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South American leaders love a proxy president

. Dec 05, 2020
proxy presidents south america

Following neoliberal reforms in the 1990s that enhanced inequality levels in South America, the region saw a wave of left-wing and center-left leaders winning elections in their respective nations. Benefiting from a once-in-a-lifetime commodities boom, these leaders beefed up social policies, oversaw a massive reduction of poverty and unemployment rates, and in some cases became larger-than-life figures with massive followings. Some of them, such as Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s former leader Evo Morales, used their power to change the rules and extend their time in office. 

Others used a different approach: ushering allies into power to rule as presidents by proxy.

The latest of this

new breed of leaders is Bolivia&#8217;s Luis Arce, who took office on November 8 after <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/10/19/argentina-wheat-crop-crisis-raises-alarm-bells-in-brazil/">winning the presidential race</a> in a landslide. While Mr. Arce is considered a skilled statesman, few would argue that his success is inextricably linked to his political godfather, Evo Morales — who was ousted in a 2019 military-backed coup and had been in exile for almost a year.</p> <p>Mr. Arce has been in office for less than a month, but is already showing signs that he will follow his own path instead of being a placeholder. He recently said Mr. Morales&#8217; decision to pursue a fourth consecutive term was a <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/mundo/nao-me-arrependo-de-ter-desejado-governar-por-20-anos-diz-evo-morales-24084816">mistake</a>. The former president ignored the results of a referendum showing the population&#8217;s opposition to extending term limits and bent the constitution regardless, claiming his human rights were being violated.&nbsp;</p> <p>The move was the spark that <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2019/11/13/evo-morales-bolivia-coup/">triggered the 2019 political crisis</a>.</p> <p>Moreover, Mr. Arce seems willing to address mistakes made by his Movement for Socialism party —&nbsp;including its promotion of a highly politicized judicial branch. Mr. Morales, meanwhile, believed the independence of courts was little more than a &#8220;doctrine&#8221; imposed by &#8220;capitalists&#8221; and the U.S.</p> <h2>Proxy presidents not always puppets</h2> <p>Many candidates that are ushered into power by a popular leader are chosen with the purpose of being little more than temporary caretakers — keeping the presidential chair warm until their godfathers can return.&nbsp;</p> <p>That was meant to be the case of Dilma Rousseff, who Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva handpicked as his successor in Brazil in 2010. Perceived as an impatient and uncharismatic technocrat, she had <a href="https://www.fairobserver.com/region/latin_america/rise-fall-dilma-rousseff-29303/">never run for public office before</a> being made a presidential candidate. And despite her uneasiness in debates and television ads, Ms. Rousseff had no problems winning the election thanks to Lula&#8217;s support — who planned a comeback four years later.&nbsp;</p> <p>Things, however, would turn out differently.</p> <p>Ms. Rousseff did not back down from running for a second term in 2014, and Lula chose not to impose himself over the country&#8217;s first-ever female president and fracture his party. Two years later, Brazil was plunged into what was then the <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/05/03/brazilian-economy-crises-history/">worst recession on record</a> and Ms. Rousseff was booted out of office by Congress.</p> <p>That did not stop Lula from supporting another proxy in 2018. Jailed on corruption charges, the former president was barred from running and former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/09/12/lula-brazil-president-race/">took his place</a> at the last minute. In a frantic push to transfer votes from Lula — who led Jair Bolsonaro in opinion polls — the Workers&#8217; Party launched a series of campaign ads to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/09/22/lula-pardon-brazil-next-president/">drive the message home</a>.</p> <p>&#8220;Lula is Haddad, Haddad is Lula,&#8221; was the slogan.</p> <p>In Ecuador, proxy attempts ended in bitter rivalries between Lenín Moreno and his political godfather Rafael Correa. Similar outcomes were seen in Colombia between <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/08/19/explaining-brazil-podcast-alvaro-uribe-end-era-colombia/">Álvaro Uribe</a> and his successors Juan Manuel Santos and Iván Duque.</p> <p>In Argentina, Alberto Fernández won the <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2019/04/26/brazil-macri-kirchner-argentina-election/">presidency</a> on the coattails of his running mate, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. But, once again, suggestions that Mr. Fernández would be an empty suit were dead wrong. Argentina&#8217;s present has sought to be a pragmatic leader without abandoning progressive social policymaking. Recently, he has even <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/12/01/argentina-brazil-try-to-amend-fractured-relationship/">attempted a détente</a> with Brazil&#8217;s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, who Mr. Fernández once called “racist, homophobic, and misogynistic.”</p> <p>Meanwhile, La Nácion&#8217;s Jorge Liotti reports that Mr. Fernández and Ms. Kirchner <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/alberto-cercado-claudia-cristina-nid2524074">are at odds with one another</a>. While some see it as a simulated divorce to give him more credibility, others see it as a push for emancipation from a vice president who has attempted to tame the legal system and protect herself from multiple corruption accusations.</p> <p>Indeed, while charismatic South American presidents have certainly set out to elect proxy presidents to prolong their own power, history shows that few of them have been successful.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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