Why Latin America’s Homophobic Leaders Should Stop Their Gay Bashing

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Ariana Cubillos / AP

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at a swearing-in ceremony in Caracas on April 22, 2013

We tend to think of mean-spirited homophobia as the political purview of right-wing conservatives. But Nicolás Maduro showed us that, in Venezuela at least, it can be one of socialism’s ugly undercurrents too. Maduro narrowly won Venezuela’s special presidential election on April 14, and though the votes are supposed to be recounted, he was sworn in last Friday to succeed his boss and demigod, socialist President Hugo Chávez, who died last month of cancer. Given the retromachismo that still pervades his oil-rich South American nation, Maduro may have eked out his victory with the help of some old-fashioned gay bashing: he made a point in his campaign of suggesting to voters that his centrist and unmarried opponent, Henrique Capriles, is a homosexual. “I do have a wife!” Maduro, who also called Capriles “a little princess,” roared at one rally. “I like women!”

Maduro has since said he’s not a homophobe. Whatever the case, his unabashed willingness to peddle that kind of bigotry on the trail, just as Chávez did last year during his own re-election campaign against Capriles, betrayed the reality that Chavista politics aren’t just bare-knuckled; they too often descend into knuckle dragging. Yet such atavism is hardly confined to Venezuelan leftists. On Sunday, just a week after Venezuela’s contest, Paraguay elected as its new President a millionaire conservative, Horacio Cartes, who railed against gay marriage during his campaign as something “monkeys swinging from trees” do.

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Cartes later apologized, albeit after he made sure he’d won the election. But his remarks, sadly, are a reminder that homophobia still plays in Paraguay — and Peru and Patagonia and Panama and the Petén and too many other pockets of Latin America, a continent where politicians can still rely on gay slurs to yield gainful results in ways rarely seen elsewhere in the world today.

Sure, most developed countries aren’t exactly beacons themselves when it comes to one of the central civil rights issues of the 21st century. France’s National Assembly voted to legalize gay marriage this week, making it the 14th country worldwide and the ninth in Europe to do so, but the move nonetheless set off street riots in Paris. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is only this year taking up the question of same-sex matrimony — a fact that makes Latin American nations like Argentina, which legalized gay marriage in 2010, and Uruguay, which did so earlier this month, look positively first world by comparison.

But too many Latin American pols seem not to have gotten the memo that the world, including their own region, is beginning to spin in precisely that new, more humane direction regarding the discussion and treatment of homosexuals. Even in the U.S. these days, gay bashing almost always provokes political penalties, not prizes. Yet in Latin America, Argentine Roman Catholic Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, can still demonize homosexuals — calling gay marriage a “dire anthropological throwback,” a “scheme to destroy God’s plan” and the “work of the devil” — and remain one of the region’s most revered prelates. (Shortly before Bergoglio went on his bigoted rant in 2010, leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales suggested that eating chicken could cause men to become bald and homosexual because too many fowl are injected with female hormones.) In Colombia, marriage equality is fighting an uphill battle in Congress thanks in part to conservative Senators like Edgar Espíndola, who recently likened gay marriage to “bestiality … necrophilia or pedophilia.”

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That kind of rhetoric, and now the remarks of newly elected Presidents Maduro and Cartes, don’t exactly enhance the image of modernization that Latin America — which accounts for less than 3% of the world’s research and development compared with the more than 30% that Asia represents — wants to project as countries like Brazil and Chile edge closer to development. It only compounds, for example, the region’s backward reputation when it comes to other gender issues like women’s reproductive health: thanks to Latin America’s draconian birth-control and abortion restrictions, it suffers maternal mortality rates that can be 20 times higher than Western Europe’s. And while it might be expected of more conservative pols like Cartes, the homophobic hot air makes self-proclaimed 21st century “revolutionaries” like Maduro and Morales sound more than a little 19th century. (This is hardly a new hypocrisy: communist Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was for most of his half-century-long rule a notorious homophobe.)

Which could be why another prominent South American leftist, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, made such an earnest apology (more convincing than Maduro’s or Cartes’ mea culpas, at least) for calling a critic not one but two slang words for “faggot” during his recent re-election campaign. (He won another term in February.) Last month a judge slapped one of Correa’s election opponents, evangelical preacher Nelson Zavala, with a $3,000 fine and a year’s suspension from political activity for making his own homophobic remarks during the campaign. We can and should debate whether a country’s electoral code ought to be criminalizing speech that way, but an equally important question is why Correa, if he really is so contrite, didn’t face the same sanctions.

The answer of course lies in another of Latin America’s big modernization challenges: impunity. But that’s another topic for another day. For now, we can take Ecuador’s lower threshold for political gay bashing as an encouraging sign, as are recent measures like the antidiscrimination law that was finally enacted last year in morally ultraconservative Chile. One of these days the language that Latin American politicians use regarding homosexuals will catch up with the laws they’re starting to enact. Just as in the U.S., the laws concerning homosexuality may finally be catching up with our more humane discourse about it.