As Latin American economies flounder, political hardliners are winning elections
By Moisés Naím
2022 is turning into a lean cow year. The expression is familiar to educated Latin Americans, though only the most biblically astute Anglos seem to know it. It comes from Genesis, and it goes all the way back to the age of the Egyptian pyramids.
In this story, the Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, dreams that seven cows, attractive and plump, come out of the Nile and feed on the reed grass. Behind them, per the Bible, “seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows.” Then, Pharaoh awoke.
None of his astrologers could interpret the dream, but one imprisoned Jew, Joseph, knew what it meant: A period of seven fat years would be followed by a pestilence of famine also lasting seven years.
Latin Americans seem to turn to this story to give a biblical basis to our experience with the international commodity market. For hundreds of years, lean cow years have followed fat cow years. Economic boom and bust in the region arise from things totally outside our leaders’ control: The whims of world commodity markets are as impervious to what we do as the harvests of ancient Egypt.
Starting in the 1970s, political scientists have amply documented how this dynamic undermines our democracies. Like people everywhere, Latin American voters tend to cast their votes as a response to their own perceived “direction of travel” along the socio-economic scale. When voters feel they are getting ahead or at least likely to remain securely in place, they tend to vote for incumbents, or at any rate for moderates. When they feel they’re falling behind, they look for radical solutions, whether on the far left or the far right.
That’s been proved anew in recent months, after a series of elections in Peru, Chile and Colombia. The problem is that where prosperity — and therefore political stability — depends on commodity prices, there’s little Latin American leaders can do to secure it on their own. Like in our region, the Pharaoh has no say at all on when the fat cows come and when the lean, ugly ones come to eat them up. Only heaven can decide that.
In the Bible story, the wise Pharaoh hires Joseph on the spot, appointing him vizier — effectively Egyptian prime minister. Joseph wisely stores away the excess harvest from the fat years to tide Egypt over the lean years.
In Latin America, few leaders have been quite as heavenly inspired. Rather than saving the excess when commodity prices are high and treasuries are cash flush, they tend to spend what comes in and then some, leaving nasty debt hangovers. When the bust comes and interest rates rise, that indebtedness becomes too costly and those lean cows come walking out of the Nile.
And a lean cow year is very much what 2022 is turning out to be for most countries in the region. With the prices of food — and everything else — rising rapidly, people feel their livelihoods strongly threatened. The nasty shock of moving back into poverty after having escaped it temporarily fuels serious resentments. In such a tumultuous state of mind, voting for drastic change is far more appealing than voting for moderates.
In the past 14 national elections in Latin America, the government-backed candidate has lost 13 times. The sole exception is Nicaragua’s artlessly rigged vote in favor of re-installing its dictator. In no competitive electoral system has the government won. The wave has swept away criminally corrupt governments and adequately competent ones alike. Remember, government performance has little to do with voting choices when the lean cow years come.
And the problem is not simply that incumbents and incumbent-backed candidates always lose, the issue is who they lose to.
The generation of leaders finding their ways to the second round of Latin American presidential elections in the 2020s is a sorry cast. It includes the hard-right populist daughter of Peru’s multi-decade dictator, a small-town TikTok obsessed Colombian millionaire mayor with a long record of abusing his staff, a former Brazilian air force colonel who has spent decades arguing for a return to military dictatorship, a hard-left former guerrilla cadre whose nom de guerre, “Aureliano,” was cribbed from the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez, the hard-right brother of a Pinochet Cabinet minister, and a son of a rural schoolteacher turned hard-left party leader. Some of them won, some lost, but none bear any resemblance to the sober men-in-gray-suits who took care of party politics a generation or two ago (and often failed to deliver as well).
The common thread is not that all these new contenders are Marxists or communists, nor is it that they’re all Trumpists or authoritarians. It’s that they’re all far, far outside what would have been considered mainstream even five or six years ago. They all pitch themselves as radical outsiders with determined proposals to shake up the country. Few have any government experience at all, and many espouse ideas that could kindly be described as “unorthodox.”
More and more often, elections in the region consist of a choice between these kinds of contrasting extremists of highly dubious allegiance to democracy. Some will use the tactics of populism, polarization and post-truth to try to establish themselves in power as elected autocrats. Others will try to work within existing channels, but they will most often fail, because of those lean cows.
Either way, the success or failure of these newcomers in office will have little to do with their own skill, and much to do with what happens to next year’s price of soybeans. Or sardines. Or lithium. Or oil. Or cotton. Or copper — or whichever commodity your particular country specializes in.
For their part, many Latin Americans voters have indeed noticed that whom they vote for doesn’t much seem to matter for how their lives progress. This has turned a shocking number of them against the whole concept of democracy. In its 2020 report — i.e., pre-pandemic — the respected consultancy Latinbarómetro found 10 countries in the region where democracy no longer enjoyed majority support. Heartbreakingly, among the countries where support for democracy is highest is my own Venezuela, where it has been wholly extinguished.
Few of the newcomers seem up to the monumental tasks that await them. When they fail — and most of them will fail — voters will be tempted to back even more extreme candidates. Some will fall to outright authoritarians, as Nicaragua and Venezuela already have, while others will continue to cycle through disposable presidents at breathtaking speed, an art perfected by the Peruvians.
Unless, of course, a new period of fat cows takes hold, in which case they will benefit from association with a prosperity they did nothing much to bring about.
Moisés Naím is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.