In Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, the ideological left is on the losing side of a political battle being waged across Latin America. What does it mean for Russia?
Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner delivers her farewell speech in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. After eight years in office Fernandez will be replaced by Mauricio Macri on Dec. 10. Photo: AP
In a number of Latin American countries that Russia sees as its strategic allies, the ruling factions are experiencing problems. This change of political course in Latin America could have important implications for Russian foreign policy in the region.
In Argentina, Cristina Kirchner's protégé lost the presidential election. In Brazil, the Brazilian Congress initiated the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, who used to be a very popular politician. And, in Venezuela, after the opposition celebrated a resounding victory, President Nicolas Maduro might have to step down before the end of his term.
Who is to blame for such a quick retreat of left and left-of-center forces in Latin America?
In Argentina, handover ceremony turns into a farce
On Dec. 10, the inauguration of Mauricio Macri, the newly elected President of Argentina, was tainted by a scandal. Immediately after the election, he and Kirchner, who is stepping down as President, got into an argument about the proper location for the presidential sash and leader's staff handover ceremony. Kirchner wanted Macri to be sworn in and given the tokens of power at the Argentine National Congress. Macri insisted on receiving the staff and sash at La Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.
His wish was granted, so Kirchner decided to ignore the ceremony altogether, even though it was attended by presidents and high-ranking officials from all over the world (Russia was represented by Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia). Thus, for the first time in modern history, the new President received the staff and sash not from his predecessor, but from the head of the Senate.
"Argentina Presidential feud turns handover ceremony into a farce," Bloomberg wrote. This is a very accurate assessment of the situation. Kirchner has long been known for her quarrelsome temper. During her eight years of serving as President, she had multiple anger outbursts directed at her opponents, including judges, journalists, and deputies of the parliament. Local analysts believe that she needs a new scandal in order to stay in the spotlight because, according to the Argentine constitution, she can run for President again in four years.
Let us now take a look at Argentina's neighboring country of Chile. The Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet, who personally experienced the horrors of Pinochet's military dictatorship, won the 2005 presidential election. In 2009, the Chilean left-of-center faction lost the election to millionaire Sebastian Piñera, a representative of the rightist forces. In 2013, Bachelet returned to the presidential palace, as the constitution does not prevent a politician from running for President repeatedly as long it is not for a second consecutive term.
The shift in Chilean preferences from the firm left to the definite right and back went smoothly and did not have a negative effect on the economy. The explanation is quite simple: this Latin American country features the strongest political institutions on the continent, the most powerful press, and the most authoritative judges who will not stand corruption, power handover, or election fraud. Chile paid for its current stability with 17 years of military dictatorship.
Unfortunately, Argentina has yet to build such a strong political system. Kirchner was a voluntarist and populist politician whose aggressive style maybe appealed to some voters but hurt Argentina's global image and did little good domestically.
Still, Kirchner's term ended in a farce, while Rousseff's rule bears the signs of a true drama.
In Brazil, the largest country of the continent, the Workers' Party enjoyed tremendous public support along with its leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a steel worker who ruled the country from 2003 to 2011. His prestige was based on large-scale social programs that helped the authorities battle poverty and improve the well-being of 30 million Brazilians in just a decade. The country's international image was supported by its stable economic growth at 7 percent per annum. More and more frequently Brazil was referred to as the model country, and its leaders, da Silva and Rousseff, claimed top spots in global rankings.
However, after Rousseff's reelection in 2011 things started to change. Brazil's development abruptly slowed down and seemed to have lost its momentum. Maybe that was the result of the same political forces staying in power for too long.
The Congressional opposition accused Rousseff of violating the tax code and misusing federal funds. Allegedly during the 2014 election, which she won, Rousseff created an illegal fund that she used to finance her campaign, and then falsified state statistics data to make her first-term achievements look more impressive than they actually were.
Possibly, no impeachment charges would have been brought up had the county not been recently shaken by another major corruption scandal involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Brazilian investigators then organized a special operation and found out that through kickbacks, bribes and money laundering schemes the company management made about $3.8 billion. Prior to becoming the President, Rousseff served as the Chairwoman on the Petrobras Board of Directors and, according to her numerous political opponents, had to have known about the company's financial schemes. Now she might pay dearly for that.
In Venezuela, the declining popularity of the political left and the policies of former President Hugo Chavez could have important implications for Russian foreign policy in Latin America. Photo: AP
However, it is Russia's primary strategic partner Venezuela that has been hit the hardest. The immutability of the political model led to a social and economic disaster. Ecstasy that sprung from former national hero Hugo Chavez' illusions and archaic and unrealistic slogans about the creation of some vague “21st century socialism” caused an unprecedented collapse of economic indicators, the spread of corruption, unchecked inflation, and the deficit of virtually all produce and manufactured goods.
In this context, it is not surprising that most Venezuelans got tired of their incompetent rulers. The victory of the opposition that received two-thirds of the votes during the parliamentary election came as a logical consequence of Maduro's current policies.
However, Moscow, which first greeted the populist Chavez and then his successor Maduro, did not utter a word of criticism. It appears that Russian political thinkers' quest for allies is not pragmatic or based on Russia's national interests, but rather, is based on the principle of ideological affinity. Who is to blame then for allies being weak and unreliable?
Recommended: "If Russia can't save Venezuela, maybe China can"
The response of Russia’s oil companies
After the election results were announced and it became clear that Maduro's opposition won a resounding victory and claimed absolute majority in the National Assembly of Venezuela, the management of Russian company Rosneft recommended that its employees urgently have their families leave the country.
"No one is going to sell shares in company's Venezuelan projects, but employees' families are advised to leave as a precaution," an anonymous member of Rosneft leadership told the Russian press. Another Rosneft representative familiar with Russian projects in Venezuela confirmed that the company may take steps to ensure the safety of its staff.
How does the power shift in Venezuela threaten Russia when its companies invested $1.4 billion into the country's oil industry and were planning on investing another $14 billion in the near future? "The new parliament will likely move to dissolve the agreement between PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.) and Rosneft on the development of hard-to-extract oil resources by declaring it 'a forced deal'," said Vladimir Semago, ex-deputy of the State Duma and deputy chairman of the Russia-Venezuela Business Council.
But why would new Venezuelan deputies abruptly bring Russia-Venezuela oil projects to a halt?
It is quite possible that the new National Assembly will move to replace Maduro under whose leadership the national economy has been steadily declining since spring 2013. But even if we assume that early presidential elections will take place in 2016, and then Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition, or Leopoldo Lopez, the people's champion, if released from custody, will win, neither one is likely to bury joint Russian-Veneuelan oil projects.
Ex-deputy Semago probably was thinking of the time when Chavez made a spur of the moment decision to kick American ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips out of the country and both companies lost all their investments. But that was the style of this Latin American caudillo - relentless and merciless.
To the contrary, the opposition leaders are very reasonable. For many years Capriles has been in charge of Miranda, one of Venezuela's most successful provinces, and Lopez, incarcerated based on concocted charges of inciting street riots, is fluent in several languages and graduated from Harvard.
Maduro traditionally puts all the blame on the right-wing opposition and the U.S. claiming that the latter keeps conspiring against the Bolivarian Revolution. He announced that the National Assembly was taken over by “bad people” referring to the elected opposition representatives who received 67 percent of the votes. Maduro stated that he was not going to pass a single legislative initiative of the new Assembly and would definitely boycott the deputies' main campaign on blanket amnesty for political prisoners. If the National Assembly decides to remove him before the end of his term, he "will rush into battle."
Yankees sitting back and waiting it out
In the meantime, Washington appears to have adopted a very cautious stance on Venezuela. The claim that the U.S. is pushing Russia out of Latin America does not hold water. The U.S. that used to get actively involved in Latin America (for example, in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973) started to reconsider its strategy in the region under Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton tried to implement an equal partnership model, but was not very successful. George W. Bush did not have much time to spare for the southern continent because his team focused on Afghanistan and Iraq instead. Nor is Latin America a priority for the Obama administration, even though he took a number of unorthodox steps towards his neighbors (for example, reinstated diplomatic relationships with Cuba).
Russian allies in Latin America have only themselves to blame for the current situation. Moscow's foreign affairs weakness is that it put all of its eggs in one basket by propping up leftist regimes and not even trying to establish a relationship with the opposition represented by right-wing and right-of-center forces. The Kremlin has few to none contacts with Venezuelan opposition leaders, representatives of the Cuban democratic opposition (which is small, but gaining momentum), or with Argentina’s winning right coalition.
Instead, Patrushev is sent to Buenos Aires to take a look around and, possibly, estimate where the country is headed. His trip may have come too late. It is also clear that Russia's geopolitical and military plans do not include Argentina anymore.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.