Across Latin America, former leaders are keeping a chokehold on their countries’ politics. It’s time their successors break free.
By Casey Cagley
On June 19, Colombians elected Gustavo Petro president. Petro will be not only the country’s first leftist president but also its first leader in more than two decades who was not handpicked by former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–10) of the Democratic Center (CD) party. While Uribe will no longer have influence over the country’s presidency, it has become the norm in South America for former presidents to continue shaping politics years after leaving office. But citizens, including onetime supporters of these leaders, increasingly see the long shadows that ex-presidents cast over their parties and successors as an obstacle to their countries’ advance.
Since 2007, at least seven South American presidents have won office thanks to the blessing of their predecessors: In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner succeeded her husband, Néstor Kirchner, as president (2007) and then assumed the vice-presidency when her chosen successor, Alberto Fernández, was elected (2019); in Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos (2010) and Iván Duque (2018), won with the support of Uribe; in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff (2011) had the backing of Luiz Ignácio “Lula” da Silva, with whom she had served as vice-president; in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro (2013) was named by Hugo Chávez as his preferred successor; in Ecuador, Lenín Moreno (2017), who had been vice-president under Rafael Correa, had the support of Correa, who tried again in 2021 (though unsuccessfully that year) to install another preferred candidate, Andrés Arauz; and most recently, in Bolivia, Luis Arce, finance minister under Evo Morales, who resigned and fled the country following the annulled 2019 general election, rose to power with the help of Morales’s maneuverings.
In Argentina, Bolivia, and Colombia, ex-presidents turned éminences grises have parlayed their popularity into continued political relevance. But their extended domination of national politics makes governing harder for their heirs—most of whom are uncharismatic, technocratic former ministers and senators without their own political constituencies. In Argentina, the rift between Alberto Fernández and his erstwhile patron and current vice-president, Cristina Kirchner, has become so pronounced that the two did not appear in public together for three months. In Bolivia, Morales has undermined Arce’s vice-president and several of his ministers, all of whom belong to Morales’s own Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). In Colombia, Uribe became one of the most vociferous critics of President Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s first successor, particularly with respect to the ongoing peace process with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas in Havana, Cuba. And Uribe’s second successor, Iván Duque, struggled to rally his own party around his agenda, as loyalties split between him and Uribe, who was then a senator for the CD.
The meddling of predecessor-patrons undermines the independence of their successors and hamstrings their ability to meet current challenges head on. As a result, the people view the new leaders as ineffective. It is no wonder that in all three countries the incumbent party has suffered in recent elections.
How and why have so many ex-presidents in the region remained so powerful? First, presidents-for-life have become unfashionable. Democratic norms—especially term limits—are firmly in place in most Latin American countries, requiring presidents to respect at least the appearance of the transfer of power. Whereas twentieth-century leaders simply remained in office until they were ousted or died, today they step down but continue to rule from behind the throne. Second, Chávez, Correa, the Kirchners, Lula, Morales, and Uribe all governed during an economic boom (circa 2004–14). They oversaw sky-high commodity prices that funded a binge of welfare spending, infrastructure development, and cash-transfer schemes that lifted millions out of poverty and cemented their power bases.
Leaders who presided over landmark security and democratic reforms were able to assume outsized roles in their country’s political firmament beyond their constitutional term limits. For example, many credit Uribe with retaking swaths of Colombian territory from the FARC. In Bolivia, Morales oversaw the development of a “plurinational state” that was finally inclusive of the country’s long-marginalized indigenous communities.
Most of these leaders came to power during a regional political realignment or, in some cases, amid the collapse of traditional political-party systems. Rigid party systems in Bolivia, Colombia, and elsewhere crumbled as new, often populist, parties burst onto the scenes. Extreme political instability marked Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador at the turn of the century. Colombia was widely seen as a near-failed state. Uribe, Néstor Kirchner, and Morales were lauded for bringing much-needed stability to their countries. They and many of their counterparts in the region left office with high approval ratings for ushering in growth and stability. But several also left with legal troubles stemming from allegations of corruption (Correa, both Kirchners, Lula, and Morales) or human-rights abuses (Uribe), further incentivizing efforts to protect their legacies from behind the scenes.
In Colombia, the CD’s popularity plummeted under President Duque, a former senator and Interamerican Development bank executive. In March 2022, his approval rating fell to 18 percent. Uribe’s favorability rating was almost as bad at 19 percent in January 2022, a steep drop from his 75 percent approval rating when he left office in 2010. Uribe’s legal troubles, which include a witness-tampering case, have tarnished the party’s law-and-order reputation. With memories fading of the bonanza days and Uribe’s victories over the FARC, young people today are finding little reason to forgive the “False Positives” scandal (referring to the 6,402 innocent people allegedly disappeared on Uribe’s watch).
At the same time, Duque never managed to advance key legislative initiatives because his administration could not corral a majority in Congress. Even members from his own party, many of whom were more deferential to Uribe than to the sitting president, sometimes refused to get on board. When Duque’s administration promoted a tax-reform bill in April 2021 that sparked massive protests, he was pilloried by uribistas for his perceived weakness in responding to protest-related violence in the city of Cali. His approval ratings never recovered.
In Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, who had already served two terms as president (2007–15), backed her late husband’s chief of staff, Alberto Fernández, for the job in 2019 and became his running mate. Economic headwinds and electoral setbacks have strained the governing pan-Peronist Front for All coalition and the pair’s already tumultuous personal relationship. Exacerbating these problems, Kirchner has been implicated in at least six corruption investigations, including for money laundering, bribery, securities fraud, and concealing the identity of the perpetrators of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The vice-president herself, the president, and the governing coalition are all paying for her purported misdeeds. According to an April 2022 poll, Kirchner has a 65 percent negative image rating, and Fernández has a 63 percent negative image rating. Front for All suffered in last year’s congressional elections, coming in five-million votes short of its 2019 tally. The coalition lost big in the all-important Buenos Aires Province and in Kirchner’s home province of Santa Cruz. She was quick to blame the president and demand a cabinet shuffle.
Tensions between the vice-president and president are becoming more visible. Recently, for example, Kirchner’s allies in Congress opposed an agreement endorsed by Fernández, which was reached only after painful negotiations, to refinance the IMF debt assumed under Fernández’s predecessor, Mauricio Macri (2015–19). In an April speech, Kirchner seemed to take a shot at the current president’s authority, remarking that “just because they put a sash on you and give you the baton doesn’t mean you have power.”
In Bolivia, Luis Arce, Morales’s former economy minister, won the presidency in 2020, a year after Morales was forced from office following a massive three-week civic uprising that led the chairman of the armed forces to “suggest” that he resign. Arce is widely seen as a mild-mannered technocrat. He was placed at the top of the presidential ticket over the objection of many in the MAS, who favored former foreign minister (and now vice-president) David Choquehuanca, a leader with strong roots in La Paz social movements.
According to an April 2022 poll, Arce is the most popular politician in the country with a 52 percent positive image rating, trailed by the increasingly divisive Morales with 42 percent. In the same poll, 76 percent of respondents agreed that Morales should never run for president again, which reflects a general interest in moving on from his fourteen years at the head of political life. Morales and his allies, who are concentrated in the Chapare region of Cochabamba Department, organize regular marches and rallies expressing MAS unity. Yet Morales himself is a frequent critic of Arce’s administration. Such criticism from the former president and his allies has plagued Arce’s administration, which is only a year and a half old. In the 2021 subnational elections, the MAS was roundly defeated in key races in all nine departmental capitals and El Alto, the country’s second-largest city. The party also lost several key gubernatorial races. Many saw these results as a rebuke of Morales, who, as president of the MAS, had personally selected most of the high-profile candidates.
More recently, Morales and company have pressured Arce to sack several ministers, including Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo. Del Castillo has overseen high-profile arrests and investigations into corruption and narcotrafficking—including the January arrest of Maximiliano Dávila Pérez, head of a special antinarcotics unit under Morales, on suspicion of narcotrafficking. To stave off inevitable questions about improprieties, the former president has, incredibly, alleged that “the right” and agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency have penetrated Arce’s administration. The MAS summoned del Castillo for a deposition before Congress in May, and he managed to hang onto his job only with the votes of opposition members.
Arce’s presidency is still young and comes on the heels of the corrupt and constitutionally questionable interim government of Jeanine Áñez—recently convicted of violating the constitution and dereliction of duty—who also presided over the worst of the pandemic. The economy is recovering, and inflation is mercifully low. But the country faces structural economic challenges. With informal-labor rates among the highest in the region, significant declines in natural-gas production (which bankrolled much of Morales’s spending for years), and the return of high economic growth unlikely, Arce will probably face difficult economic decisions and waning public patience. Despite enjoying broad legitimacy and a positive image, governing in the shadow of an increasingly vocal Evo Morales, who himself seems intent on running for president again in 2025, will be a challenge.
Turning the Page
The tribulations within the kirchnerismo, evismo, and uribismo movements illustrate how former presidents make it hard for their successors to govern effectively. As recent elections show, ex-presidents’ retirements would be best not only for their successors and for democracy but also, paradoxically, for their own legacies. Kirchner, Morales, and Uribe, and thus the movements that they lead, are all captivated by the past. Voters may have elected Fernández, Arce, and Duque with hopes of a return to the policies of their political patrons and the boom times of the past, but that was never in the cards given the current social, economic, and political realities. These ex-presidents themselves have also radicalized since leaving office. They have all shown a willingness to undermine their own protégés on policy issues while polarizing public opinion. Similarly, the people have changed, and their expectations are fluid. Younger voters especially are not drawn to the rhetoric of the past, and do not see these relics as having effective solutions to today’s problems. Parties and voters would be well served by turning the page and embracing new, future-oriented leaders and policies.
Casey Cagley is resident program director for the International Republican Institute. Currently based in Bogotá, Colombia, Mr. Cagley has more than a decade of experience in the fields of international development and democratic governance in Latin America, managing high-impact programs in more than seven countries in the region.
More from the Journal of Democracy:
The Life of the Party
By Patrick Quirk and Jan Surotchak
Latin America’s New Turbulence: Crisis and Integrity in Brazil
Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift: The Threat from the Populist Left
By Kurt Weyland
Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy
Image Credit: Natacha Pisarenko – Pool/Getty Images