Why a generation of Latin American leaders failed to deliver on their promise of progress

The paradox at the heart of Latin America's failed "pink tide"

Following the democratic election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998, Latin Americans voted a wave of left-leaning presidents into power, including Luiz Inácio da Silva in Brazil in 2003, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 2006, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2007. By 2015, over 15 countries in the region had elected at least one president with a socialist platform, a movement that collectively became known as the “pink tide.”

These new leaders, steeped in personal histories of moral and ethical commitments to the underserved, promised to overcome the region’s long legacy of corruption and exploitation.

Two decades later, the pink tide has failed to deliver on that promise. As of 2018, Latin America remained the world’s most unequal and violent continent. High levels of poverty have persisted, while corruption has continued to mar the region. Today, the pink tide has receded and given way to a counterwave, led by ultra-conservative figures like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Mauricio Macri in Argentina. And Venezuela is on the brink of chaos as president Nicolás Maduro faces what appears to be the beginning of a possible armed insurrection.

How did a movement that began with such great promise fail so miserably?

The answer lies within the power paradox, which contends that “we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.”

Guided by Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the leaders of the pink tide ran on socialist platforms that promised to redistribute state resources as a means of reducing poverty, curbing massive inequality, and combating corruption and nepotism. Their rise appeared to signal a new beginning in Latin America, which was long known for corrupt, strong-armed leaders with despotic tendencies. After all, amidst their ranks were former guerrilla warriors like Chávez, Brazil’s Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, José Mujica of Uruguay, and Nicaragua’s Ortega.

These men and women had participated in armed insurrections against tyrannical dictators. Their moral character had been tested by combat and long prison sentences. Their empathy for others was evident in their self-sacrifice. And their power came not from some Machiavellian force, but rather, it was born from their ability to unite people around a common cause.

In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela founded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America or ALBA, which refers to dawn’s first light in Spanish. ALBA was designed to facilitate the regional integration of social democratic states, with the goal of helping member countries gain economic and political independence from the United States while promoting equity and justice. Under the banner of ALBA, pink tide governments showed early signs of progress. As a 2010 report by the IMF pointed out, commercial agreements between ALBA countries helped assuage the effects of the 2008 financial crisis by facilitating macroeconomic stability. And in supporting national welfare programs, ALBA helped combat poverty across the region by supporting literacy programs, health care services, micro-financing programs, and entrepreneurial opportunities for the poor.

Yet, today, the clear majority of the pink tide’s leaders are caught up in or have already been ousted by the same types of outrageous corruption scandals that they promised to eliminate.

In Argentina, former first lady and president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is facing charges for her role in a massive corruption network through which she allegedly received under the table payments from large construction firms for granting them public works projects. The Kirchner family has accumulated so much money while in power that they have resorted to building personal vaults in their homes.

In El Salvador, ex-president Funes is accused of mishandling $351 million in public funds, including the $3.5 million that he used to start up a franchise of day spas in El Salvador, Switzerland, and Panama. The company, Latin American Spas, was run by his then-mistress and now partner, Ada “Michy” Mitchell Guzmán, who Funes met while in office. Today, they live in exile in Nicaragua.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — arguably the most popular of the left-leaning presidents — has been in jail since April 2018 for accepting a beachfront property in return for state contracts. According to Judge Gabriela Hardt, who recently sentenced Lula da Silva to an additional 12 years in prison on graft charges, “[he] was aware that there were systematic bribes paid to the party he belonged to; he was very aware that part of those sums were used for his personal benefit.”

In Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas inspired an entire generation of leftists, president Daniel Ortega finds himself in the strange position of justifying a draconian crackdown on his own citizens, who he ironically fought to free in 1979 from the country’s last dictator, Anastasio Somoza DeBayle. Since winning a tight election in 2006, Ortega has eliminated term limits, made his wife, Rosario Murillo, vice president, and used Venezuelan oil to fund a new family business empire.

And in Venezuela, Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro, who has ruled the Bolivarian state with an iron fist, has been clouded by charges of corruption and scandal, culminating in the current revolt.

Amidst the collapse of the pink tide, there is an important lesson. Regardless of who you are, power will alter your mind.

Across decades of experimental work conducted at Berkeley, psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that power is much more than the ability to influence others, it is a state of mind. In fact, wielding power appears to be so intoxicating that it can cause brain damage.

In Dr. Keltner’s studies, people under the influence of power behaved as if they were experiencing a brain injury. When bestowed with authority and clout, his subjects were willing to take bigger risks and they became more impulsive. And the longer they had control, the less in touch they seemed to be with other participants in the studies. In other words, people typically gain power by showing empathy for others, but ironically, they squander it by losing touch with reality.

For example, Keltner and his colleagues find that people in positions of great power are not only more likely to engage in unethical acts, but they are also less likely to recognize their unscrupulous behavior. In this sense, power blinds us to our own moral missteps even as we remain outraged by similar flaws in others.

The power paradox helps explain why people with great influence frequently engage in demeaning behavior and have a tendency to be impulsive and rude. And within the context of the pink tide, the power paradox goes a long way in explaining how Latin America’s gods of the Left fell from grace.

Few people know the dark side of the power paradox as well as Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo.

Zoila, as her friends know her, was born in 1967 to a Nicaraguan poet named Rosario Murillo. In the 1970s her mother fell for Ortega, then an idealistic young guerilla rebel who she secretly sent poems to while he was in jail for robbing a bank as a means of supporting the Sandinista revolution. Like his comrades, Ortega was committed to defeating the country’s dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and installing a revolutionary government capable of improving the lives of Nicaragua’s least fortunate citizens.

After Ortega’s release in 1974, he fled to Cuba, and later, Costa Rica. In San José, Ortega moved in with Rosario. And in 1978, he allegedly sexually abused 11-year-old Zoila for the first of many times.

Following the Sandinista triumph in 1979, Ortega and Murillo returned to Nicaragua. Zoila went with them. Daniel became part of the ruling directive that oversaw the country between 1979 and 1985, and in 1985, he was elected president. In 1990, Ortega was voted out of power, but he continued to influence the direction of his nation as the opposition leader in the national assembly. Then, in 1998, Zoilamérica shocked the world by accusing Ortega of sexually abusing her for over a decade.

Rosario stood by her husband, and Zoila moved back to Costa Rica, where she continues to live in exile. The Nicaraguan consulate refuses to renew her passport, leaving her in a stateless existence that will surely last as long as her parents are in power.

“It’s ironic to me that after so many years in exile, in the end, I will likely be the freest person in the family,” she told me when I interviewed her in the spring of 2018.

By the time Zoila and I sat down to talk, thousands of Nicaraguans had begun to revolt against her mother and former step-father, who was in the midst of his third consecutive term as president. Instead of giving into the protesters’ demands, the ruling couple violently repressed them.

I asked Zoila if she was surprised by Ortega’s forceful reaction.

“No,” she said without hesitation. “Sexual abuse is really about power indifferences. Abusers typically chose young victims because they are easy to manipulate and the control is empowering. And so, what Nicaragua is experiencing right now is not so different. The entire country is going through something similar to what I personally went through so many years ago.”

The pink tide began in Venezuela with the promise of a more egalitarian future for Latin America. Unfortunately, as the current crisis in Venezuela reveals, Latin America’s turn to the left has failed to deliver the type of meaningful social change that the region so badly needs.

There is a simple lesson wrapped up in all this.

The corrupting nature of power is blind to ideology. Thus, if future Latin American leaders hope to avoid the power paradox, they’ll need to begin by combating the massive social and economic inequalities that structure the region’s power imbalances in the first place.


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