Each year around Sept. 21, a three-foot-tall sidewalk monument on Washington’s Sheridan Circle in the shape of a tree stump becomes the focus of a solemn ritual. Diplomats gather at that granite shrine at the exact spot where a 1976 car-bombing killed Chile’s exiled former foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, as well as his assistant, political activist Ronni Moffitt.
Juan Gabriel Valdés—who at the time was working with both Letelier and Moffitt at the Institute of Policy Studies—was supposed to be riding with his colleagues that day. Later it was revealed that Valdés had actually been a passenger in that same car the day before the explosion, while the bomb was still attached.
By some miracle, nothing happened to Valdés, and he went on to become one of Chile’s most prominent statesmen—but not before being jailed in 1982 by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who was never brought to trial for the assassinations, despite evidence clearly implicating his regime.
After democracy returned to Chile, Valdés spent two years as foreign minister (1999-2000); two years as head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti (2004-06); and four years as Chile’s ambassador to the United States (2014-18). In addition, he’s been ambassador to both Argentina and Spain, and has served as Chile’s permanent representative to the UN.
And now, after a lifetime of experience, the 75-year-old Valdés is back as Chile’s top diplomat here once again—this time representing President Gabriel Boric, who took office in March 2022 amid a surge of left-leaning leaders who now govern Latin America’s six largest economies.
As the New York Times recently reported, “economic suffering, widening inequality, fervent anti-incumbent sentiment and mismanagement of Covid-19 have all fueled a pendulum swing away from the center-right and right-wing leaders who were dominant a few years ago.”
Over the past four years, voters have swept left and center-left presidents into office in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru. That trend was further solidified in October, when former Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva narrowly defeated the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, in a runoff election—marking a stunning comeback for the popular 77-year-old firebrand.
Chile expects negative growth in 2023
Valdés recently spoke to The Washington Diplomat about why this is happening—and about the most serious problems facing Latin America in general, and Chile specifically.
“In most of Latin America, the modernization process followed by government and the private sector led to resentment and inequality. This produced social upheaval,” said Valdés, who in 1976 earned a PhD in political science from Princeton University. “Chile had its own social rebellion in 2018. This showed us that we had to respond to the needs of people who had no pensions, no real health services, and an extraordinarily expensive education.”
He added: “We had enormously reduced poverty and thought we were out of the woods. But the pandemic produced, once again, a rise in poverty and social inequality. There’s been a big contraction in economic activity.”
Chile was expected to finish 2022 with inflation of 10.8% and GDP growth of around 1.4%—a sharp contrast from the average 7.2% annual growth it saw from the mid-1980s to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, and even the 3.5% GDP growth registered between 1998 and 2005.
“All of Latin America is paying for that. We regressed 10 years, particularly in the fight against poverty and gender inequality,” he commented. “Less attention has been given to education, but we are beginning to see the consequences to education—and to mental health, which can be disastrous—as a result of the pandemic.”
Valdés said Latin America was more affected by Covid-19 than any world region. From a medical point of view, Chile was lucky, he said, because its public health sector remained intact despite the long years of military dictatorship under Pinochet.
“In 2023 we’re expecting a recession,” he told The Diplomat. “The impact of both the pandemic and the war in Ukraine has been enormous as a result of increasing food prices. In some countries that’s been an advantage, such as food exporters Argentina and Brazil, which have been able to increase their supply to the West. But in other countries that don’t have their own production, the results have been evident.”
Valdés: ‘Very seldom has Latin America been as paralyzed as it is today’
Despite the spate of leftist victories across the region, Valdés warned that a right-wing extremist fringe—as exemplified by the rantings of defeated ex-presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro—could yet destabilize Latin America.
“As in Europe, the movements that respond to recent reforms are becoming increasingly radical. Trump is the American expression of that movement,” he explained. “For one thing, social media and the revolution in communications over the last 20 years has increased difficulties for parliamentary democracies. People have a tendency to not feel represented, and they feel that strong men will allow them to be more represented in government.”
Valdés added: “Very seldom in its history has Latin America been as paralyzed as it is today. Our main objective now is to create a democratic majority that will defend democracies from assaults coming from extreme right-wing, neofascist parties. This is evidently happening in Europe, and now one hears, in some parts of Latin America, this type of discourse that appeals to order, discipline and nationalism to justify repression.”
The one entity that was created to defend democracy in the region, the 73-year-old Organization of American States (OAS), is in “crisis” and has lost influence over time, he said—as evidenced by its inability to resolve the political impasse in Venezuela.
On the positive side, he said that US relations with Chile are very strong, and that Biden—at 80 one of the hemisphere’s oldest heads of state—and the 35-year-old Boric have “the same orientation” when it comes to social justice and the global effort to curb carbon emissions.
“But we aim for something even more ambitious: to transform our economies into green economies,” said Valdés, noting that Chile is a key producer of lithium and green hydrogen.
“We produce it with the heat of the desert. We’re very enthusiastic about Biden’s decision to become a leader in this area, and we want to attract American investment to this sector.”
Chile a growing destination for Venezuelan refugees
Chile, with a population of 20 million, is now home to 500,000 Venezuelan and 150,000 Haitian refugees. Despite their differences—Venezuela has among the world’s largest crude oil reserves and Haiti is one of the poorest nations on Earth—both are in the midst of severe, prolonged economic crises sparked by political instability.
“Of course, any country that sends seven million of its people out of its borders is a very serious problem,” Valdés said of Venezuela, which has surpassed war-torn Syria in numbers of people fleeing. “The lack of dialogue has proven enormously difficult. We feel that only dialogue can solve the problem—not any other way, as was implied during the Trump administration.”
Unfortunately, said Valdés, the OAS has been ineffective at stopping human rights abuses in Venezuela under the rule of President Nicolás Maduro. At the same time, Chile recognizes Maduro as Venezuela’s leader—unlike the United States, which recognizes only opposition politician Juan Guaidó as the country’s head of state.
“We understand that there are elections in 2024 which we hope will be open to international observers, and which will give the opposition the conditions necessary to participate,” said Valdés. “Of course, what I’m saying is very optimistic. The only thing we want is the normalization of democracy in Venezuela. It’s the only way to stop the exodus.”
While the vast majority of Venezuelan refugees—escaping crippling food shortages, political repression and violent crime—have fled to neighboring Colombia, many have also ended up in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and the United States.
According to a United Nations report, between 400 and 500 Venezuelan migrants and refugees are crossing the border every day from Bolivia into Chile; most of them are using irregular routes and braving the remote Atacama Desert, where dangers include malnutrition, dehydration, sexual exploitation and abuse by criminal groups. They’re also exposed to very hot days and nighttime subzero temperatures; many arrive suffering from hypothermia and altitude sickness.
“Chile is not used to receiving immigrants,” said Valdés. “The arrival first of the Haitians gave Chile an Afro-Caribbean presence. Then came the Venezuelans and Colombians. This has enriched our culture and society, but at the same time it has put the state in a stressful situation. The tragedy of seeing poor Venezuelan families begging for money in the streets is something we all go through. We must fight against xenophobia. We have to control that.”
Any hope for long-suffering Haiti?
As bad as things are in Venezuela, the situation is undescribably worse in Haiti. One of the world’s most impoverished countries, this Caribbean nation of 11.4 million is in the throes of a desperate economic crisis sparked by uncontrolled gang violence.
In late November 2022, a dozen Haitians were massacred by gangs armed with machine guns in Cabaret, just north of the capital, Port-au-Prince. According to the Miami Herald, the incident was only “the latest in a series of horrifying and brutal acts that have been committed against Haitians in recent weeks.”
The situation has led some top Biden administration officials—fearing a mass exodus of Haitian refugees to Florida’s shores—to urge that a multinational armed force be sent to Haiti. That follows a rare appeal for help by the Haitian government itself, which cannot control the violence. But the United States doesn’t want its own troops involved in the effort, reports the New York Times.
From 2004 to 2006, Valdés led the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti (known by its acronym MINUSTAH), following an insurgency that forced then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile. He oversaw a vast operation deployed to maintain order in the wake of disputed elections that brought René Préval, Aristide’s hand-picked protégé, to power for a second time.
“During the first three years, we reinforced the police and offered backup,” he said. “Préval’s election was respected and valid, but the earthquake [in 2010] destroyed everything. Later came cholera and the threats against Préval.”
While Haiti has long been in a state of chaos, its immediate misfortunes follow the still-unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7, 2021, by a group of Colombian mercenaries.
“Since the murder of President Moïse, Haiti has fallen into the hands of the gangs. The current government has not been able to assume the legitimacy needed to lead,” Valdés told us. “The police and armed forces must re-establish security in conjunction with the building of a legitimate government, because when the government ordering the use of force against bandits has no credibility whatsoever, the whole exercise fails.”
Valdés added: “No real information has been given on Moïse’s assassination. It is very difficult to believe that after all this time—apart from knowing his killers were Colombians—we still don’t know anything.”
Very informative story. On Venezuela, there’s some movement with Gaiadó being voted out of the presidency of the parallel government and the U.S. policy change due to the need for fuel replacement for the loss of Russia’s fuel from Russia linked to the military 48-hour exercise against Ukraine still going on 11 months later.
On Haiti, Dr. Valdés is right on the button. But he needed to be more forceful about the man who’s overseen gangster culture in Haiti: the neurosurgeon Ariel Henry, who’s just recompensed himself with another year in power, whereas he was to organize elections in November 2021.
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