For most, the decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s are regarded as a dark period for Latin America. Like Honduras and Paraguay, Brazil’s elites used the legislature against Dilma Rousseff. Is Venezuela next?
The majority of South American nations were taken over by brutal military juntas, while in Central America civil wars claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. The armed forces in the region, often trained and financed by the United States, ruled through force and where civilian governments didn’t heed their agendas, these were ignored or overthrown.
Despite entailing the onslaught of disastrous neoliberal economic policies that exacerbated poverty and inequality, the 1990's also ushered in an end to the military dictatorships in Latin America. Elected governments returned to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, while peace accords in Guatemala and El Salvador also meant that the militaries would see a diminished role in the politics of those countries (at least in theory).
Latin America did not solve its numerous problems, but a general consensus was arrived at — no coups or military regimes should be permitted again in the region.
Of course, this consensus began to break with the resurgence of Latin America’s left, beginning with the Bolivarian movement and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Even though he initially harbored very modest proposals for reforms, Venezuela’s ruling class almost immediately sought to topple Chavez’s government. In April 2002 they acted as Latin American elites had done in previous decades and enlisted the upper echelons of the military to stage a coup to remove Chavez. The results were predictable — Venezuelans revolted against the coup and its leaders and the region (except for the U.S. government led by George W. Bush), rejected the move.
The lesson: military coups make for bad PR.
As the decade and Latin America’s left advanced, the regional right adopted a different strategy to counter the trend. While in many countries the left was winning presidencies, in these countries the legislative branches remained largely under the control of traditional (and generally right-wing) parties. Far from providing checks and balances on the authority of the executive branch, opposition-controlled legislatures began to be used as the instrument to overthrow elected presidents.
The first test came in 2009, when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office after calling for a non-binding referendum on changing the country’s constitution. The Honduran Congress had voted to remove Zelaya from office, and the country’s Supreme Court — dominated by figures connected to the previous military government — ordered his arrest. The Honduran military dutifully complied with their order, kidnapping Zelaya and forcing him onto a plane to Costa Rica.
Three years later, Paraguay’s parliament impeached President Fernando Lugo, a former bishop who ended 61 years of one-party rule in the country. The charges and process against Lugo were met with skepticism in Paraguay as well as in the region, prompting Paraguay to be suspended from the Mercosur pact.
The impeachment process against the president of Latin America’s largest nation mirrors the intentions of the coups of the 70’s and 80’s and the methods of those in the last decade. Despite the absence of evidence that could justify an impeach against Dilma Rousseff, a majority of Brazilian legislators — many of whom are implicated or being investigated in a massive corruption scandal — have approved removing her from the office she was elected to. The man who will fill the seat is one of those being investigated, but he faces no repercussions from his colleagues.
In neighboring Venezuela, the opposition-led National Assembly has the same objective and has initiated the "recall" clause in the country’s constitution in an attempt to oust Nicolas Maduro from the Miraflores presidential palace.
In all of these cases, the objective is not merely power, but what power facilitates. Since 1998, numerous left-leaning governments have been elected to redistribute wealth and decision-making power. Not only has this led to inequality and poverty being slashed, but the political dynamics in those countries has shifted and the region has become more unified and independent.
The new strategy to stem the Pink Tide builds from the same objectives as those employed by the dictatorships of Pinochet, Videla and others: stop the left from being able to implement its program. But while it uses one elected institution to subvert another, it should be clear that these maneuvers are no less undemocratic than their military predecessors.