Latin America: When Elections Are A Bogus Tool For Dictators

Calling rulers like Venezuela's Maduro or Nicaragua's Ortega democratically elected leaders is to mock the real meaning of elections — and democracy.

'Chavez for ever'?
"Chavez for ever"?
Danilo Arbilla


BOGOTÁ — The supposedly progressive, populist Left on the American continent loves to cite would-be free elections to defend those of its cherished leaders still wielding power. I am talking about that gang of three: Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

The ardent defenders of voting keep saying: These are elected leaders.

Yes, they were, but were they elected in truly free elections, with the freedoms of speech and assembly intact, a neutral state and with independent oversight?

For those three, the answer is no. Nobody can sincerely claim otherwise.

In their day, certain notorious dictators of the hemisphere like Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, Cuba's Fulgencio Batista or Venezuela's Marcos Pérez Jiménez, were also elected or took power using, or abusing, constitutional mechanisms made to serve their particular purposes. Many had the habit of calling elections they won with ease. A minister of Nicaragua's 1970s ruler, Anastasio Somoza, once beautifully summed up the simple spirit of these methods. "Vote as you wish and with peace of mind," he told Nicaraguans, "because when it's over, I'm the one counting the votes."

And that is more or less what Ortega, Maduro and Morales have been doing; perhaps behind a more subtle veneer and with the backing of more intellectual, less goonish mercenaries. It is what happened in Brazil with the Workers Party of Presidents Lula and Rousseff, with the Kirchner presidents, husband and wife, in Argentina, with Ecuador's Rafael Correa — though he seems to be out of the game now — and with the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

In the case of Chávez, the departed Bolivarian leader's history is exemplary. Several attempted coups failed before he took power through open elections, backed by forces that wanted to sweep away Venezuela's traditional politicians. Though he was the outsider needed for the task, before long he had pushed his electoral allies out of his way. He began to believe his own rhetoric, while in cash-strapped Cuba, the Castro brothers saw an opportunity they could not miss, adopting and embracing this oil-rich "godson" and admirer.

Chávez thought he was doing great, and he wasn't doing badly, initially. Spending was high, but the country was earning $150 for every barrel of crude back then. He began to restrict press freedoms, shut down media directly or indirectly, and use the state's powers to "win." And yet he still lost a referendum, which he repeated and won on the second try. He would have repeated it as often as necessary no doubt.

"If voting changed anything, it would be illegal" — Photo: gaelx

The Chávez system was impeccable: He would lose parliamentary elections but still accumulate the seats corresponding to a triumphant opposition. Who advised him on this, one wonders — the Spanish?

Spain's former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (ostensibly "the mediator") and his foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, like Lula da Silva, would call Chávez the continent's most democratic president.

Come on! To speak of free, legitimate elections you must have full freedom of expression. People need to be informed, without restrictions before choosing. Without a free press, there is neither democracy nor legitimate elections. What you have are polls that are neither free nor fair nor democratic. Likewise, candidates cannot be restricted nor can you use the state's money and power to back an official candidate. Electoral officials and inspectors must be impartial, autonomous and independent, and no legalistic mechanism can be used to prolong power.

Today, we see the same in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia, where there is effectively no free press. It is not the same as in Peru, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay or Uruguay, nor even Brazil and Argentina, where the last two presidents lost power precisely because they could not completely muzzle the papers.

Without a free press, there is neither democracy nor legitimate elections.

Most of these partisans of "elections = democracy" have been bitter enemies of the liberal democratic system and have sought power through coups or violence. That is as undeniable as their ability at some point to win power by democratic means.

The great concern, of course, is when they decide, firmly gripping the presidential baton and loyal as ever to their true nature, to destroy democracy from the inside. It is nothing we haven't seen before in the annals of history.

Liberal democracy will outlive and overcome them, and there is no reason to continue to accept the validity of assertions that these are elected leaders. No, because they were fraudulent before, during and after — and remain so.

Like George Bernard Shaw once coyly observed, "Eating a carrot doesn't make you a vegetarian."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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