,000 people, Alemán kept a hand in the till.

The 2001 election pitted Ortega against the current vice president, Enrique José Bolaños Geyer. Bolaños was elected to succeed Alemán, and after he took office, to everyone’s surprise, Alemán was convicted of official corruption and sentenced to twenty years in jail (December 2002). Unfortunately, the lost money was not recovered, and Alemán made a deal with Ortega that allowed him to get out in 2009.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most popular politician in Nicaragua was a colorful character (literally) of Jewish descent, Herty Lewites Rodríguez. He had been mayor of Managua since 1996, and was the creator of Hertylandia, Nicaragua’s first theme park. A former member of the Sandinista inner circle, Lewites was expelled from the FSLN when he started running against Ortega for the party nomination, so he founded his own party, Alianza Herty. Ortega also told him if he was going to run, he could not use red and black in his campaign (he probably banned pink, too); Lewites responded by choosing baby blue for his color. But four months before the 2006 election, Lewites died of a heart attack; he had been running third place in the polls.

Daniel Ortega went on to win, ending sixteen years as the opposition leader. During his time out of power the only part of the economy that had improved much was the tourism industry. In 2007 Nicaragua was walloped by Hurricane Felix, another Category 5 storm like Mitch. The reason why Ortega made it through the term was because Venezuela’s mercurial leader, Hugo Chavez, provided financial and energy assistance, just as he was doing with Cuba.

This time around, Ortega behaved more moderately; he first promised to maintain good relations with the United States, only to jeopardize that by announcing a meaningless goodwill treaty with Iran. The overall impression is that he has mellowed with age; these days he seems to be more interested in self-preservation than in promoting any ideology or revolution. In 2011 he won an election to another term, and because the constitution did not allow him any more terms after that, recently (January 2014) he had the National Assembly pass an amendment that does away with term limits. Ortega justifies this by stating that Nicaragua’s problems (most of them poverty-related), are too formidable to permit the luxury of frequent leader/government changes. Of course.

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Ecuador: Dollarization and a Lurch to the Left


When the votes were in for the 1998 election, nobody got a majority, forcing a runoff between the top two vote-getters, Jorge Jamil Mahuad Witt and Gustavo José Joaquín Noboa Bejarano. The second round gave Mahuad 51.2%, Noboa 48.8%; because the result was close, Noboa demanded a recount. It was refused, but as consolation he was offered the vice presidency, which he accepted.

One has to wonder why Mahuad and Noboa wanted to be elected, for Ecuador’s problems now came in bunches. World oil prices took yet another tumble in 1998-99, to start with. Whole villages were destroyed by floods from an El Niño weather pattern, the biggest anyone could remember. And as if those weren’t enough, a devastating shrimp disease caused the fishermens’ shrimp harvest to fall by 80 percent. The only good news in all this was the signing of the previously mentioned 1998 peace treaty with Peru.

Mahuad responded with drastic measures. Like some of his predecessors, he implemented an austerity program, to receive an $800 million loan from the International Monetary Fund. Then the government declared a state of emergency; income taxes were abolished, the nation’s banks were bailed out, gasoline prices doubled, and deep cuts were made to the military and social service portions of the budget. All this failed to turn the economy around; inflation reached 60% (the highest in Latin America at the time), and the president’s popularity plummeted, from 60% in October 1998 to a mere 6% in January 2000.

The embattled president had one idea left, and he tried it in the last days of 1999: he dumped the unstable Sucre, and announced that henceforth the US dollar would be Ecuador’s official currency. Some other countries (e.g., Panama, El Salvador, Liberia, East Timor and small Caribbean and Pacific islands) had allowed the use of dollars, usually alongside their own monetary units, and it had not caused trouble, but in Ecuador, complete "dollarization" wiped out the savings of those people who owned only Sucres. The whole country erupted in strikes and demonstrations, led by labor unions and indigenous tribes; the military and the police did not stop these actions, because they resented the budget cuts inflicted upon them. When the marches shut down Quito, and protesters took over the National Assembly building, Mahuad was forced to resign (January 21, 2000).

From the National Assembly building, the protesters picked three men to rule in place of Mahuad. But while two members of this "triumvirate" were civilians, they looked like a junta to outsiders, and their takeover looked too much like a coup, the first Latin America had seen since the 1980s. Two days later, the military and international pressure compelled the triumvirate to hand over power to Gustavo Noboa, who became acting president for the rest of Mahuad’s term.

As unpopular as dollarization was, Noboa carried it out. The poor immediately got poorer as a result. Whereas in 1999 (before Mahuad suggested dollarization) 6,000 Sucres were worth one dollar, by the end of 2000 the exchange rate was 25,000 Sucres = $1. However, Noboa managed to borrow another $2 billion from the IMF and other foreign moneylenders, and the economy stabilized after that, so that by the time his term ended, the people did not think Noboa was so bad, especially when compared with who came before and after him. For what it’s worth, Ecuador is still using the Yankee dollar as its only currency today.

Noboa ran for re-election in 2002, but was defeated by retired colonel Lucio Edwin Gutiérrez Borbúa, one of the members of the "triumvirate" mentioned above. Noboa happened to be the richest man in Ecuador, so Gutiérrez, a native of the Amazon region, won by campaigning on a populist, pro-Indian platform. But within months after becoming president, he broke his alliance with leftist parties, formed a new alliance with the conservative Social Christian Party, endorsed the Free Trade Area of the Americas act (an unsuccessful proposal by the US to expand the NAFTA free trade zone, to include the whole western hemisphere except Cuba), and implemented IMF-mandated austerity measures to gain control over the country’s foreign debt. Then in 2004 he broke with the Social Christians, too. Before 2004 was over, Congress impeached Gutiérrez on charges of embezzlement, but there weren’t enough votes to remove him, and afterwards he appointed new judges to the Supreme Court that were seen as favorable to the political party of ex-President Abdalá Bucaram (that party still supported him).

Protests erupted in Quito over all these activities, and in April 2005 they got so bad that Gutiérrez declared a state of emergency. This was seen as a dictatorial act; the army’s commander refused to enforce it, and members of Congress from opposition parties met in a private building, where they voted to remove Gutiérrez on the grounds that he had abandoned his constitutional duties.(159) When the army announced it was withdrawing its support for Gutiérrez, all he could do was flee to the Brazilian embassy. He returned from exile in October 2005, was thrown in jail for five months, and since getting out he has run in each presidential election, in the hope of getting his old job back.

The vice president, Luis Alfredo Palacio González, took the place of Lucio Gutiérrez for the rest of 2005 and 2006. Palacio described himself as a "simple doctor" and devoted his time in office to addressing the social problems that had been neglected in recent years. Mainly this meant redirecting some of the oil profits earmarked for foreign debt payments, using them to pay for health and education programs instead. His right-hand-man in this was the finance minister, an economist named Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado.

Palacio had also promised that the elections scheduled for 2006 would take place, and Rafael Correa had resigned from his cabinet position by then, over a disagreement with the president, so he ran for president in the elections. At first he came in second place, behind former president Noboa, but no candidate got more than 26% of the vote, forcing a runoff between Noboa and Correa. However, Correa scored an upset in the runoff, winning with 56.67%

Ecuador has been somewhat more stable since Correa took office in January 2007, but his administration certainly hasn’t been quiet, and one has to admit that Correa has kept most of the promises he made. The most important of these promises are huge increases in the budget for social services, an emphasis on fighting poverty, and the summoning of a Constituent Assembly. The latter wrote the country’s latest constitution, which was approved by 69% of the voters in 2008. And while Correa has succeeded in reducing the levels of poverty and unemployment, the price hasn’t been cheap; he has also been accused of nepotism, attacking dissidents, restricting freedom of speech, and overall acting like a virtual dictator.

Correa’s solution for Ecuador’s foreign debt was simple; he refused to pay it. In December 2008 he declared the debt illegitimate, arguing that the governments which borrowed it were corrupt or tyrannical. Fighting the creditors in international courts, he managed to get the price on $3 billion worth of bonds reduced by more than 60 percent. In foreign policy he followed the example of Venezuela (Hugo Chavez was a good friend of his), acting independently of US interests. This led to Ecuador joining the anti-American free trade organization Cuba and Venezuela started, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), in June 2009.

The new constitution moved the date of the next elections up a year and a half, from October 2010 to April 2009. Correa ran for re-election, and won by a slight majority, with 51.9% of the vote. He ran in the next election as well, in February 2013, and won again, with a larger majority of 57%. Therefore Correa is now serving his third term. As we go to the press, he has been president for seven and a half years, which is a record; no other Ecuadorean president has enjoyed a continuous stretch in office for that long; though a few were in more than once, and those terms totaled seven+ years when put together.

Though Ecuador is the smallest country on South America’s Pacific coast, we have devoted quite a bit of space in this chapter to cover its stormy history. Is the stormy part over now? It does look like it, though it is too early to be sure while the man who started the current stable cycle is still running the show.(160) While there is no question that Correa’s policies fit the definition of left-wing, he cannot go all the way to socialism or communism, the way Cuba and Venezuela did, while Ecuador’s economy is so dependent on the United States (remember those dollars). It may simply be that most of the people who would oppose Correa are simply tired of fighting over politics. A decade earlier, Augusto de la Torre, the director of the World Bank’s Ecuador office, commented that "Politics are now less relevant in Ecuador. If you talk to entrepreneurs now, they look at politics like they look at soap operas." And a spokesman for Pachacutik, the political party representing the indigenous tribes, may have hit the nail on the head when he said, "The struggle will continue in other forms."

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The Chavez Administration,
Both Comedy and Tragedy


The government Venezuela had from 1958 to 1999 was by no means perfect, but at least it was stable. By contrast, the country has been on a wild ride since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998. Although Chavez came from a military background, he would play by civilian rules instead of acting like an old-time caudillo; however, that did not stop him from changing the rules in the middle of the game. One of the first things he did as president was rewrite the constitution, to rename the country the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," abolish the Senate, and give himself sweeping powers. In July 1999 he held a special election to choose 131 delegates to the constitutional convention; 126 of the seats went to his handpicked candidates. He also began his program to transform Venezuela into a socialist state. This was his most radical change; the country would no longer promote free-market capitalism or a pro-Western foreign policy, the way it had in the past. But at first this just meant new clinics for the poor, and putting the military to work at new construction projects and social programs to fight poverty and illiteracy. In December 1999 he got the new constitution passed, ran for re-election, and won easily. There you can see one of the changes enacted. Previously presidents were allowed to serve a second term, but they could not be consecutive terms; the incumbent had to step down and let someone else have a term before he could go for another round.

Chavez decreed forty-nine more laws in 2001. This caused angry protests, and a violent strike in April 2002, when Chavez fired the managers of the national oil company. The strike turned into an anti-Chavez coup, when the demonstrators, supported by military leaders and a business lobby, marched on the presidential palace, and fought with pro-Chavez forces and supporters. The military confined Chavez to one of their bases and compelled him to resign; the United States quickly recognized the government the coup plotters were setting up. But while conservatives and the upper class detested Chavez, the poor folk that made up the majority of the population loved him, because they saw Chavez as one of them. Massive pro-Chavez demonstrations and a wave of looting broke out in Caracas, soldiers loyal to Chavez took back the presidential palace, and Chavez was rescued from captivity. He resumed his presidency only two days after his resignation, thus ending the shortest-lived government in Venezuelan history. Afterwards Chavez produced evidence that supposedly showed the United States had been behind the attempted coup.

This wasn’t the end of the crisis, though; in December 2002 the opposition launched a full-scale general strike. The idea was to oust Chavez by paralyzing the oil industry and part of the private sector. It turned out to be overkill. After sixty-three days, Chavez was still in the driver’s seat, so the opposition called off the strike. By then the country had lost 7.6% of its GDP and several sectors of the economy were dislocated; chalk up another victory for Chavez.

The next attempt to stop Chavez was a recall vote in 2004. Chavez survived that, too, because the economy and the oil industry were doing well for the first time since his presidency began. In addition, oil prices increased greatly at that time, so available cash increased with his confidence. Besides using petrodollars to help the poor, as he had done already, Chavez adopted a more assertive foreign policy. Billions were donated to the campaigns of leftists in other Latin American countries; they included Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), and Fernando Lugo (Paraguay). Most of them had no trouble winning with that kind of cash, and while the candidates he backed in Mexico and Peru lost, it was only by narrow margins.

The biggest change in foreign policy was in how Venezuela treated Cuba. Whereas previous Venezuelan leaders acted like Fidel Castro was a leper, he and Chavez became the best of friends. The two of them reached an agreement where Venezuela sent hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to Cuba every year at a reduced price; in return, Cuba provided access to doctors from Cuba’s much-heralded health care system. What Castro could not get by asking Former President Betancourt, or by supporting left-wing guerrillas in Venezuela, he now got from Chavez; it just came forty years later. And with Venezuela replacing Russia as the foreign power propping up the Havana regime, Cuba’s "Special Period" ended; that is probably the main reason why communism still rules the island today. Chavez got a big brother out of the deal; he saw Castro as his mentor, and talked about being Castro’s heir to the worldwide communist revolution.

While Castro was obviously Chavez’s best friend abroad, it was just as easy to see who he picked for his worst enemy: US President George W. Bush. Chavez became the spokesman for those Latin Americans who saw the United States as an imperialist power, an economic and political bully. He went out of his way to call Bush names like "Mr. Danger" and a "donkey," and made it a point to improve relations with the enemies of the US, even rogue nations like Iraq (before Saddam Hussein’s downfall), Iran, and Zimbabwe.(161) In 2005 he launched a program to provide 25 million gallons of heating oil to New York City’s poor people, at 40% off the wholesale price. While this kept thousands of New Yorkers from freezing in the winter, it was obviously a political jab; Chavez did it to make himself look nicer than Bush, not because he liked folks in the Big Apple. He was also paranoid enough to fortify the country’s defenses against a possible US invasion, which never came, by the way.

National Review cover.

Despite how Chavez felt about the US, Americans had trouble hating him entirely. Only a few conservatives, like the editors of National Review, thought he was bad enough to qualify for membership in Bush’s "Axis of Evil" (see above).(162) On the left side of the political aisle, he found friends in Sean Penn, Cindy Sheehan, and the same folks who liked Fidel Castro; liberals concentrated their attention on the good things Chavez was giving to his people. And despite the anti-American rhetoric, he could not cut off the sale of oil to the US, which was brought to Yankee gas pumps by the Citgo Corporation. Venezuela needed to sell the oil more than the US needed to buy it; an embargo would have been a disaster. Finally, to most Americans he looked like a clown whenever he appeared in the news. Here are four choice examples:

1. ¡Ola, Hugo! It’s your amigo Fidel!

Two disk jockeys from El Zol, a Spanish-speaking radio station in Miami, took advantage of the Castro-Chavez friendship to pull two of the most famous phone pranks of our time. In January 2003 they called Chavez and played recordings of Castro’s voice to fool the receptionist into thinking Fidel was on the line. When Hugo came to the phone, they chatted for a while, and then the DJs revealed who they really were and started insulting the Venezuelan leader. Of course Chavez hung up as soon as he realized he had been pranked. But that wasn’t the end of the story; five months later, armed with sound bites from their conversation with Chavez, the pranksters called Castro, and would you believe it, they got through again! After exchanging small talk, playing the Chavez recordings when it was their turn to speak, the DJs told Castro he had fallen for a hoax and called him a killer. Castro shouted back some choice nasty Spanish words ("gay" was the least objectionable name he called the DJs); you can be sure it would have caused a diplomatic incident if he had been talking with anyone important! What made this funny to Americans was the revelation that Castro and Chavez did not have caller ID service; if either of them had it, they and their staffs would not have been fooled.

2. The UN speech

On September 20, 2006, Chavez spoke at the United Nations General Assembly. What a spectacle that was! President Bush had spoken there one day earlier, and Chavez remarked, "Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of." Then he made the sign of the cross, looked up to Heaven and folded his hands in prayer, as if he was performing an exorcism. He went on to suggest that Bush was an alcoholic who needed psychiatric help, called him more names (e.g., "the devil" again, "liar," "tyrant," and "world dictator"), and called the US "imperialist," "fascist," and "genocidal." While the General Assembly applauded (no surprise there, the UN is largely an anti-American body), other Americans thought this was too much. Even liberal Democrats, who hated Bush at least as much and didn’t believe in a devil, thought Chavez should stay out of American politics. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, for instance, doesn’t have a bipartisan bone in her body, but she said, "Hugo Chavez fancies himself a modern day Simon Bolivar, but [in] all he is an everyday thug. He demeaned himself and he demeaned Venezuela."

Chavez holds Chomsky book.

Chavez also turned his speech into a commercial, by promoting a book by linguist and left-wing extremist writer Noam Chomsky (see above), and lamenting that he never got a chance to meet the author. In this case the joke was on Hugo, for he did not know that Chomsky was very much alive; they did eventually meet in 2011.

Chavez meme.

In the US, somebody responded to Hugo’s rant by creating this silly picture of him with Photoshop; it became an Internet meme for a while.

3. The Latin American summit incident

Chavez made another scene at the Ibero-American Summit, a conference for the leaders of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, held in Chile in November 2007. There Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero suggested that Latin America needed to attract more foreign capital. Previously Zapatero got along with Chavez, because both of them are socialists, but Chavez, offended by this statement, began to argue with him; at one point in the argument, he called a former prime minister of Spain, José María Aznar, a fascist. Zapatero asked Chávez to show a bit of respect, because Aznar may have been a conservative, but he was still the people’s choice in a fair election. Instead, Chávez continued to interrupt the prime minister, until Spain’s King Juan Carlos leaned into the conversation and told Chavez, "¿Por qué no te callas?" ("Why don't you shut up?"). Chávez later said he did not hear Juan Carlos, but was glad to stand in as the opponent of the king of the former colonial power that once ruled Venezuela. Then the next speaker, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, ceded a minute of his own time to let Chávez finish making his point, and accused Spain of interfering in Latin American affairs, so the normally cool-headed king walked out of the event. By the way, the video of the king saying "Why don’t you shut up?" became an instant YouTube sensation (see below).

4. The Penisphone

Chavez got the idea that because the world’s most important nations have high-tech industries, Venezuela should have one, too. This would boost the country’s technological independence, and he would start by creating a Venezuelan cell phone. By May 2009 it was ready, and Chavez launched it by making a Mother’s Day call to his mother on TV.

The whole venture showed how little he knew about marketing and entrepreneurship. First, the parts for the phones were made in China, and while the final assembly took place in Venezuela, it was done at a factory partially managed by the Chinese -- which pretty much kills whatever advantage might be gained by building the phones anywhere besides China. Second, a government subsidy cut the retail price to a quarter of the manufacturing cost, about $15 in US dollars. While this made the phone affordable to just about everybody, it also meant that sales weren’t likely to ever generate a profit. Third and worst was the vulgar name Chavez chose for it: the Vergatario. Chavez explained that according to the Real Academia Espanola Dictionary, vergatario can mean "optimal," or someone with an outstanding quality. That may be true, but in the entire Spanish-speaking world, verga is also slang for "penis." It didn’t help that Chavez couldn’t say the name without grinning or snickering, and he promoted the phone with crude remarks like "Everyone has the opportunity to get their hands on a Vergatario," or "Whoever doesn't have a Vergatario is nothing."

While sales of the "penisphone" got off to a good start, they didn’t stay firm for long. The government predicted two million sales by 2011, but only one million were produced by then, and of course not all of them were sold. Venezuelans were put off not only by the name, but also because the phones looked out of date, now that iPhones were available. Of course Chavez was left embarrassed when his cell phone business went floppy, and he promised that the phone’s hardware bugs would be fixed in the next model. Hmmm, where have we heard that before?

Socialism, like communism, has a talent for turning treasure into trash, and that happened in Venezuela as the first decade of the twenty-first century advanced. Because Venezuela has more money than most Latin American countries--especially when oil prices peaked at almost $150 a barrel in 2008--you wouldn’t expect it to be driven into the poorhouse. Nevertheless, Chavez managed to do it, judging from Venezuela’s current condition. In December 2006 he was elected to another term, and he rewarded the voters by giving them more public works and social programs. He also took advantage of his apparent mandate to nationalize telecommunication, cement and steel companies, most electric utilities, and many hotels. But at the same time, even with Venezuela’s oil wealth, improvements could only be made to a point; e.g., a brand-new subway system could be built, while utilities went neglected. The country found itself facing routine blackouts and serious water shortages; eventually Chavez called on all Venezuelans to take showers that did not last more than three minutes, calling this a "Communist shower." At the beginning of 2010, water rationing was introduced, the Bolivar was sharply devalued again, and because of the energy crisis, a state of emergency was declared soon after that. And while the per capita income of the country’s poorest had improved, the percentage of people in the poorest bracket had increased as well. Finally, you can top it all off with an increased crime rate. For example, the murder rate in Venezuela has gone up from 19 murders per 100,000 in 1999, to either 75 murders per 100,000 (according to non-governmental sources in 2011) or 48 murders per 100,000 (what the Minister of Justice admitted).

Yankee Go Home!

This Caracas street scene was posted at the beginning of Chapter 1 . . .

Poverty in Venezuela.

But as time went on, the streets of Caracas looked more like this.

Another characteristic of socialist/communist states is that instead of "withering away," as Karl Marx predicted, they become more dictatorial. In March 2005, the Chávez government passed a series of media regulations that outlawed libel and slander directed against public officials, especially Chavez, with prison sentences of up to 40 months for violations. In January 2007 the Venezuelan National Assembly granted Chávez the power to rule by decree in certain areas for 18 months. In May the government refused to renew the license of the nation's most popular television station, alleging that the company owning the station had participated in the 2002 coup d'état; this led to protests in Caracas, from those both against and for the decision.

In 2008 the government of neighboring Colombia captured a laptop belonging to the guerrillas who have kidnapped/murdered thousands of Colombians since the 1960s, and it revealed that they were receiving aid from both Ecuador and Venezuela. Chavez suspected that Colombia and the US were working together against him, and when Colombian President Uribe requested that he stop supporting the guerrillas, Chavez instead cut off all trade with Colombia. Oops, that was a big mistake. Venezuela could only grow half of the food it consumed, and most of the rest had been imported from Colombia. Having enough petrodollars to float a boat won’t do you much good if you cannot spend them on things you need. Shortages of consumer goods have been a part of Venezuelan life since then.

The 1999 constitution did not allow Chavez to run anymore when his term ended in 2012, so Chavez proposed amending it by getting rid of presidential term limits. There was supposed to be a national referendum on this and other changes in December 2007, but a month before it took place, more massive protests broke out in Caracas, with Chavistas and opponents of Chavez clashing again. The referendum was defeated with 51% of the voters rejecting the amendments, showing that Chavez’s popularity had slipped. Not taking "No" for an answer, a year later Chávez proposed another constitutional amendment removing term limits. This time the referendum was passed by a 54% majority (February 2009), meaning that Chavez could stay in office for as long as he could keep the people voting for him.

Chavez may have felt he succeeded in making himself president for life, but God (or nature, if you prefer) had the last word; he didn’t live long after that triumph. In 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer in the pelvis (the exact type of cancer was not revealed to the public). True to ideology, he rejected treatment at hospitals in the United States and Europe, choosing instead to be treated in Cuba. Despite all the praise foreigners have given to the Cuban health care system, it probably did not have the specialty care Chavez would have needed. He spent much of the next two years in Cuba, undergoing four operations. From his hospital room he continued to run Venezuela, by issuing commands through Twitter. For the presidential election of 2012 he campaigned again in spite of his condition, going so far as to make his own exercise video to show the voters he was all right. He did win another term, but while the video may have fooled the voters, it did not fool the cancer; five months later, on March 5, 2013, he died.

The vice president, Nicolás Maduro Moros, took charge at once, and enough of Chavez’s popularity rubbed off to let him narrowly win his own presidential election, one month later. Sounding like his late mentor, Maduro accused the United States of poisoning Chavez with cancer, and so far has continued Chavez’s socialist policies.

By now, Nicolás Maduro has been in charge for a year. Looking back, Hugo Chavez bears more than a slight resemblance to Juan Perón, the former leader of Argentina: both were ex-military men who became populist strongmen, and both wrecked their economies by the time they were done. Thus, Maduro has been struggling to pick up the pieces, dealing with inflation and shortages of basic items ranging from food to toilet paper. The ailing economy has sparked protests since February, in which more than 40 people have been killed on both sides; foreign governments are now talking about human rights abuses, and considering issuing sanctions. As a recent issue of Time Magazine explained Venezuela’s situation: "Whether it collapses now depends on Maduro -- and on whether he can step out of the shadow of his pugnacious predecessor and compromise with his opponents."(163)

Venezuelan student with flag.
A common sight in present-day Venezuela; a protesting student holding his country’s flag.

This is the end of Part VI. Click here to go to Part VII.


142. After his presidency ended, Cardoso went back to writing (see footnote #53). In 2006 he wrote his memoirs, with the emphasis on Brazil’s history since the monarchy was overthrown in 1889, and his mistakes and the controversies while he was in office. He named it The Accidental President of Brazil.

143. Blame it on Rio, and I’m not talking about this movie. The northeast only prospered while the capital was there, before it was moved to Rio de Janeiro (see Chapter 3).

Poster for Rio 1.
Speaking of movies about Brazil, here is one that I enjoyed!

144. The government expropriated the land of 600 families in the south because it was going to be flooded by the Passo Real hydroelectric dam. Another 300 to 1,000 families were evicted from the plots they rented in the Kaingang Indian Reservation, in Rio Grande do Sul. But most peasants lost their land to the growing plantations of the major landowners. Peasants who resisted faced threats, harassment, and murder. In many areas the violence was bad enough to support rent-a-killer agencies. The cost to hire a hit man depended on the target, ranging from $600 for a peasant to $4,000 for an elected politician.

145. Rousseff belonged to a guerrilla movement in the late 1960s. After the army crushed it, she spent 1970 to 1973 in jail, and reported being "terribly tortured" during that time.

146. Castro knew he needed all the friends he could get, so Pope John Paul II was allowed to visit Cuba in 1998, and the next pope, Benedict XVI, visited in 2012, though Cuba remained an officially atheist country.

147. The lack of oil caused Cubans to bring back horse-drawn carriages, oxen-drawn plows, and bicycles. While this meant a healthier, "greener" lifestyle (no doubt environmentalists would love it if this happened in a developed country), it was inefficient and uncomfortable. In 1994 oil was discovered offshore, and drilling for that improved Cuba’s energy situation considerably.

148. Communism and tourism do not mix. Apparently Castro did not remember an earlier experience which proved this. In 1964 his Soviet benefactors tried to help him out by making a movie about the Cuban Revolution, called Soy Cuba ("I Am Cuba"). The goal of the film was to make Cubans appreciate communism, by showing them how bad they had it a few years earlier, when Havana was an American resort (see Chapter 5). The opening scene contrasted Cuban peasants living primitively in the countryside, while beautiful Americans enjoyed themselves at a lavish pool party in Havana. You can watch it here.

As propaganda, Soy Cuba backfired. Instead of seeing the Americans as "decadent" and the Cubans as "heroic," Cubans came out of the cinemas wondering how they could get some of the fun the Americans were having. Oops! The Cuban and Soviet authorities were so embarrassed that they did not mention Soy Cuba again, in the hope that everyone would forget about it. That worked until 1995, when a new generation of filmmakers (which included Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) discovered the movie. These folks thought Soy Cuba was great -- not for propaganda value, but because the photography was good enough for it to qualify as an art film!

149. Of the two major US political parties, the Democrats are more willing to overlook the faults of a communist government like Cuba’s and pay attention to its positive accomplishments. Former president Jimmy Carter called for an end to the embargo, when he visited Cuba in 2002. For a while it looked like one of the Democratic presidents after him would have done it; e.g., Bill Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam, another enemy of the US, and Barack Obama promised to close the prison set up at Guantánamo Bay, to hold terrorists captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, neither lifted the embargo, and the prison remained open, because (1) there wasn’t a place on the US mainland that was as suitable and secure for keeping enemy combatants, and (2) few countries would take the prisoners that were set free.

Club Gitmo cartoon.

150. In 2009 another president, Michelle Bachelet, opened the Museum of Memory in Santiago. Like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, it was built to ensure that a bad chapter in history, in this case Pinochet's dictatorship, is not forgotten.

151. Downtown Santiago looks so much like the financial district of New York City that it has been nicknamed "Sanhattan."

152. Cardinal Pedro Rubiano, a leader of the Colombian Catholic Church, said in an interview that not knowing about drug money in a presidential campaign was like not noticing an elephant in a living room. Because of that statement, the Samper campaign scandal is sometimes called "The Elephant."

153. Betancourt was rescued six years later (July 2008), through a neat ruse called Operation Jaque. No shots had to be fired; Colombian soldiers with intelligence training did it by infiltrating the FARC, and they earned the trust of the guerrillas over several months. On the day of the rescue, they announced they were sending a helicopter to move fifteen hostages, including Betancourt and three Americans, to another location; the soldiers flying the helicopter disguised themselves by wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, which fooled even the hostages. Of course the helicopter belonged to the Colombian armed forces, so once the hostages were on board, the rest was easy.

154. Lacalle did not get along with the military under the dictatorship, and that led to some close calls, a bombing in his home and a poisoning attempt. The latter happened in 1978 when Lacalle received three bottles of poisoned wine, addressed to himself and two other National Party members named Heber and Pereyra. Lacalle's wife was suspicious of the gift, and warned him not to drink any, but Heber's wife drank a glass, and it killed her immediately. No one ever found out who sent the tainted bottles.

155. At least it wasn’t mad cow disease, the notorious ailment that afflicted cattle in Britain at the same time.

156. One program that generated more controversy than jobs was the construction of wood pulp mills on Uruguay’s side of the Uruguay River; neighboring Argentina warned that it did not want to deal with any pollution those mills would cause. In 2010 the next president, José Mujica, signed an agreement with Argentine president Cristina Kirchner to monitor the environmental health of the river.

157. Chamorro had to put down several uprisings in 1991 and 1992. First, a number of former Contras distrusted the police force as long as it was in Sandinista hands; they called themselves "Recontras." On the other side of the political aisle, there was trouble from Sandinistas who didn’t feel safe under the current government; these were dubbed "Recompas." To make the picture even more complicated, when the government went after both groups, some Recontras and Recompas decided they had common grievances and formed a 2,000-member anti-government group in northern Nicaragua, the "Revueltos."

158. If Alemán had stolen $100 million from the government of a major power like the United States, it probably would not have gotten much attention, what with the numbers today’s budgets throw around, but for a country as poor as Nicaragua, that isn’t loose change!

159. For those keeping track, Gutiérrez is the third president of Ecuador who has been ousted in mid-term since 1997.

160. Don’t expect the news to get dull, anyway. One example is the Raúl Reyes incident, which was covered in the last section on Colombia. Another is how Ecuador has gained an image as a shelter for those on the run with sensitive information. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, escaped to Ecuador’s embassy in London in June 2012, and was granted asylum the following August. In June 2013, Edward Snowden, the fugitive NSA leaker, also sought asylum in Ecuador, but was turned away.

161. However, Chavez got along with Bush’s successor, Barack Obama. When they first met, they gave each other a high-five, like they were old friends. Still, the damage from the previous rhetoric had been done; even Obama did not mend US-Venezuelan relations.

Chavez thanks Obama for buying oil from him.

162. Another American who could not stand Chavez was TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who called for his assassination in 2005.

163. Kumar, Nikhil, "The man who holds Venezuela's future". TIME. April 23, 2014.

During the 2015 Copa América, South America's soccer championship, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón went on Twitter and remarked, "What a shame, what a dirty game the Venezuelan team is playing. They look like they were trained by Maduro . . . ." Accusations of playing dirty happen all the time at sporting events, but Nicolás Maduro was personally offended by this tweet, and proved himself a despot by declaring Calderón persona non grata, meaning the Mexican ex-president would not be allowed to visit Venezuela. Calderón considered this an honor rather than a punishment, because of who it came from, and it did not help with the games; Venezuela came in 9th place, among the twelve countries participating, so it wasn't even in the quarter-finals.

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