By Mercedes Navarro*
Jair Bolsonaro, the gun-toting, pro-dictatorship ultra-nationalist referred to as “the Trump of the Tropics” in Brazilian media, swept to victory on a platform of cracking down on crime and corruption—and by invoking the familiar bogeyman of the Latin American right, neighbouring Venezuela. Before the second-round vote in which he faced leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro hammered home a message which apparently resonated with his fellow citizens: “We don’t want to be tomorrow what Venezuela is today”.
Bolsonaro’s often-violent rhetoric has raised suspicions that he intends to escalate his hatred of Caracas to a new level—last week the Colombian Foreign Minister was forced to deny rumours that his government was plotting with Bolsonaro to invade Venezuela. His strategy of painting the election as a stark choice between the far right on one hand and “total decay, like Venezuela” on the other, however, fits neatly into a pattern which has spread across the Americas. Right-wing leaders from Trump to Colombia’s Ivan Duque have invoked the spectre of Venezuela in their campaigns to pick up votes out of fear—and, once in office, to draw attention away from their own domestic problems.
Venezuela: from symbol of the left to the scapegoat of the right
Other than hardline Maduro loyalists, commentators from throughout the political spectrum agree that Venezuela is in dire straits. The country has gone from the richest nation in South America, with robust social programmes, to struggling with currency not worth the paper it’s printed on and shortages of basic food and medicine. Where international observers disagree is where to pin the lion’s share of the blame for Caracas’s downfall: on Hugo Chavez’s socialist legacy or on the heavy sanctions the U.S. and Europe have slapped on Venezuela.
Regardless of the cause, Venezuela’s economic crisis—along with its pre-crisis history as a darling of the left—has made it the perfect whipping boy for right-wing politicians. By making Venezuela the frame of reference, they have been pushing the Overton window—the range of political ideas deemed acceptable—sharply to the right. In equating all liberal policies with Venezuela, the South American right is trying to demonise even moderately progressive challengers.
Before the Colombian presidential elections in May, Ivan Duque’s campaign distributed flyers warning: “Vote so that Colombia does not become another Venezuela”. A week before Argentinian midterm polls in 2017, president Mauricio Macri emphasised that his countrymen did not want a country “like Venezuela”. The sweeping victory Macri’s party enjoyed underlines how potent a tactic invoking Venezuela has proven to be.
Perhaps no one has cried Venezuelan wolf more than U.S. Republicans in the lead-up to this week’s midterm elections: according to Trump, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum would like to make Florida “into another Venezuela”, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke apparently harbours similar ambitions for Texas. Right-wing commentators have warned that “if you like Bernie”, an economic collapse similar to that Venezuela has suffered “could be your future”, while a Republican mailer referred to New York Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “mini-Maduro”.
Beyond rhetoric: a historic court referral
While such remarks have largely been dismissed as political fear mongering, a a group of five Latin American countries—Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru, all of which have conservative governments—are bringing a case against Venezuela to the International Criminal Court (ICC), with the support of France and Canada. In many ways, the move to refer Maduro’s government to the ICC is an extraordinary one. The ICC has never yet opened a case referred by its member states, and Latin American nations have long shared a certain esprit de corps which precluded them turning on each other.
How far the probe goes remains uncertain. Since its formation in 2002, the ICC has struggled both with bungled high-profile cases and sharp criticism given the troubling fact that though the Court has received over 9,000 complaints regarding 139 different nations, 10 of the 11 cases the ICC has overseen have focused on Africa, while all 37 defendants it has gone after have been African.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of the ICC investigation, however, the referral underscores the profound change that has taken place in Latin American politics, marked by the formation of a new bloc which defines itself by its opposition to the liberal policies which formerly characterised the region.
A convenient distraction from domestic challenges
Endless harping about Venezuela has also served as a convenient foil to deflect attention away from the Lima Group’s own problems. While Caracas’ economic issues—and the human suffering they have engendered— are extremely grave, its neighbours are facing serious challenges as well.
The Argentinian economy is in the dumps, after Macri recently had to swallow the bitter pill of asking the IMF for help. Despite the fund granting Buenos Aires a $50 billion credit line—the largest in its history—the Argentinian Central Bank recently had to raise interest rates to a stunning 60% to stem capital flight. Similarly, Colombia is wrestling with a high fiscal deficit and a rapidly-rising debt-to-GDP ratio. Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a basket case, plagued by a legion of problems, from double-digit unemployment, corruption at the highest echelons of government, and rampant crime.
Unlike Venezuela, however, these countries have not had to deal with the bruising sanctions which have compounded Caracas’s misery. Each fresh round of sanctions imposed by the U.S., the EU and Canada—the latest targeted Venezuela’s lucrative gold sector, which had heretofore been relatively unscathed by the economic crisis—has narrowed Caracas’s options for getting its economy back on track.
So far, conservative governments in Latin America have found it in their interest to support these sanctions. As U.S. policymakers increasingly openly advocate a return to the Monroe Doctrine, by which the U.S. claimed the entirety of the Americas for its sphere of influence, Latin American governments will have to reassess whether the political advantages of maintaining the spectre of Venezuela outweigh those of regional unity.
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy