Latin America faces a wave of challenges since the start of the 21st century, rising inequality, lack of economic growth amongst other issues. However, right-wing politicians have attributed the woes of all the continent’s problems to one organization: The Forum of Sao Paulo. Known as one of Latin America’s biggest groups, its use of populism through the pseudonym of socialism has undermined democracy by creating authoritarian governments. Its relationship with terrorist and drug trafficking organizations, the support for Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, and the advocation for the “Socialism of the 21st Century” model, has changed the political landscape of the continent in the last 2 decades.
For many, the Forum of Sao Paulo can be unknown, but its importance in understanding who they are and their impact on regional politics can give a wider understanding as to where Latin America is today. The group was founded in 1990 by Fidel Castro and ex Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. The yearly conference was first held in Sao Paulo Brazil, with various allied countries later hosting the event, with last year being held in Caracas Venezuela. The organization was first conformed by 48 left-wing parties and movements from Latin America and the Caribbean (with more than 200 as of 2019), to push Communist, Socialist, and anti-imperialist policies across the region. Before the 2000s, the political parties that were participants in the group were never in power; however, by 2011, eight out of the ten countries in Latin America were under the Forum’s control, known as the Pink Tide. This term refers to the approval of neoliberalist policies, especially those that focus on the lower class, which became increasingly popular in developing countries. In fact, leaders like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales (both members of the Forum), used the commodity booms to increment economic policies. Some examples were the creation of social programs for subsidized housing, food, free healthcare, and education, with the goal of conquering public opinion and maintaining an electoral majority.
Despite the positive impact these governments had on this specific sector of the population, they became more authoritarian the longer they remained in power. Interestingly, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Ortega in Nicaragua used their support and control of the legislative institutions to abolish term limits and persecute their opposition. Most of the Forum of Sao Paulo Presidential leaders saw rewriting and changes to their constitutions within the first years of governing. Coincidentally, the Forum’s official manifesto back this claim, stating they would seek constitutional changes to assure their Socialist principles imposed outlive administrations. For example, Bolivia’s Constitutional Breakdown by Fabrice Lehoucq outlines how Morales’s “Movement toward Socialism” used the high approval ratings to impose a new constitution. By stating that he would “take power for five-hundred years”, the new constitution was approved by 2009. Moreover, Hugo Chavez (Socialist Party of Venezuela) within his first year in the presidency, considered the current constitution an “ill-fated political system” and “moribund” which “has to die”. The 1999 constitutional referendum was approved by 72% of the popular vote. Likewise, Daniel Ortega (Sandinista Liberation Front) by 2014, set into effect a constitution that allowed him to run for a third term, removing the minimum required votes for elections and allowing him to issue decrees through the force of law. To compare, by 2005, Freedom House indicated that all three nations were under a partly free environment. By 2020 however, Nicaragua and Venezuela had fallen to the not “free categories” with systematic violation of human rights and deterioration of their democratic institutions, while Bolivia remained partly free but also saw the erosion of its democracy. This proves that the longer these parties were in power, the higher the chance for democratic backsliding, which can be correlated with the constitutional changes the Forum advocated for.
With all this said, it’s important to mention that the Forum of Sao Paulo leaders relied heavily on populist mechanisms with authoritarianism to erode democracy, rather than only socialist policies. Müller in “What is Populism” accurately describes the role of populism in Latin America, the emphasis on making “the people” feel represented in the daily activities of the nation. The use of slogans like “Chavez is the people” and “Socialism or Death” creates a polarizing environment between supporters, which alienates opponents, leading to the narrative of “us vs them”. More than just a mobilization strategy appealing to the people, it was used to transform countries by empowering social classes that had no representation before. Therefore with the populist rhetoric working, and the supporters being the majority in elections, the approval of laws and re-election of the incumbent, turned them more autocratic against the opposition and democracy, as they encroached political institutions. Once again, this is reinforced by the forum’s official documents claiming that their “parties must be elected at all levels of government”, and the need to maintain a majority in the legislature to tilt the electoral playing field. Furthermore, evidence from Taylor and Frantz in “How Democracies Fall Apart”, claim that Chavez took a slow approach to dismantle democracy, where ‘populist-fueled authoritarianization’ led a pathway to autocracy. In this case, the Forum of Sao Paulo’s use of populist strategies by their leaders opened a path to slowly create authoritarian regimes across Latin America, through an electoral majority in elections.
On the contrary, some can argue that populism is not only a mechanism used by left-wing parties, but also by the right. This is true, especially after looking at the recent electoral victories and growth of right-wing political organizations in Latin America from 2015 onwards. For example, President Bolsonaro in Brazil has expressed distrust in democratic institutions, and adopted the same populist policies as the Forum, introducing a “right vs left” environment. Ironically, he has cited the Forum of Sao Paulo as the “common enemy” whom he accuses of using tactics of violence, crime, and corruption to regain its lost power (by 2018, seven of the ten South American countries elected right-wing presidents). In addition, Bolsonaro blamed the Forum for trying to convert Brazil into another Venezuela, appealing to middle and high classes to vote in favor of anti-left ideologies through fear. Therefore, if right-wing presidents are employing similar strategies to those of Chavez and Morales, is the Forum of Sao Paulo and Socialism responsible for democratic backsliding in the region? Specifically, Taylor and Frantz argue that there has been an ‘evolution’ as to how populists dismantle institutions instead. This “evolving” of the dismantling is in fact the copying of trends done by past leaders; in this case, Bolsonaro imitating the Forum’s slow disassembly of democracy through polarization and electoral majority, despite being a critic of it.
All in all, after a decade of leftist governance in Latin America by the Forum of Sao Paulo with the introduction of populism and authoritarianism, right-wing parties have recently begun to copy the same form of ruling, further eroding democracy in the region. Nonetheless, as Frantz argues, this form of democratic backsliding has become very difficult to counter. Therefore, citizens must be informed to a deeper extent of the consequences of electoral manipulation and exploitation on behalf of these political parties, to prevent the erosion of their governmental institutions. Unfortunately, with the collapse of Venezuela and the reports of systematic violation of Human Rights in Nicaragua, right-wing extremism has gained substantial support from a population that’s been traumatized by the Forum of Sao Paulo’s political achievements in some countries. Hopefully, history won’t repeat itself twice, with the right becoming the new left.
I enjoyed reading your article, especially since it elucidated some of Jair Bolsonaro’s critiques to the left-wing parties in Brazil to me. I am Brazilian, and I remember hearing Bolsonaro talk about the Forum and its associations with Latin American dictators, but I never studied this international coalition. As you mentioned, the Forum’s composition has been used as a discursive tool to legitimize right-wing extremism in Latin America. For instance, Bolsonaro raised concerns about the Brazilian left being an anti-democratic, communist force. He mentioned the Forum of São Paulo and its connections to the left-wing Workers Party, which was his main opponent in the 2018 elections. In this way, the presence of anti-democratic leftist presidents in the Forum from countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua was used by extremist right-wing politicians to weaken the left wing in countries such as Brazil and Colombia.
From what I have read (https://www.gazetadopovo.com.br/mundo/o-que-e-grupo-de-puebla-alianca-de-lideres-de-esquerda/), many of the Forum’s members formed a new coalition — the Grupo de Puebla — without representatives from Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia so as to detach themselves from the image of an anti-democratic, communist coalition. However, the Grupo de Puebla was created too late to prevent the rise of right-wing extremism in Latin America. Hopefully, though, they will be able to mitigate extremism and promote moderation in the next few years. And, as Bolsonaro’s critique of Chávez as a way to delegitimize the Brazilian left shows, a party’s international coalitions matter and can be deployed against them.
I too did not previously know much about the Forum, so thank you for the clarification. You have certainly piqued my interest to learn more about the Forum and its effects. I find the relationship between populist politics, authoritarianism, and constitution rewriting (or overriding) especially pertinent in our time. I agree that it is especially ironic (and hypocritical) that right and left wing leaders both accuse one another of using specific tactics or of having a specific agenda, when in reality they both often use the same tactics (with different window dressing) to achieve their goals. It is especially concerning that both ends of the political spectrum in Latin America (and throughout the world) are now using tactics that erode democracy. That being the case, where will the defense of democracy come from?