Latin American Leaders Stepping Out from the Shadows

By Robert Valencia

The category of Latin American politicians bred throughout history has tended to fall into predictable quadrants. There has been the heroic caudillo figure embodied in characters such as Colombia’s Jorge Eliecer Gaitán and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, tropical figures like Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán of Guatemala, the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, and, of course, Cuba’s legendary Fidel Castro.

Although some of them continue to hold notoriety, it is the next generation of Latin American politicians—the dauphins— that not only seem to still abound but will set the future course of Latin America. A “dauphin” is an aspiring politician who inherits power or influence from a previous administration. French for dolphin, the term comes from the Dauphine of France, a title given to the heir of the French throne during the 1300s to the late 1700s. Latin American dauphins seldom able to swim freely given the looming presence of their predecessors.

Take the perfectly exemplified figure of the delfín¸ the Spanish term, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Santos grabbed Colombia’s presidency on the heels of a successful military strategy against the guerrillas of Alvaro Uribe—the most popular Colombian president in modern history. Spanish newspaper El País once said that President Santos is a dauphin who learned how to swim by himself. Uribe, however, still casts a shadow on the Santos administration and public opinion despite the fact that the former president is constitutionally barred from running for office again.

Uribe touts his presidential record and opposes Santos’ agenda with respect to security measures, the newly minted Colombian-Venezuelan relations, and a possible peace agreement with FARC.  He also still seems to wield considerable clout in Colombia, using his Twitter account as his bully pulpit when he referred to Venezuela as being a “FARC haven.” Despite efforts of reconciliation made by Vice President Angelino Garzón, the Santos-Uribe feud persists.

Two years have passed since he took office and President Santos remains popular amongst average Colombians. According to a poll conducted by Datexco on April 27, 2012, 65 percent of Colombians approve of Santos’ policies; including an armed forces buildup, the hosting of the OAS’ Summit of the Americas, and social initiatives such as free housing. Additionally, President Santos has a favorable reputation overseas with TIME recently naming him one of the world’s most influential leaders.

Despite these accolades, only 44 percent of Colombians believe President Santos has a chance at winning a second term. The name of Alvaro Uribe is still ingrained in the minds of many Colombians. That same poll ranked Uribe as the best president in Colombia’s modern history with 52.52 percent of Colombian support, while President Santos ranked second at 18.51 percent. Interestingly, former President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), a long-term dauphin of his father the late President of Colombia Misael Pastrana, was ranked as the worst president in Colombian history (1.39 percent).

Similar to President Santos, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has also attained considerable popularity on her own turf and abroad. One of several highly popular figures at Cartagena and the second Latin American president on the 2012 Time magazine’s most influential list, Rousseff has made a positive name for herself in the international community.

However, like the Uribe-Santos relationship, former Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula Da Silva has had an overlapping effect on her presidency—making Rousseff another noteworthy dauphin figure. Known for his thunderous popularity and the support from United States’ President Obama, when Lula backed Rousseff’s candidacy she was on her way to Palácio do Planalto.

A little over a year after Rouseff was sworn in as President, the President began exhibiting some marked differences from Lula—most notably in the realms of foreign policy. During a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting, her administration voted in favor of a special rapporteur to monitor Iran’s human rights record. Lula, on the other hand, had a softer approach to the Ahmadinejad administration when Brazil and Turkey brokered a uranium-swap agreement with Iran. Additionally, Rousseff granted a visa to Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez whereas Lula refused to meet with dissidents during his last visit to Cuba in 2010. In an interview with the Brazilian magazine Veja, Rousseff stressed her independence from Lula, stating that “Lula is Lula, and Rousseff is Rousseff.”

These differences in policy making have clearly set apart the two Presidents. Although a poll conducted in late April illustrated that 64 percent of Brazilians approve of her administration, the population would still prefer to see Lula back in Brasilia. Time and time again, modern Latin American history shows us that the dauphin’s success in presidential politics is proportional to the performance of his or her predecessor—and history can be a heavy burden.

In the last decades, the legacy of a predecessor or family member can have both a positive or negative effect on ones’ candidacy. The failed attempts of Colombia’s Alvaro Gómez Hurtado to win the presidency were plagued due to the negative legacy and controversial administration of his father, Laureano Gómez (1950-1953). Likewise, Keiko Fujimori’s unsuccessful candidacy for Peru’s presidency was burdened by a slew of controversies that stemmed from the reproach and corruption associated with the office of her father Alberto.

On the other hand, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is a successful dauphin, thanks to her late husband and former president, Nestor Kirchner’s popularity. In Argentina, he had 60 percent approval at the end of his presidency. Notably, Fernández continues to be popular within her country despite the international controversy involving the expropriation of the newly nationalized Argentine oil firm YPF from Spain’s Repsol.

Former presidents’ input is always sought after thanks to their expertise. However dauphins need to demonstrate that they can make executive decisions independently. President Santos must maintain the Uribe-leaning coalition that led him to power, yet also demonstrate that he is more than just Uribe’s predecessor—similar to how Rousseff is drawing a line in the sand when being compared with Lula.

One comment that Santos and Rousseff have in their favor is that since both have spent only two years in office, so they still have time to demonstrate that their policies, can be as or even more effective than their predecessors.

In turn, the successful outcome of such policies will convince citizens that Santos and Rousseff, and other Latin American dauphins, are capable of running for a second term, should they seek to do so. If Santos is able to successfully achieve this and guide his country to see beyond the differences, the Colombian dauphin will be in calm waters and set an example for future politicians.



Robert Valencia is a research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.


[Photo courtesy of Flickr]


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