It would not be entirely unreasonable for one to think of Latin American countries as unfortunate places where dictatorships are naturally attracted, naturally cultivated and naturally flourish. Certainly looking at the sheer number of dictators that have existed in the region, it is possible to think that maybe, as a result of a messy combination of historical, cultural, and socio-economic factors, that democracy and the kind of prosperity we experience in the West just isn’t suited to them.
The fact, however, is that the South American people jump at every chance at democracy and freedom they get, and when left to their own devices they are actually really good at it.
I just came back from South America, a place my Dad told me he ‘wasn’t really sure of’. ‘All you hear out of there is a lot about death and drugs, it just doesn’t really seem like a very safe place to go’. It‘s an echoed sentiment which is not entirely unfounded. The top three countries in the world with the highest murder rates are South and Central American countries, and it’s not really a list of ‘The Top Most Crime-riddled Countries in the World’ if there’s not at least 5 Latin American countries on it. The final straw for most people is the Australian government’s smart traveller recommendations for most Latin American countries which vary between ‘Exercise a high degree of caution’, and ‘Reconsider your need to travel’, with only three of the twenty Latin American countries listed considered by the Australian government as being of ‘normal’ safety levels for travellers.
The evidence is glaring that Latin America is not a peaceful place, but from my fleeting experience with the area, it’s certain that its people are. They’re the first people to tell you that there are deeply-rooted cultural and political issues within their individual countries, and much of Latin America. They are aware and scathing of their country’s politics and the corruption that infests both their minor and most senior leaders. The corruption and inequality in Latin America has reached such a peak that it is undeniable. Even within the most provincial of towns where every home is made with mud brick and roofed with corrugated iron, it is impossible to miss the grand and shiny mayoral government building – built with more money than most will earn in their entire lives.
Although corruption seems to be something embedded within Latin American culture, the fight against it is one that has come to prominence over the last few years, and numerous politicians have been ousted and jailed as a consequence.
This includes Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned as President of Peru over corruption charges, former Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina who is being tried over a multimillion-dollar corruption case, and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, currently in jail serving a sentence also on corruption charges. It may seem like the bare minimum, obvious consequences for those who have broken the law, but it represents meaningful, healing steps taken by countries whose previous leaders have been dictators with little regard for the formal judicial systems or the law. To revoke the culture of politicians being immune to the hand of the law is an almighty step for a region whose history is steeped in colonial and dictatorial regimes. The suffering imposed on Latin America by dictator after dictator and the continual political and social reverberations this has had upon their modern day economy and political proceedings is evident in today’s Latin American societies. To the untrained eye, it would be easy to think that maybe this region just naturally attracts dictators and naturally attracts corruptible leaders. But this is not the case.
To find the source of Latin America’s current problems, it is necessary to look to the past and to the region’s relationship with the United States of America.
I met an Ecuadorian woman during my travels who took to correcting me whenever I absentmindedly referred to the United States as ‘America’. “They are not America, we are all the Americas. They are the United States” she would tell me with increasing annoyance, and it’s not hard to understand her frustration. The dominance that the US has historically exerted over Latin America has led the region to the economic and political landscape it faces now. It has also been, at least in part, responsible for an immeasurable amount of hardship, innocent deaths and ruined lives.
The relationship between Latin America and its northern neighbour has been one of use and abuse.
The United States has long treated Latin America as their playground and political pawn, a place where they can reach in, exert dominance, enforce political ideologies, and then retreat without consequence.
The list of the United States’ south and Latin American ‘interventions’ is extensive, and spans from the 1890’s until the present. The United States has economic and political reasons to be constantly in and out of the lower half of their continent. As a region rich in resources such as metals, sugars, grains and oils, the United States has economic incentive to be the dominant trading partner of the region and to install and encourage political regimes which favours them over other global powers such as the European Union or Russia. In regards to Latin American politics, it is a well-known fact that the United States had a hand in the establishment of many dictatorial regimes under the guise of preventing the spread of communism. The United States is culpable in bringing to power far-right, dictatorial leaders in a host of countries including Brazil, Guatemala, Paraguay, Panama and Chile.
There is still strong anti-United States sentiment in Chile, whose democratically elected, Marxist president Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a CIA backed military coup in 1973. The coup established Augusto Pinochet as the President of Chile, which he remained until 1990, and began a regime where at least 3,095 people were executed or made to disappear with scores more imprisoned, abused or exiled. Even today there is a substantial number of people still missing, with friends and relatives looking for answers. The CIA’s involvement in and knowledge of the 1973 coup was long denied by the US government.
However in the last 15 years due to the declassification of Nixon era documents, the true extent of the United States’ knowledge and suspected involvement in the coup has been revealed.
It has been strongly suspected after a phone call between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger was released, that the United States used the CIA to destabilise the Allende government. There was also the alleged involvement of agents from the United States Defence Intelligence Agency who many believed secured some of the weapons used in the coup. In further phone calls, one which came just five days before the coup, Nixon and Kissinger were recorded speaking of the situation and remarking that “our hand doesn’t show on this one though”.
Nixon and the United States had the guise of the Cold War to hide behind whilst backing these US sympathising right-wing dictatorial governments. After the Cuban missile crisis specifically, the United States became determined to prohibit communist and left-leaning politicians and political parties from rising to power, regardless of the cost. This culminated in the United States using sleight of hand interference, the likes of those used in the Chilean coup, to back hardline right-wing political regimes throughout Latin America – creating the bloodied, dictatorial-heavy history the region still exists under today.
The consequences of such turmoil has resulted in economic struggle, which the region is only beginning to stagger out of. The economic incline of Latin America has not been steep, but there is sufficient evidence that over the last 20 years Latin American countries have been on a rocky upwards trajectory in regards to their growth in annual GDP and economic development. It is obvious, however, from even the briefest tours of Latin American countries that there is a large section of the population who have reaped no benefits from these on paper developments towards prosperity.
For many, the concept of ‘economic development’ results in nothing but the exploitation of natural resources, economic dependency and the continuation of poverty.
Most Latin American citizens have personally experienced the ineffectual nature of the economic ‘trickle down’ effect. Corruption and financial mishandling has caused Latin America to become one of the most unequal regions in the world. In 2014, the richest 10% of people in Latin America had collected 71% of the region’s wealth. Much of this disparity is due to the aforementioned corruption and money mismanagement, which the region’s dictatorial past has normalised.
However, Latin America is not without promise. The region is in the midst of a purge of corruption, and their rates of inequality, although still high, are going down and not up.
For the first time, Latin America seems to be taking control of its own future, a luxury previously denied to them. For Latin America is not a place which naturally attracts corruption and inequality, it is not filled with people willing to be bowled over time and time again by dictatorial regimes. Latin America is slowly establishing itself as a region of strength, of resilience and of prosperity. All the global community can do is wait with bated breath and hope, for the sake of those who live there, that it remains as such.