The Dangers of Seeing Red in the Latin American Elections
by Pedro Cárdenas Casillas
Latin America is headed towards a big electoral year. Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, provided the latter does host elections, are dusting off the ballot boxes and choosing their next presidents. Collectively, these states represent more than 70 percent of the region’s GDP. Its two economic giants, Mexico and Brazil, surpass 50 percent of the region’s GDP by themselves. To say 2018 could change the face of Latin America is an understatement.
There are many trials ahead for the region’s democracy: increasing mistrust in electoral processes, unequal distribution of wealth, and regional violence. These continuous issues have led to lack of legitimacy for the political elites. Nevertheless, certain members of the United States government and the international community seem more concerned about another threat to democracy: the Russians. Several opinion pieces published in western media want to take us on a trip down memory lane and make us feel as if Latin America never escaped the Cold War. On these elections, a National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, and editorials published in the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the New York Times have all warned: “Don’t let Mexico’s [and other Latin American] elections become Putin’s next target!”
Why such big concerns? Are they preoccupied that the Latin American populations will be cheated of their free elections or are they warning that the Mexicans may vote for the dreaded leftist candidate, the Brazilians may vote for Lula again, and the FARC — now a participating political party — will spread their ideology in Colombian politics?
The warnings against specific candidates abound internationally, but a real danger lies in affecting the local political debates leading to the elections. One interview in Forbes states that “markets will not be pleased” if Lula is elected again. In Mexico, local and national media repeat the notion (originating from the aforementioned op-eds in American media) that Russia Today spreads “proselytism in favor of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with the same energy as the Bolivarian revolution of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela”. Fearmongering has spread in Latin America as a political tactic against the opposition, and both, American officials and columnists, must be conscious that seeing red has as many dangers as interference from non-western powers.
This is not the first time the term seeing red has been used to describe how the U.S. interprets the political situation in Latin America. Former US diplomat Wayne S. Smith warned about the focus of supporting dictatorships rather than economic development as a policy to counter Soviet intervention in the late 1980s. Professor Kimberly Theidon, Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at The Fletcher School, describes the effects of seeing red as a securitization process in Latin America: the paranoia of the domino effect, exacerbated by the U.S., led Latin American politicians to see the left as enemies of the state. During the 50s and through the late 80s, any discourse of dissent, any criticism, or any opposition to the state were ideas to be eliminated by any means necessary.
The dangers of seeing red are historically numerous. In Guatemala, Arbenz in the 50s was viewed as an extreme communist, and a CIA-led military coup set the country into civil war and genocide. The U.S. government provided technical and military aid to South American dictatorships in “Operation Condor,” which led to arguably the worst regimes the region has experienced: violently engaged in torture, unlawful killings, and enforced disappearances. In 1968, Mexican students peacefully marched in the Tlatelolco Plaza to demand political openness. In fear, then president Diaz Ordaz accused them of organizing a communist plot. The result was a massacre where the military murdered, wounded, and detained hundreds of students.
Yet, the dangers of seeing red have still not diminished. In fact, targeting the opposition with this discourse has become a widespread practice. “If you vote for X, your country will become Venezuela”, “The peso will fall”, “Colombia will become Cuba 2.0!” are common discursive threats now used in Latin American elections. In Guatemala, environmental rights defenders and activists are described as enemies to progress and accused of being terrorists and watermelons: green on the outside and red on the inside. Back in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has replied to allegations that he has links to Russia via Twitter, joking about secret Russian submarines bringing him gold from Moscow and changing his name to Andrés Manuelovich.
Democracy in Latin America is here to stay, but its quality is still fragile. There might be real dangers to intervention through hacking and other digital attacks, yet each sovereign state must analyze the threat in accordance with its own assessment. Russia must not intervene in any election outside its borders, but neither should any other world power. We have not been presented the evidence and necessary data to assess this threat. Grasping at straws, these warnings seem like echoes of Cold War justifications for involvement by western powers in Latin American elections.
Yes, there are threats of Russian interference, but seeing red everywhere is already poisoning the democratic well in the region. While not without sin, Russia has not left this hemisphere with thousands of dead, tortured, or disappeared. Seeing red has.
About the Author
Pedro Cárdenas is a first-year MALD candidate with concentrations in human security and public international law. Prior to Fletcher, he worked with Peace Brigades International accompanying human rights defenders in Guatemala, served as an international business representative at the Mexican Embassy in Colombia, and became a teacher while volunteering to support families of the disappeared in Mexico. He graduated from Tec de Monterrey, in his hometown of Monterrey, in 2013 with a degree in international relations and a certificate in political studies from Sciences Po Aix, France.