Worrying Times for South America’s Bolivarians?

There are signs that the socialist-leaning leaderships of South America, which emerged from decades of military and strongman rule, may be on the wane. Coming to power with the express promise of alleviating poverty, redistributing national wealth and establishing a modern form of welfare system, many heads of state of the “new” Latin American made astonishing early advances.

Now, over a decade after some of them came to power, have some of the left-leaning, populist leaders outstayed their welcome to the detriment of the country’s that they helped reinvigorate?

Hugo Chavez, the infamous Venezuelan leader, moves ever closer to his deathbed yet refuses to yield power. His rule began in February 1999 and saw vast initial improvements in the quality of life for millions of Venezuelans. Chavez’s government, however, has become increasingly plagued by corruption, malaise and, most significantly, his own authoritarian tendencies, that Venezuela now has one of the highest murder rates in the world, a succession of brutally desperate shanty towns on the periphery of major cities and a stifled press that makes a mockery of Chavez’s claims for domestic freedom.

The ailing Chavez has accused the US of poisoning South American leaders
The ailing Chavez has accused the US of poisoning South American leaders

Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader of Bolivia, came to power on a wave of popular appeal in 2006, lauded for being a social and indigenous rights activist and one-time coca producer. Railing against the US-imposed destruction of the country’s coca fields – the lifeblood of many Bolivians – Morales embarked on a period of land redistribution and agricultural development that improved the plight of many of the country’s poorest people. In recent months, though, Morales has been accused of supporting controversial hydroelectric and mining programmes which threaten the livelihoods and cultures of the indigenous people he once represented so fiercely. At the same time, he has ordered repressive police crackdowns on any protests against his rule, actions more reminiscent of the military governments of Bolivia’s past. Today’s claims that Bolivia has irrefutable proof of American attempts to “destabilise” the Morales government now seem like a convenient distraction from the increasing waywardness of the President’s rule. In the past, such accusations would have been accepted as law by much of Bolivia’s population.

Morales's unpredictable rule has veered from right-wing nationalisations to far left price controls
Morales’s unpredictable rule has veered from right-wing nationalisations to far left price controls

Completing the trilateral core of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) is Ecuador. Their leader, Rafael Correa, President since 2007, is in a far more stable position than his Venezuelan and Bolivian contemporaries. Enjoying an approval rating of over 80%, Correa’s record in office has been impressive. Advances in health and education provisions have materialised from careful budget realignment, unemployment has decreased, wages risen and foreign debt has been slashed. Having said that, his rule has been somewhat erratic, summed up by the 2010 Ecuador Crisis in which Correa was held hostage by an irate National Police Force in an attempted coup d’etat with intimated US involvement. Additionally, workers protests (including miners’ strikes), have been ruthlessly suppressed and prohibited in an act contradictory to the supposed Bolivarian principles of the people. Embarking on frequent attacks against the “wild beasts” that are his country’s media, quashing indigenous movements and railing against the intrusion of foreign companies in “national” affairs, Correa seems to be following Chavez’s lead. He is abandoning his socialist principles in a bid to retain power over the country.

Rafael Correa: economic mastermind and potential political demagogue
Rafael Correa: economic mastermind and potential political demagogue

Both Chavez and Correa have altered their country’s constitutions to enable them to serve for longer than was previously stipulated. Morales has also been accused of altering the Bolivian constitution to balance the regional political administrations in a way that favours his party. Increasing authoritarianism and a shift to the “right” in terms of nationalising multinational businesses (which all three presidents have done), pandering to nationalist sentiment by accusing foreign powers (especially the US) of undermining domestic politics and pursuing populist tactics and smear campaigns against opponents are all signs that the “Bolivarian Revolution” has run its course. Like many initially successful political movements, Bolivarianism’s proponents have been unwilling to relinquish control and continue to re-mould their “ideologies” in a way that justifies their changing policies and increasing authoritarianism.

It remains to be seen whether the imminent death of Chavez will hasten the inevitable end of the Bolivarians and their replacement by another political movement determined to shape South America its in own image.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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