Family ties: How political dynasties engender apathy in Latin America

Louie Parker | Latin America Fellow

In the majority Catholic Latin America, the family is everything. It is the foundational institution of people’s lives and society more broadly. Its importance is such that Sundays are sacrosanct. Not spending time with one's family on this day would be considered a major transgression.


However, this set of values extends far beyond the home.


Influential and often well-to-do families are baked into the political systems across the region. A 2018 study found that Latin America was tied with Europe for the region with the most leaders coming from political families between 2000-2017 (13 per cent). The same study also rated Latin America as second for having leaders specifically related to former Presidents or Prime Ministers (36 per cent). One extraordinary example is Jorge Luis Batlle of Uruguay, who had three different relatives who held the presidency before him.


These political birthrights occur across the political spectrum. In Peru, the Fujimori family has been the lifeblood of the country’s right-wing establishment for over three decades. The legacy of Alberto Fujimori’s presidency has meant that his children have also won political office. His son, Kenji, was a congressman, as was his daughter Keiko who also ran twice for the presidency.


In Argentina, the Kirchner family has perhaps been more influential. Nestor Kirchner held nearly every position imaginable, including Governor, Lower House Member, and President. His wife, Cristina Fernandez, has a similarly extensive resumé which includes terms as Senator, Lower House Member, First Lady and then President.


Colombian politics is also the playground for the country’s eminent families. Former centre-left President Julio César Turbay Ayala laid the groundwork for the distinguished careers of his children. His son was a senator, while his two daughters were influential journalists and diplomats.


Latin American political dynasties, and the extent to which they represent a meritocracy, has been an important issue of scholarship. Political Science Professors Farida Jalalzai and Meg Rickner note the nuances of the issue, arguing two important points.


Firstly, the positions held by members of eminent families call into question the effective application of the meritocratic ideal of these countries’ systems. It would be a specious argument to suggest that those with famous DNA earned their positions solely on the back of hard work, talent and a commitment to public service.


Secondly, family connections will not always benefit political candidates. They argue that this depends on a wide range of contextual factors, especially given voters’ perceptions of the unearned privileges stemming from nepotism and cronyism.


This suspicion of a familial free ride explains the popularity, at least among their base, of political leaders coming from humble beginnings. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is a former bus driver, while former Bolivian President Evo Morales would often, as a child, travel two weeks on foot to sell salt and potatoes (Harten, 2011). Former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica donated 90 per cent of his salary to charity while in office and famously drove around in a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle valued at $1,800.


More than merely the bloodline of leaders, the crucial issue with political dynasties lies at their nexus with corruption. Latin America’s levels of corruption are off the charts by global standards. Transparency International ranks industrialised countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Panama as having worse corruption than China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.


For example, the Kirchner family’s wealth saw a six-fold increase while in office between 2003-2009. Whether or not this is due to wise investments independent of the presidency’s inside knowledge, the optics do not inspire confidence.


At both the party and national level, the combination of nepotism and unchecked corporate influence has the potential to sideline qualified and committed candidates from outside the political establishment. Perceptions that the concerns of Latin American politicians are far removed from those of everyday people carry significant weight.


Whether real or perceived, this democratic and empathy deficit has created a strong populist sentiment, and political leaders will be quick to recalibrate their campaigning and rhetoric to appeal to these grievances.


Indeed, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro saw the utility of this during his 2018 presidential campaign. However, his appeal to ignored and maligned Brazilians and his railing against the establishment were ultimately undercut by a string of revelations and developments that challenge the integrity of his appeal to the silent majority. These include the corruption scandals surrounding his cabinet, the corporate money supporting his campaign, and the repeal of important environmental protections.


Failure to address the nepotism endemic to Latin American governance will engender further voter apathy and resentment of the political class. As this occurs, leaders will find it increasingly difficult to mobilise majority support for their policies and, in turn, their tenure in office.

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