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Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua: Lofty Idealism vs. Hard Nosed Politics

It has been four years since the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua joined Hugo Chavez in forming a socialist bloc, intended to transform the life of the common man in Latin America. Bolivia’s Morales, Ecuador’s Correa, and Nicaragua’s Ortega purported to usher in an era that would put an end to the ‘dark night of neoliberalism’, but today the pink tide of 21st century socialism looks more like a red tide of authoritarianism and realpolitik, raising questions about its viability as a political force in the long-term.

Ecuador has arguably been the most successful in delivering results, with public perceptions of corruption having dropped dramatically since Correa took power. Correa has successfully broken the cycle of political instability that saw Ecuador inaugurate eight presidents between 1996 and 2006.He has successfully swept out of power the old political class and ushered in a host of opposition figures. Other notable gains include a ‘revolution tax’ wherein Correa has been able to boost state tax revenues by 64% in five years by improving collection rates,[1] as well as reducing Ecuador’s foreign debt to one of its lowest levels on record. Buoyed by an export boom that has brought a record revenue windfall, the government has implemented costly social spending programs that it will struggle to maintain in leaner times. Correa has preached polarization and exclusion to those who do not share his vision of a new Ecuador. Crime has risen to such an extent that it has become the number one concern of Ecuadorians.

Following the oil and gas nationalizations of 2006, the Morales administration has struggled to maintain production and attract much needed foreign direct investment more generally. Despite much rhetoric, Morales has been far less radical than he initially seemed, though foreign investors continue to view him as radical. He has kept in place the vast majority of Bolivia’s neoliberal economic policies[2] that were established in the early 2000s and has concentrated on reforming social, cultural, and judicial structures, with some success. However, domestic politics have occupied much of his time, which has culminated in the embarrassing events of January when the government was forced to reverse necessary fuel price rises in response to violent protests.

21st century socialism has perhaps been most disappointing in Nicaragua, where the revolutionary ideals of former Sandinista guerrilla Daniel Ortega have failed to produce many tangible results. Recent Wikileaks cables reported American suspicions that Ortega’s 2006 campaign was financed by drug lords in exchange for releasing captured gang members, as well as alleging that he granted refuge to Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1984 in return for large cash payments. Ortega recently led Nicaragua into a territorial dispute with Costa Rica with the apparent aim of boosting nationalist support prior to his November 2011 presidential election bid (which he is constitutionally banned from contesting).  Along with Morales and Correa, he has curried favour with undesirable regimes abroad. Following widely criticized fraudulent municipal elections in 2008, the EU and United States suspended most of its development aid to the country.[3] Being heavily reliant on Venezuelan subsidies, Ortega has made little effort to create new sources of revenue for his country amidst dwindling foreign support and sluggish growth.

The populist backbone of the political movements represented by these leaders, which propelled them to power, is also where many of their common afflictions may be found. The most striking example was the attempted coup d’etat in Ecuador on September 30, 2010, when President Correa was held hostage by police and security forces. Correa has been deserted by several top allies from his ruling Alianza Pais who are disillusioned with his style of governance. The military only stepped in to support him on September 30 when it became apparent that Correa’s life was in danger.

Populist leadership styles have historically been accompanied by a reduction in political pluralism in Latin America, as incumbents crack down on political opposition or co-opt certain sectors (such as trade unions, indigenous groups, or the military) into the state apparatus. In all three countries there have been clear attempts to reduce or eliminate the independence of the media and control the political process. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index[4] lists Nicaragua as the second worst offender in the region vis-a-vis political freedom, following Venezuela. The Index puts Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia all in the bottom five. Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 Freedom Index lists Bolivia and Ecuador — having fallen 87 places and 43 places, respectively — as considerably more dangerous for journalists since 2006.

Political freedom has also taken a step backward since the election of these countries’ ‘leaders of the people’. The Morales administration has consistently attacked opposition figures such as prominent state governors, mayors and judges, with charges such as embezzlement and corruption, which has either put some on trial or forced their exile. The Correa government, which still maintains a 60% popularity rating, has rapidly fallen out of favor with trade unions and indigenous movements, which are being excluded from Correa’s ‘national project’. In Nicaragua, the daily El Nuevo Diario recently reported death threats directed towards its journalists working on alleged government corruption. International observers have deplored the widespread fraud that occurred during the 2008 municipal elections, and the local media denounces the patronage-based style of government supported by Ortega.

All three leaders have failed to deliver on campaign promises to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. In Ecuador, poverty levels have dropped slowly, which the government has admitted is disappointing given the vast amount of resources invested in social programmes during the Correa administration. Growing lawlessness is complicated by Correa’s dysfunctional relationship with the national police force. The northern border area is a source of great concern as an influx of refugees and FARC guerrillas from Colombia have combined with paramilitary groups involved in illegal activities inside Ecuador.

In Nicaragua, the increasingly dictatorial behaviour of President Ortega is at odds with the democratization of politics and decision-making at the local level, suggesting that the leadership of the country is proving more of a hindrance than a help.[5] The Ortega administration has made progress in improving some social indicators, such as reducing infant mortality and illiteracy, and widening access to free healthcare. But economic growth has been sluggish and has slowed consistently since Ortega took office, casting doubt on the government’s ability to reduce high rates of poverty in the country.

Under Morales, military spending has increased by 64% in four years and now consumes a quarter of government spending, raising questions about the loyalty of the military, given that Bolivia has no palpable threat to its national security. This is particularly worrying as spending on education has fallen consistently under Morales to account for just 3% of government expenditure.

Overall, the outlook for 2011 and the medium-term is one of continued tension and uncertainty. Bolivia’s need to wean its population off of fuel subsidies will cause the popularity of Morales to continue to drop. Nicaragua’s pliant judiciary has permitted Ortega to seek re-election in his 7th consecutive presidential election. Opposition figures are sure to attempt to form a coalition with the backing of some in the business sector, and the highly critical media is sure to provoke clashes with government supporters. President Correa appears determined to face down any opposition to his policies and governance style as he forges ahead with his ‘citizen’s revolution’. What is less clear is whether he will be able to maintain the support of the army, and what strategy he will undertake to tackle security, given that some in his government are already concerned at the level of power and influence the military have come to wield since September 30.

Much of the lofty idealism used to seduce voters to vote for the pink leaders has been replaced by simple hard-nosed politics. In that regard, 21st century socialism is no different than other ‘democratic’ movements that have led to authoritarianism.

Notes

1Lecture attended at the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA) by Guillame Long, PhD candidate at ISA and advisor to the Ecuadorian Minister of Planning and Development René Ramírez Gallegos.

2Webber, J., (2010), Bolivia in the Era of Evo Morales, Latin American Research Review, 45(3): 248-260.

3Millett, R., (2011), ‘Nicaragua: The Politics of Frustration’, in Wiarda, H., and Kline, H., Latin American Politics and Development, Westview Press, Colorado.

4Economist Intelligence Unit Report (2010): Democracy Index 2010: Democracy in Retreat.

5Information from abstract of paper to be presented at SLAS Conference 2011 entitled ‘Centralization and Decentralization: Municipal Political Autonomy and Democratization in Nicaragua, by Leslie Anderson, University of Florida.


About the Author

Daniel Wagner

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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the forthcoming book “Managing Country Risk” (Taylor and Francis, Q1 2012).