Exit Latin America’s Left
BOGOTA—The crushing defeat of the long-ruling Chavista government in Venezuela’s recent parliamentary election, together with the end of 12 years of Peronist rule in Argentina, marks the end of a cycle of left-wing hegemony in much of Latin America. But this is not a political watershed marking the renewal of ideological confrontation. Rather, it is a measured transition toward political pragmatism. And it is very good news.
Perhaps the best evidence that this is not an ideologically-driven sea change is to be found in what triggered it: an economic downturn. For over a decade, the region relied on “Socialism of the Twenty-First Century,” which Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, used to galvanize groupings like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America and Petrocaribe, an oil alliance of Caribbean states and Venezuela. But economic collapse, hyperinflation and food shortages have destroyed faith in that system.
It should be noted that the very same factors, largely the result of unforgiving global conditions, enabled Latin America’s leftist parties to win and consolidate power by blaming the market-oriented policies that preceded them. Brazilians elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency in 2002, and Argentinians chose Néstor Kirchner in 2003. Financial meltdown restored the Institutional Revolutionary Party to power in Mexico in 2012, and Michelle Bachelet’s leftist Nueva Mayoría party won in Chile in 2013.
Leftist governments then took advantage of a sustained commodities boom to increase spending on consumer subsidies and social welfare, without depending on international creditors. From 2003, the year of Kirchner’s election, to 2011, when his wife and successor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was elected to her second term in a landslide, soybean prices rose by more than 7 percent annually, on average, boosting overall GDP growth.
Likewise, Brazil’s economy, propelled by commodity exports of its own, grew by about 4.5 percent per year. This enabled the country, like Argentina, to fight extreme poverty and boost the purchasing power of an emerging middle class, which thus became deeply loyal to leftist governments. In Argentina, it took a 30-percent inflation rate, massive corruption scandals, and restrictions on foreign-currency purchases to bring about a slim majority for the center-right Mauricio Macri in the recent presidential election.
The root cause of this reversal of fortune was a global environment that could no longer support high commodity prices. In particular, China’s slowing growth has weakened demand for Latin American commodities. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has become increasingly authoritarian—recently amending the constitution to enable him to run for a fourth term—in response to the impact of the shrinking economy on popular support for his “dictatorship of the heart.”
In Venezuela, where oil represents 95 percent of export revenues, voters naturally turned on the ruling Socialist Party. While Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, remains president, the opposition now holds two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly.
Long before the Venezuelan election, Cuba’s government, which had become heavily dependent on Chavista largesse, was already taking pragmatic steps toward normalizing relations with the United States. Raúl and Fidel Castro—who know firsthand how the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main benefactor during the Cold War, affected their country—sensed the impending loss of Venezuela’s lavish subsidies and acted accordingly.
Even in Chile—perhaps the best-run economy in the region, but still highly dependent on copper exports—Bachelet’s approval rating has plunged to unprecedented lows, threatening her ambitious agenda of constitutional and educational reforms. Add to that the corruption scandals involving Bachelet’s son and weaknesses in the ruling center-left coalition, and the center right’s return to power in the 2017 presidential election seems increasingly likely.
But elections are not the only means of impelling change. With the most severe economic slowdown in 25 years expanding the budget deficit to record levels, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been forced to turn to austerity, including cuts in unemployment and welfare benefits. To be sure, massive corruption scandals have also severely eroded Rousseff’s standing, and are the key reason why she is now facing impeachment proceedings. But when the economy was growing, corruption was less politically explosive.
Similarly, after Venezuela’s army made it clear that defending Chavismo was not worth opposing the people’s will, Maduro was forced to pledge that the revolution would now “pass into a new phase.” And even if Macri had not managed to win Argentina’s presidency, his opponent Daniel Scioli—who served as vice president under Néstor Kirchner but represents a more moderate Peronism—probably would have had to implement pragmatic policies aimed at boosting market confidence.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Latin American left-wing politics comes from Colombia, where President Juan Manuel Santos has made achieving peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group, his top priority. A right-leaning president, Santos won reelection in 2014 by emphasizing these peace efforts, which garnered him strong support from the Left. Now, the two sides are on the cusp of a peace agreement, expected to be signed in March.
Even more than the current economic struggles, which are driven largely by global forces, peace in Colombia will reinforce for Latin American voters the benefits of pragmatism over ideology—something that even FARC has recognized. A new era of moderate, sensible policymaking could be what enables Latin America to diversify its economies and build more sustainable and inclusive prosperity. Project Syndicate
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.”
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