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Daniel Zovatto: Lula's 'slip" in his "narrative" about Maduro in Venezuela

Latin America goes to the OAS in a state of "political polarization". Elections in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Argentina point to run-offs

Daniel Zovatto

Political scientist Daniel Zovatto, International IDEA's regional director for Latin America. Photo: IDEA

Carlos F. Chamorro

8 de junio 2023


Latin America will attend the next meeting of OAS foreign ministers in Washington on June 21, 2023 in a state of "fragmentation and political polarization" and with Secretary General Luis Almagro's leadership "exhausted", according to political scientist Daniel Zovatto, Latin America regional director for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). 

"The OAS is going to go as far as its member countries are willing to let it go", Zovatto believes, and warns that despite the attempts to "strengthen the Democratic Charter", he fears that "we will not have pleasant surprises in the next General Assembly, in terms of democracy regarding Venezuela and Nicaragua."

In an interview with Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL, Zovatto analyzes the consequences of Brazil president Lula's slip when he described the authoritarianism in Venezuela and the violations to human rights as a "narrative construction". Lula was criticized by Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador at the summit of South American countries. 

Commenting on the 2023 electoral cycle in Latin America, which International IDEA monitors, Zovatto considers that the presidential elections scheduled in Guatemala (June 25), Ecuador (August 20), and Argentina (October 22) will be decided in second rounds.

This week's news has included the summit of South American presidents promoted by the president of Brazil, Lula, in Brasilia, with the presence of the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. How did the summit turn out for Lula and Maduro?

We have to separate two issues. On the one hand, there was Lula's bilateral meeting with Maduro the day before Lula's meeting with all the South American presidents, except for Peru, which was represented by the Prime Minister.

That was what provoked the most criticism of Lula, the fact that he met with Maduro prior to the summit. In some cases, this happened without having warned the presidents. Uruguayan president Luis Lacalle Pou himself said: "I was not aware that this was going to happen". But above all it was the way in which Lula expressed

himself regarding Maduro, calling him "compañero" with rhetorical excess, and then how he described Venezuela, saying that what was happening there is a "narrative construction" against the Maduro regime. 

Obviously, this provoked a generalized level of criticism both within Brazil and outside Brazil, and among several of the presidents themselves who attended the summit, particularly Luis Lacalle Pou and the case of the president of Chile, [Gabriel] Boric. It's telling how two of the main Brazilian newspapers headlined this event. O Globo said: "Lula's reception of Maduro was a disgrace." The other very well known newspaper, Estadao, said: "Lula shames Brazil by embracing Maduro." The criticism was expressed not only by the media, but also by many analysts and within the Latin American region, myself included.  

Lula's false "narrative"

But apart from those sharp criticisms made by the President of Uruguay and the President of Chile, invoking questions of principle on issues of democracy and human rights, most of the other governments simply kept quiet. So at the end of the day, Maduro ended up being part of this community of South American presidents. Is this a tacit endorsement for Maduro?

The fact of having been invited by Lula, and the way Lula expressed himself, is an endorsement for Maduro, but I don't think it is a complete endorsement, because it wasn't only President Luis Lacalle Pou and President Boric, but the President of Paraguay and the President of Ecuador who also had critical comments regarding the situation in Venezuela now.

We have to put this in the context of another other issue we should analyze, which is the need and the consensus in South America of the importance of relaunching the integration process among the South American countries, precisely because it is a project that has had its ups and downs. UNASUR was created in 2008. Then, with the arrival of rather center-right presidents, from 2015 to 2017, it deflated and Pro Sur was created. Then with the new change of political cycle, now they are trying to relaunch UNASUR. In this meeting, on Tuesday the 30th, one of Lula's main objectives was to see if there was consensus to relaunch UNASUR. That consensus was not reflected in the final declaration called the Brazil Consensus, which has nine points. In my opinion, beyond the nonsense with Maduro, I believe that Latin America in general –and South America in particular–, if it wants to be a geopolitical unit, it needs to resume the integration process, because it has many things to offer a world in need of food, energy, and strategic minerals, and which is offering possibilities of nearshoring

So Lula's initiative is very welcome, as well as the possibility of seeing how, if it's possible, to help Venezuela to find a way out of its own labyrinth, trying to resume the negotiations that are currently interrupted in Mexico between the government and the opposition and, above all, to establish guarantees so that the elections of 2024 are carried out with electoral integrity, such that whoever is elected has the necessary legitimacy, something that Maduro does not have at the moment.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (right) and his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro. Photo: EFE / André Coelho

Can Lula play the role that had been talked about before, of being a bridge or even a mediator in Venezuela, when he has openly sided with the Maduro regime?

This is the slip that Lula made on Monday the 29th, when he met with Maduro and then made comments about Maduro, but above all about the situation in Venezuela. This obviously generated a resounding rejection from the different sectors of the Venezuelan opposition who said "With these expressions you disqualify yourself as a possible mediator."

We have also seen that Lula was interested in playing a mediation role in the war between Russia and Ukraine, especially because of his comments about Zelenski, in the recent G7 meeting, in which Lula was present. Also, there was supposedly a meeting scheduled between Zelenski and Lula. The meeting never happened and that mediation is also in the air. Lula has great interest in returning to a position of international protagonism, as he had in his first two presidencies, when Obama called him the most popular president in the world. 

Lula wants to take advantage of the moment and reinsert Brazil into the international scenario, because during Bolsonaro's four years, Brazil was quite isolated, with a few exceptions. But so far Lula's various attempts have gotten a bit complicated, and one of those is the case of Venezuela. He may have had good intentions, but his actions and words really backfired on him.

How does Lula's position on Venezuela impact other cases? For example, how is the Nicaraguan crisis being seen in this context? Could Lula say tomorrow that the human rights violations in Nicaragua are also a "narrative construction"?

No. I think that after the mistake he made regarding Venezuela, fortunately I think the same thing won't happen with Nicaragua. Just this week in Madrid a very important report on human rights was presented. CASLA, an institute that is monitoring the human rights situation and which also gave an account with data from the investigations being carried out by the International Criminal Court, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the gross violations of human rights of the more than 200 political prisoners. And one of the commentators of that report was former President Felipe González, who said: "It is not possible to whitewash a situation that does not allow, under any circumstances, to be whitewashed." That is to say, Lula has been showered with hard fire because he really did commit a faux pas and I believe that fortunately for Nicaragua, this blocks him from saying tomorrow that what is happening in Nicaragua is also a constructed narrative.

OAS, Almagro and the fragmentation of Latin America

Does this disagreement among South American countries say something about what could happen at the OAS General Assembly this month, June 21-23? There is an attempt to re-launch the Inter-American Democratic Charter. At the same time, it seems that Luis Almagro's leadership in the OAS is exhausted. What can we expect from this Assembly of Foreign Ministers?


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The OAS will go as far as its member countries are willing to let it go. Obviously, the leadership of the Secretary General always plays a role. I believe that Mr. Almagro's leadership as Secretary General of the OAS has been exhausted for a long time. The next few years he still has left of his mandate, in one way or another, are going to limit the capacity of the OAS to have an impact. But even if we have a very good Secretary General, with a lot of leadership and a lot of influence with the different presidents, I believe that the OAS depends on the level of political will of its member countries.

Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS. Photo: EFE

What we are seeing is a high level of fragmentation and polarization. This was expressed just last week, when a budget increase was approved in the Permanent Council. That generated a pitched battle, perhaps one of the toughest there has ever been in the OAS. Not so much on the issue of human rights or democracy, but on the issue of the budget, with very strong and very tough positions that led to a very divided vote of 25 in favor of the budget increase, five votes against and other abstentions. I believe that this discussion will be repeated in the General Assembly. So, and without judging the recent meeting that took place this week in the Permanent Council of the OAS to talk about how to strengthen the Inter-American Democratic Charter, I believe that the political will is not present to generate a broad consensus similar to the one that allowed the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001. 

It would be a surprise if there were a very radical change with respect to having a broad consensus so that, in cases such as Venezuela or Nicaragua, the Inter-American Democratic Charter could be applied. What is being attempted, particularly by the United States, is to lead a process together with other countries. But I'm afraid that we are not going to have too many pleasant surprises at the next General Assembly in terms of democracy with respect to Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Elections in Guatemala

Let's talk about the three elections to be held this year in Latin America, which are also being monitored by International IDEA. The first one is in Guatemala, June 25, under a climate of judicial and electoral elimination of candidates and also of judicial persecution against freedom of the press.

The elections in Guatemala are a very serious and worrying case. They are taking place in a climate of marked irregularity, judicial exclusions, and a very weak rule of law that has been denounced by human rights groups such as the Washington Office on Latin  America and Human Rights Watch. The OAS mission in the field has also signaled the issue of the exclusion of several candidates. We have seen an Electoral Tribunal that is not living up to its responsibilities and is being very biased, applying double standard criteria, excluding some candidates and allowing other candidates, who have even more reasons to be excluded, to run. For the moment, three candidates have been excluded: from the left, Thelma Cabrera; from the right, Roberto Arzú, and also more recently, Carlos Pineda, who was leading in the last polls. If there are no new exclusions before June 25th, the race at this moment is between Sandra Torres –who had already participated in the last election and who had passed the second round and then lost to Giammattei–, Zuri Ríos, and Edmond Mulet.

There's a big question mark, because the polls are very confusing. Some give an advantage to Sandra Torres, others to Zuri Ríos, others to Carlos Pineda, who is no longer running. How are the voting intentions going to be redistributed among the remaining candidates? Are these votes going to be redistributed or might they just go to increasing abstention and null votes? Several of the candidates who cannot participate have said that they are going to vote, but will nullify their vote. This is in a country where the average electoral participation is very low and is even lower in the second round. So there's a big question mark, and there's a very irregular process, very flawed, which can clearly compromise the credibility and legitimacy of the results. And it should not be ruled out that between the first and second round or even later in the second round, there may be new allegations of fraud.

"Mutual death" in Ecuador

In Ecuador, President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the Congress and activated what is called "mutual death" by calling for early elections, shortening his term of office til August of this year. Is this unprecedented in Latin America?

It is an unprecedented action because the Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 is the only Constitution, in its article 148, that establishes this mechanism of "mutual death" under three hypotheses. One of them was the one argued by President Lazo saying that there was a situation of political crisis and internal commotion and that, therefore, the Constitution legally and constitutionally empowers the President to dissolve the Congress and call elections in the next three to four months. The president will only last the five or six months that it takes to carry out the first round.  Then, if a second round is necessary and a new president or vice-president is elected, along with the 137 members of that National Assembly, they only will serve the period that was left to be served. 

That is to say, this president-elect, the vice-president and the 137 assembly members will only serve until the end of May 2025, and then a new election will be held for a full four-year term. It's unprecedented, very different from what we saw in Peru when Castillo wanted to dissolve the Congress in an unconstitutional manner and ended up being removed, or rather, dismissed by Congress.

The president of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, with his wife, María de Lourdes Alcívar. Photo: EFE

Elections in Argentina

The third election, possibly the one with the greatest impact, is that of Argentina in October 2023, where the political future of Cristina Fernández, who is not a candidate but is determining at least part of the election, seems to be at stake.

Argentina's elections are elections where the presidency is at stake and there will also be a partial renewal of both houses of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. What we are seeing there is also an election that is going to take place in a sort of electoral "stations of the cross", because now, at the end of June, the period for the presentation of candidacies closes. On August 13 they will have what in Argentina are called PASO, that is to say, the open, simultaneous and mandatory primaries to define who will be the candidates of the different political forces. On October 22 there will be a first round and, if necessary, a second round will be held on November 19. And then on December 10 there will be a transfer of power between the current president, Alberto Fernández, and whoever is elected. But this election is totally unprecedented, I have called it the election of resignations. That is, President Alberto Fernández was elected with very little political oxygen and he will not run. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said "I am not going to seek the presidency." Macri who was the leader of the opposition Juntos por el Cambio [Together for Change] also said: "I am not going to seek the presidency". 

So, the three main actors have desisted and now what has to be defined is how they are going to be accommodated within each of the three main political forces, because this is another very new element in Argentina.

​​In Argentina, almost always the presidencies have been disputed between two political forces, Peronism and anti-Peronism, either radicalism or Juntos por el Cambio. Now, for the first time, it is going to be a three-party contest. On the one hand, we will have to see who runs from within Juntos por el Cambio, which is the main opposition group. If it is going to be Mr. Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, who is the current Head of Government of the City of Buenos Aires or if it is going to be the former Minister Bullrich. Who is going to be the candidate within the Frente de Todos, which is the Kirchnerist group? Alberto Fernández said no, Cristina said no, so there are several candidates, including the current Minister of Economy, Sergio Massa, and they are discussing whether they will go to a PASO or if there will be a candidate by consensus. And finally, there is the great outsider, who is playing for the right of the right, a radical right candidate called [Javier] Milei, who is obviously the great surprise of this election and who is today rising strongly in the polls to the point of being able to challenge both Juntos por el Cambio and Frente de Todos in this election. 

In the three elections we've analyzed –Guatemala, Ecuador and Argentina– run-offs are contemplated, and I believe that in all three cases there is a high possibility of having to go to a second round. This will be the case In Guatemala, and in the case of Ecuador, due to the level of fragmentation we are seeing of the different political forces.

The ultra-right and the referendum in Chile

Finally, in Chile there is a referendum already set for December 17, to decide on the new Constitution to be drafted by the Constitutional Council, which is led primarily by the right wing.

Exactly, by the extreme right wing, the Republican Party of [José Antonio] Kast. Chile tried to move forward in its process of drafting a new Constitution that would put an end to the one that had been approved during the Pinochet era, although it's undergone more than 60 changes during democratic governments, particularly during the presidency of Mr. Ricardo Lagos. But that text, which was submitted to a referendum last year in September, was rejected by a large majority. 62% voted against it. Therefore, a second constitutional moment was reactivated, but now in a different way. First, an expert group made up of 24 people with absolute parity was created, appointed by the forces that have a presence in the Congress. This group of experts wrote a proposal that has just been finished this week. This proposal will be handed over to the recently elected Constituent Assembly members. These conventional constituents will start working on June 7 with this proposal. They can make modifications, they can make changes to it. And this new text that the Constituent Assembly members are going to write on the basis of this draft will be submitted again to the population so that they may decide in a second referendum on December 17, whether to accept or reject it.

Is it possible to predict an outcome?

The paradox of the Chilean constituent process is that those who today have the majority in the Constituent Convention –that is to say, they have a majority of three fifths to impose the proposal they consider acceptable, and they also have a majority of two thirds to veto it–, are fundamentally the political forces of the Republican Party –, the extreme right wing party led by Kast, which was the one that disputed the presidency with Boric and which came second in the second round– and also the party of the traditional right, Renovación Nacional, and the other UDI party. When the process of constitutional reform started, the UDI and Renovación Nacional, as well as Kast, said: "We are opposed to the reform of the Constitution." That the 1980 Constitution with the reforms is perfect and continues to be valid for Chile. These three forces are now the ones that have the majority to be able, in one way or another, to decide what kind of proposal they are going to submit to the citizenry. The only carrot, the only incentive for the three forces –and especially for Kast's party– to not do crazy things with the proposal, is that they want to avoid a new rejection at the ballot box, because in 2024 there will be municipal elections and in 2025 there will be presidential elections in Chile. And there is a lot of interest, both from the more traditional right wing and especially from Kast, to develop a very good relationship with the citizenry ahead of those municipal elections in 2024 and the presidential election in 2025.

*This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.