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When torture victims govern

Alberto Vergara

In recent years, a number of analysts have signalled a leftward swing in Latin America’s governments and the existence of two distinct tendencies: one populist and the other socio-democratic. In the Southern Cone, the experience of brutal repression endured by the left has created a general consensus against arbitrariness and on the necessity for impartial institutions to protect fundamental rights. This conviction, combined with traditional socialist values, is giving rise to a number of public policies that, in their quest for greater social justice, neither sweep aside the existing political system nor infringe upon freedoms.

For 12 years, José “Pepe” Mujica was held prisoner in Uruguayan military barracks and during two of those years was confined to the bottom of a pit barely larger than his body. Buried alive and tortured by soldiers, he expected that one day he would be assassinated by his captors. He and other Tupamaro guerrillas lived in constant fear of getting killed if a Tupamarist act was committed. More than a political prisoner, Mujica was a political hostage. Today, he is Uruguay’s president. He bears no resentment and leads, as his predecessor Tabaré Vásquez, an exemplary social democracy.

Michelle Bachelet was forced out of her home, along with her mother, one night in 1975. She was blindfolded and taken to a cell occupied by eight other female political prisoners; two were raped. Her father, General Bachelet, had been tortured to death by Pinochet’s regime weeks earlier. Michelle and her mother were released one month following their detention, and travelled to Australia as political refugees. Michelle Bachelet became the first female president of Chile, leading her country from 2006 until the beginning of 2010 when she stepped down with an overwhelming margin of popularity, having ended one of the most successful terms in Chile’s recent history.

Dilma Rousseff could very well become the first woman to occupy Brazil’s presidency. In the ’60s, she belonged to radical leftist groups, and in 1970 was captured by officials of the military dictatorship. She was tortured on several occasions including electric shocks that, on one occasion, gave her such serious lesions that she had to be hospitalized to control the hemorrhages. In recent years, she has been a successful minister in President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government and now has his full backing and that of the Workers’ Party for the presidential elections of October 2010. Although some reproach her for her communist and guerrilla past, she prefers to recall the period as the fight against the dictatorship of the time: “Quando o Brasil mudou, eu mudei.”

Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are building the most ambitious socio-democratic projects in Latin America, having incorporated socialist values into liberal-democratic institutions. In all three countries, policies aimed at reducing poverty are being implemented. In Uruguay, the upper and middle classes have been forced to pay taxes for the first time. Chile has introduced universal health insurance. Finally, the Brazilian Fome Zero program has been reducing hunger year after year. On the political front, the countries’ popular leaders do not attempt to re-elect themselves as president for an indefinite term. Neither Bachelet, nor Lula, nor Vásquez have tried to stay in power any longer than the period authorized by their respective constitutions. The opposition is not harassed, there is freedom of press and the rule of law prevails.

This harmonization between liberal political institutions and redistributive public policies is something new in Latin America, a continent where a widely-held belief is that there is an inevitable trade off between freedoms and equality. For many decades, the Latin American left —having sprung from the shadows of the Cuban Revolution— believed that social change could never come from casting ballots, and that the continent could only change if forced to do so at gun point.

However, the repression experienced by the left in the Southern Cone seems to have played a significant role in building trust in electoral democracy. In Brazil, Chile and Uruguay alike, the left in power is the result of a generation that lived through exile, assassinations and torture. Those who have come to power today are, in many cases, survivors themselves. Their experience has shaped and influenced the left-wing governments in the three countries. Having lived through authoritarian arbitrariness, these politicians clearly see the need to create institutions to protect fundamental rights. In the face of dictatorships that show complete disrespect for bodies and souls of enemies, the construction of a rights-based state for all becomes an imperative; this is the brutal realization of the need for democracy. Moreover, this generalized experience disqualifies outright any regime —leftist or rightist— whose modus operandi is arbitrariness. In resistance to the injustice imposed by the principle of might is right, human rights and democracy guarantee the principle of right is might.

This confidence in constitutional laws and institutions is giving rise to non-populist political regimes. Unlike other Latin American countries, where each successive government is usually associated with a last name, change in Southern Cone countries is occurring in institutions and there is a consolidation of socialist political parties that, whether in power or in the opposition, play a central role. Combined, all of these factors contribute to building a political system that may achieve overall stability, since the conservative parties can no longer play the extremist or populist card.

In addition to the intrinsic sense of justice that seems inherent when a torture victim takes the reins of a nation without a vengeful agenda, the experience of dictatorship and repression seems to have helped in understanding the benefits of democracy and the respect of fundamental rights. In a continent where the left always viewed electoral democracy as a form of treason and where social justice and individual freedoms were —and often still are— perceived as a zero-sum game, the left-wing governments of all three countries serve as a crucial example. This is also important because the right no longer feels the need to collaborate with the military to prevent the victory of a left that tended to identify itself as Leninist.

In conclusion, some left-wing governments with rhetoric full of enthusiasm continue to depend on hydrocarbons; they could well experience a crisis should international prices fall. Yet, the public policies implemented by these socialist lefts could stand the test of time all the same. Perhaps this would be the best lesson for the Latin American left: votes and institutions can guarantee the permanence of reforms, while leader-centred plebiscites are but a passing phenomenon.blue square

Alberto Vergara is a doctoral candidate in political science at the Université de Montréal (Canada). His publications include: El choque de los ideales. Partidos políticos y reformas institucionales en el Perú post-Fujimorato (Idea Internacional, 2009) and Ni amnésicos ni irracionales. Las elecciones peruanas de 2006 en perspectiva histórica (Solar Ediciones, 2007).

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