Current Affairs

Strongman politics persist in the shadow of Operation Condor

A court in Argentina may have convicted former South American dictators for their role in a coordinated assault on freedom of expression, but the continent’s fascination for strongman politics is far from over

After more than four decades of waiting, some measure of justice has been served for the families of the victims of one of the most insidious, systematic oppressions of political freedom in history. Operation Condor, the combined efforts of six South American strongman dictatorships to silence their enemies in the 1970s and 80s, has left deep scars across the continent.

“Operation Condor was a systematic plan by the dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to exchange information and actively collaborate on hunting down people across borders whom they identified as ‘leftist’ or ‘subversives’,” says Gastón Chillier, the executive director for Argentina’s Centre for Legal and Social Studies. “In most cases they planned to kidnap and kill them. Many of the victims’ bodies have never been recovered.”

At the end of May, 15 former South American dictators and military leaders were sentenced for their crimes in Buenos Aires, among them the last of Argentina’s military dictators, Reynaldo Benito Bignone. Sentenced to a combined 227 years in prison, their jailing marks the end of more than 40 years of waiting in South America.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International describes the ruling as “the first step towards real justice for the many victims of this Machiavellian operation, which left a long trail of suffering and horror throughout Latin America.

“Governments in countries who had a direct or indirect role in aiding Operation Condor must leave no stone unturned to ensure all those responsible face justice so these terrible crimes never happen again,” she says.

So are South America’s strongman governments finished? The answer is complicated. While Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro has managed to stay in power by channelling the cult of  his predecessor Hugo Chavez, and imposing a raft of stringent emergency measures, other South American nations have seemingly shrugged off strongman political doctrine.

Governments in countries who had a direct or indirect role in aiding Operation Condor must leave no stone unturned to ensure all those responsible face justice so these terrible crimes never happen again

In Peru, a closely fought presidential race saw Keiko Fujimori – the daughter of now incarcerated ex-president Alberto Fujimori – narrowly defeated by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

“Many dictatorships across South America viewed democracy and political parties as undermining national security,” explains Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “In Peru you’ve never really had very strong political parties and you have had very frequent military dictatorships. Political parties have always been very weak.

“Like her father, Keiko positioned herself as the stern law and order candidate without really saying what she’s going to do, except to send the army out into the street, which is insane,” Burt says. “In a country that went through a civil war, and massive human rights violations, that is insane.”

That Peru came so close to electing Keiko Fujimori shows how deeply divided the country is. Kuczynski won by a margin of tens of thousands of votes, showing that many Peruvians are still attracted to authoritarian rule.

“Half [of Peru’s population] voted for Kuczynski because they don’t want another Fujimori government,” Burt says. “They are afraid that another Fujimori government is going to mean massive corruption, massive infiltration of drug trafficking and potentially a return to authoritarian practices.

“Until Peru has figured out a way to deal with massive inequality, and until it is able to consolidate democratic institutions, I think the danger of strongman politics remain real. Could they come back? I don’t think it’s far-fetched.”