The political left loses ground in Latin America as economic growth slows

Oct 5, 2016 | 0 comments

By Simon Romero

It was not a banner day for Latin America’s leftists.

Colombia rejected a peace deal with Marxist rebels on Sunday, delivering a very public victory to the conservative former president who campaigned passionately against it. On the same day, voters in Brazil handed a resounding defeat to the leftist party that once controlled their country, knocking it down in municipal elections.

Dilma Rouseff in Brazil says she is a coup victim.

Dilma Rouseff in Brazil says she is a coup victim.

It was just another sign of the shift to the right in Latin America. In less than a year, voters have thwarted the leftist movement in Argentina and elected a former investment banker as president of Peru, while lawmakers impeached the leftist leader of Brazil.

“Put simply, conservatives are on the rise in Latin America,” said Matías Spektor, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a university in Brazil.

Many factors are feeding the trend. The sharp drop in commodities prices has eroded economic growth around Latin America and the support leftist governments once drew from it. The clout of evangelical Christian megachurches is expanding, and they are confronting socially liberal policies and channeling widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

But in one country after another, the results are the same: Leaders embracing market-friendly policies are eclipsing the leftists who exerted sway around the Americas in the previous decade. Once-powerful leftist presidents like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina now face corruption inquiries.

Bolivia President Evo Morales.

Bolivia President Evo Morales.

Still, political analysts caution that the trend does not necessarily involve a wholesale rejection of the policies that won admiration and votes for leftist governments in previous years. For instance, Michel Temer and Mauricio Macri, the leaders of Brazil and Argentina, have expressed support for maintaining popular antipoverty programs.

Peru’s new president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, relied on an alliance with the left to defeat his rival, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, the imprisoned former president.

Likewise, Colombia’s vote on the peace deal offered an example of how unpredictable politics is getting in some parts of Latin America. Leaders around the region — from an array of ideological backgrounds — had supported the agreement, which was forged between President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC.

Colombians rebuffed the deal largely because they thought it was too lenient on the FARC, enabling most fighters to walk away scot-free. But the result also showed how ready voters were to reject what the political establishment was offering.

“Voters defying the status quo is hardly peculiar to Colombia,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington. “It fits a pattern that can be discerned in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and other countries.”

Leaders around Latin America are paying close attention to the shifting mood in their countries. In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet returned to office in a landslide in 2013 on a platform of reducing inequality.

But Ms. Bachelet shifted course in the face of a slowing economy and a graft scandal involving her family, naming a finance minister respected by the business establishment. Her government’s budget for 2017 prioritizes Chile’s tradition of fiscal prudence while reining in stimulus spending.

In Brazil, a country of 206 million, half of South America’s population, the shift to the right has unfolded against a backdrop of rising political divisiveness.

Supporters of the impeached president, Dilma Rousseff, argue that her ouster was the equivalent of a coup, a view that has weighed on the legitimacy of Mr. Temer, her former vice president who rebelled against her. Candidates from his centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party were also roundly defeated in Sunday’s mayoral elections in Brazil’s largest cities.

But the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, which had its origins in the opposition to the country’s military dictatorship before evolving into a more conservative grouping that now anchors Mr. Temer’s coalition, scored big gains. One of the party’s members, João Doria, a former host of a reality television show that involved firing participants on the air, glided to victory in the mayoral race in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city.

Some in the region see parallels with the “Brexit” vote in which Britain elected to leave the European Union, or the chance that Donald J. Trump, who also starred in a reality game show in which he fired contestants, will win the presidential election in the United States.

The vote in Colombia reflected a shift “from magical realism to tragic realism,” the Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince said on Twitter, referring to the mythical narratives of Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez. “All that’s left now is for Trump to win.”

Colombia, for its part, has long defied easy explanations of its politics. A top ally of Washington in Latin America, the country has traditionally been more politically conservative than some of its neighbors, even as nominally leftist guerrillas persisted for decades in its jungles.

The rightward shift has stalled in some parts of the region. While the opposition won control of Venezuela’s National Assembly earlier this year, the country’s leftist president, Nicolás Maduro, has managed to delay a referendum to remove him from office despite the collapsing economy.

In Bolivia, the leftist government of President Evo Morales has won plaudits from the International Monetary Fund for its management of the economy. Bolivia’s central bank said in September that it expected gross domestic product to expand by about 5 percent this year, ranking it among Latin America’s fastest-growing economies.

But in a recent speech peppered with references to Marx and Lenin, even Bolivia’s vice president, Álvaro García Linera, acknowledged the ebbing influence of leftists in the region.

“We are facing a historical turning point in the region; some are talking about a throwback,” Mr. García Linera said, comparing the current situation to previous periods of conservative resurgence in Latin America. “We must relearn what we learned in the ’80s and ’90s, when everything was against us.”

As leaders on the left pick up the pieces in parts of Latin America, their dilemma now resembles that of the conservative politicians they long struggled to dislodge.

“We can think of the shift as a Latin American variant of the West’s blossoming romance with anti-establishment movements,” Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief economic adviser at Allianz, the German financial services giant, wrote in a recent essay. “For now, rightist parties and policy agendas are the main beneficiaries of the region’s economic and social disillusion.”


Credit: The New York Times,


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