South America’s new leftist leaders face the harsh reality of growing poverty and faltering economies

Aug 2, 2022 | 12 comments

A slum in Medellin, Colombia: Will newly elected president Gustavo Petro be able to meet the high expectiations of helping the poor in a faltering economy?

Julie Turkewitz, Mitra Taj and

In Chile, a tattooed former student activist won the presidency with a pledge to oversee the most profound transformation of Chilean society in decades, widening the social safety net and shifting the tax burden to the wealthy.

In Peru, the son of poor farmers was propelled to victory on a vow to prioritize struggling families, feed the hungry and correct longstanding disparities in access to health care and education.

In Colombia, a former rebel and longtime legislator was elected the country’s first leftist president, promising to champion the rights of Indigenous, Black and poor Colombians, while building an economy that works for everyone. “A new story for Colombia, for Latin America, for the world,” he said in his victory speech, to thunderous applause.

After years of tilting rightward, Latin America is hurtling to the left, a watershed moment that began in 2018 with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and could culminate with a victory later this year by a leftist candidate in Brazil, leaving the region’s six largest economies run by leaders elected on leftist platforms.

Tens-of-thousands of protesters in Santiago, Chile, in 2019, demanding economic changes to address systemic inequality. The country’s new president, elected last year, has become deeply unpopular among Chileans angry over rising prices.

A combination of forces have thrust this new group into power, including an anti-incumbent fervor driven by anger over chronic poverty and inequality, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and have deepened frustration among voters who have taken out their indignation on establishment candidates.

But just as new leaders settle into office, their campaign pledges have collided with a bleak reality, including a European war that has sent the cost of everyday goods, from fuel to food, soaring, making life more painful for already suffering constituents and evaporating much of the good will presidents once enjoyed.

Chile’s Gabriel Boric, Peru’s Pedro Castillo and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro are among the leaders who rode to victory promising to help the poor and disenfranchised, but who find themselves facing enormous challenges in trying to meet the high expectations of voters.

Unlike today, the last significant leftist shift in Latin America, in the first decade of the millennium, was propelled by a commodities boom that allowed leaders to expand social programs and move an extraordinary number of people into the middle class, raising expectations for millions of families.

Now that middle class is sliding backward, and instead of a boom, governments face pandemic-battered budgets, galloping inflation fed by the war in Ukraine, rising migration and increasingly dire economic and social consequences of climate change.

In Argentina, where the leftist Alberto Fernández took the reins from a right-wing president in late 2019, protesters have taken to the streets amid rising prices. Even larger protests erupted recently in Ecuador, threatening the government of one of the region’s few newly elected right-wing presidents, Guillermo Lasso.

“I don’t want to be apocalyptic about it,” said Cynthia Arnson, a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But there are times when you look at this that it feels like the perfect storm, the number of things hitting the region at once.”

The rise of social media, with the potential to supercharge discontent and drive major protest movements, including in Chile and Colombia, has shown people the power of the streets.

Gustavo Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, celebrated their victory in June in Colombia’s national election. They will lead a country where 40 percent of the people lives on less than half of the monthly minimum wage.

Beginning in August, when Mr. Petro takes over from his conservative predecessor, five of the six largest economies in the region will be run by leaders who campaigned from the left.

The sixth, Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, could swing that way in a national election in October. Polls show that former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a fiery leftist, has a wide lead on the right-wing incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro.

New leaders in Colombia and Chile are far more socially progressive than leftists in the past, calling for a shift away from fossil fuels and advocating for abortion rights at a time when the United States Supreme Court is moving the country in the opposite direction. But taken together, this group is extremely mixed, differing on everything from economic policy to their commitment to democratic principles.

Mr. Petro and Mr. Boric have vowed to vastly expand social programs for the poor, for example, while Mr. López Obrador, who is focused on austerity, is reducing spending.

What does link these leaders, however, are promises for sweeping change that in many instances are running headlong into difficult and growing challenges.

In Chile late last year, Mr. Boric beat José Antonio Kast, a right-wing establishment politician associated with Chile’s former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, by pledging to jettison the neoliberal economic policies of the past.

But just months into his term, with an inexperienced cabinet, divided Congress, rising consumer prices and unrest in the country’s south, Mr. Boric’s approval ratings have plummeted. Ninety percent of poll respondents told the polling firm Cadem this month that they believed the country’s economy was stuck or going backward.

Supporters of Peru’s leftist presidential candidate Pedro Castillo during a protest against his rival’s effort to annul votes in 2021. Mr. Castillo won the election but is barely managing to survive politically.

Like many neighbors in the region, Chile’s yearly inflation rate is the highest it has been in more than a generation, at 11.5 percent, spurring a cost-of-living crisis.

In southern Chile, a land struggle between the Mapuche, the country’s largest Indigenous group, and the state has entered its deadliest phase in 20 years, leading Mr. Boric to reverse course on one of his campaign pledges and redeploy troops in the area.

Catalina Becerra, 37, a human resources manager from Antofagasta, in northern Chile, said that “But I wasn’t convinced by what he could do for the country,’’ Ms. Becerra added. “He has not achieved what he said he would.”

In September, Chileans will vote on a remarkably progressive constitution that enshrines gender equality, environmental protections and Indigenous rights and that is meant to replace a Pinochet-era document. The president has bound his success to the referendum, putting himself in a precarious position should the draft be rejected, which polls show is for now the more likely outcome.

In neighboring Peru, Mr. Castillo rose last year from virtual anonymity to beat Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing career politician whose father, former President Alberto Fujimori, governed with an iron fist and introduced neoliberal policies similar to those rejected by Chilean voters.

While some Peruvians supported Mr. Castillo solely as a rejection of Ms. Fujimori, he also represented real hopes for many, especially poor and rural voters. As a candidate, Mr. Castillo promised to empower farmers with more subsidies, access to credit and technical assistance.

But today, he is barely managing to survive politically. He has governed erratically, pulled between his far-left party and the far-right opposition, reflecting the fractious politics that helped him win the presidency.

Mr. Castillo — whose approval rating has sunk to 19 percent, according to the Institute of Peruvian Studies — is now subject to five criminal probes, has already faced two impeachment attempts and cycled through seven interior ministers.

The agrarian reform he pledged has yet to translate into any concrete policies. Instead, price spikes for food, fuel and fertilizer are hitting his base the hardest.

Farmers are struggling through one of the worst crises in decades, facing the biggest planting season of the year without widespread access to synthetic fertilizer. They normally get most of it from Russia, but it is difficult to obtain because of global supply disruptions related to the war.

Eduardo Zegarra, an investigator at GRADE, a research institute, called the situation unprecedented. “I think this is going to unfold very dramatically, and usher in a lot of instability,” he said.

In a poor, hillside neighborhood in Lima, the capital, many parents are skipping meals so their children have more to eat. “We voted for Castillo because we had the hope that his government would be different,” said Ruth Canchari, 29, a stay-at-home mother of three children. “But he’s not taking action.”

In Colombia, Mr. Petro will take office facing many of the same headwinds. Poverty has risen — 40 percent of households now live on less than $100 a month, less than half of the monthly minimum wage — while inflation has hit nearly 10 percent.

Still, despite widespread financial anxiety, Mr. Petro’s actions as he prepares to assume office seem to have earned him some support. He has made repeated calls for national consensus, met with his biggest political foe, the right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, and appointed a widely respected, relatively conservative and Yale-educated finance minister.

The moves may allow Mr. Petro to govern more successfully than, say, Mr. Boric, said Daniel García-Peña, a political scientist, and have calmed down some fears about how he will try to revive the economy. But given how quickly the honeymoon period ended for others, Mr. Petro will have precious little time to start delivering relief.

“Petro must come through for his voters,” said Hernan Morantes, 30, a Petro supporter and environmental activist. “Social movements must be ready, so that when the government does not come through, or does not want to come through, we’re ready.”

Credit: New York Times


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