South America Regressing? A Rampant Revival Checked by Rampant Mismanagement

In the century and a half after their independence, the nations of South America were typically some of the most repressive and least stable in the world. Military dictatorships and continental wars abounded as the nascent nations squabbled for supremacy in the post-Spanish era.

The Siege of Paysandu during the Uruguayan War of 1864-65, one of many 19th century conflicts that embroiled continental powers in South America

The twentieth century brought additional internal challenges, including a growing wealth gap, drug cartels and bloody insurgencies. It took until the end of the century for democracy and a relatively fair social contract between governments and people to take hold in most countries on the continent, including the largest and most powerful; Brazil.

In more recent years, progress has been impressive. Regional economies have grown apace, millions have been lifted from poverty, drug gangs have been confronted and insurgencies quelled. Democracy has generally taken root, with elections largely free and fair. After decades of uncomplimentary news headlines and negative attention from the international media, South America went rather quiet. Its members were becoming ‘normal’ nations, or so it seemed.

Reading the news over the past few weeks, one would be hard-pressed to remember this impressive, if recent, progression.

In Peru – the epicentre of the Inca Empire whose conquest by Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores ushered in Spanish rule on the continent – a political crisis has been sparked by the president’s dissolution of congress. Supporters on both sides of the political aisle have taken to the street in what have been, so far, peaceful protests. But the episode threatens to derail the recovery of a nation that has overcome a succession of scandal-hit leaders and largely defeated the Maoist Shining Path rebel group that caused devastation countrywide from the late 1960s.

In Chile, violent protests against economic inequality and political stagnation have left at least fifteen people dead in the past week. The Chilean success story in becoming one of the most important economies in the Americas having struggled free of the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet is little reported. Yet propelled by vast copper reserves and other natural resources, Chile has known only stability in recent years. That Pinochet’s ascendancy was precipitated by the CIA-backed overthrow of leftist Salvador Allende in 1973 makes this rapid renaissance all the more astonishing, and worth protecting.

For years Augusto Pinochet had American backing, yet he brutalised the Chilean people

Bolivia too is reeling from protests after the controversial re-election of indigenous president Evo Morales. The first indigenous leader on the continent, his rise to the top was greeted with euphoria across the world and consistent economic growth has helped alleviate poverty. Unfortunately his decision to change the constitution to extend his rule, and his failure to manage inter-ethnic conflict raises the prospect of bloody violence.

Former coca leaf farmer Evo Morales is seeking a fourth consecutive term having amended the constitution

Violent clashes between protesters and the security forces have also plagued Ecuador, with parts of the capital Quito in flames. Precipitated by the removal of generous fuel subsidies because of IMF-demanded austerity measures, it threatens to unravel a delicate status quo that has held in recent years after decades of coups and counter-coups.

To the north, Colombia was seemingly emerging from the era of narco-politics embodied by the impunity of Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. What is more, a peace agreement with the FARC, an extremist left-wing insurgent group with a hand in the drugs trade, looked set to put the Colombians on the path to long-term peace. Yet the deal with the FARC is threatening to unravel, with several former rebels threatening to take up arms once more. The government, meanwhile, has become distracted by a refugee crisis caused by the debilitating situation in neighbouring Venezuela.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have spilled into Colombia, fleeing the humanitarian crisis in their homeland

And what of Venezuela? It has long been seen as a basket case, even in an era of South American improvement. Now, the country is virtually in ruin. President Nicolas Maduro refuses to cede power and appears perfectly prepared to starve and bully his people into submission to ensure that he does not have to. He is the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chavez, the left-wing populist and demagogue who was often seen as a scourge of the Western world. Yet despite all of Chavez’ flaws, his period of rule saw millions released from poverty by petro-dollars, whilst his ‘poor guy’ image endeared him to those fed-up of being trampled on by a disconnected oligarchy.

Even the continent’s two largest powers are reeling. In Brazil – which has seen an amazing transformation into one of the world’s biggest economies after decades of military rule – the political class has been completely discredited because of massive corruption scandals. Rulers have lined their pockets at the expense of a growing impoverished class, whose destitute favelas famously sit side-by-side with the gleaming skyscrapers of the rich. Running on a populist ticket, Jair Bolsonaro won the last presidential election. Setting himself up as a Brazilian Donald Trump, he refuses to negotiate with anyone that disagrees with him and has shown complete disdain for the plight of the Amazon Rainforest, his nation’s greatest treasure.

Argentina, meanwhile, has undergone a similarly remarkable transformation from a junta-ruled state where dissidents simply ‘disappeared’, to a vibrant economy and democracy. This revolution has been under threat in recent years, again stemming from political corruption and massive economic mismanagement, finally resulting in the IMF’s biggest ever bailout, a staggering $57 billion. Things were supposed to be different under another populist president, Mauricio Macri. Alas, his performance has been so disappointing that it seems to have paved a returned to power for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the crooked former president. 

Put simply, the South American nations have been mismanaged and abused in recent years and the people have had enough. However remarkable their rise since the dark days of military rule and impoverishment, the problems of the developed world have been ignored. It would be just as easy for the continent to regress towards a series of juntas and dictatorships as it was miraculous for it to have escaped such a state.

With global attention trained elsewhere, we might not even notice when that sad time has arrived once again. If international institutions refuse to offer support to decaying regimes, there is no guarantee that positive regeneration will come from within.

Military Sowed Conflict for Bolivia’s Coca Conundrum: traditional production vs drug trafficking

The EU is funding a $1.3m anti-drugs centre in Yapacani, a city on the edge of Bolivia’s Chapare region. Chapare is a major production area for coca, the raw material used in cocaine. Whilst the anti-drug centre will focus its work against traffickers, indigenous people worry that their involvement in coca production for traditional purposes will see them targeted.

Chewing coca is part of Bolivia's cultural heritage
Chewing coca is part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage

Coca production and consumption has been a feature of Andean life for thousands of years, with the plant used both as a medicine and as a stimulant against altitude sickness. Whilst limited coca production is permitted for some indigenous groups in Bolivia, the line between legal and illicit harvesting has become increasingly blurred, particularly as some farmers have become involved (forcibly or otherwise) with drug cartels.

The inauspicious-looking coca plant
The inauspicious-looking coca plant

The involvement of indigenous populations in the cocaine industry became embedded in Bolivia during the period of military rule between 1964 and 1982:

With military collusion, a trade in coca leaf was developed by drug cartels which paid poor Indian peasants to grow the traditional leaf for processing into cocaine in Colombia…Many desperate ex-miners and landless peasants migrated to the eastern lowlands, especially the Chapare region near Cochabamba, to grow coca leaf for the drug trade (Williamson, 2009, p. 604)

The economic devastation caused by military rule left many Bolivian peasants and itinerants with no option but to involve themselves in the drug trade. This subsequently precipitated the intervention of American-backed president Hugo Banzer in a brutal ‘cocaine war’ to eradicate coca production sites. (Patton, 2002, p.3)

Whilst the intention to eradicate Bolivia’s link with the cocaine trade was understandable:

Eradication hit the peasant growers very hard because compensation for the loss of their crops was inadequate and alternatives fetched much lower prices. (Williamson, 2009, p. 605)

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president and former leader of the coca-producing federation, has tried to allow increased indigenous production whilst simultaneously limiting the influence of the drug cartels. Such a goal, unfortunately, is almost impossible, as drug gangs and indigenous coca-producers have become inextricably linked in the cocaine supply chain.

Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia's coca conundrum
Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia’s coca conundrum

To eradicate coca production altogether would alienate the indigenous base on which Morales rests his legitimacy. To allow it to flourish inadvertently increases the power of the cartels.

It is an unenviable situation, one caused by Morales’ predecessors and Western habits, where the president is torn between choosing one of two evils or allowing the destabilising status quo to persist.

Sources

Patton J, ‘Counterdevelopment and the Bolivian Coca War’, The Fletcher Journal of Development Studies (Volume XVII, 2002)

Williamson E, The Penguin History of Latin America (St Ives, 2009)