Right wing populism, widely seen as a threat to liberal democracy, has been on the rise in the United States and Europe over the last decade. Latin America has a long history of both left and right populist movements, leaders, and governments. It also has had its share of programmatic political parties and leaders committed to social change and substantive democratization. Yet the region’s illiberal democratic features remain stubbornly persistent. There are lessons to be learned from the Latin American experience. Unfortunately, these lessons do not provide much reason for optimism.
Increasingly, right-leaning governments are replacing left regimes in Latin America or, if left governments continue to cling to power, they are adopting policies normally associated with the political right. There has been a shift back to some neoliberal policies that contributed to poverty and inequality in the past. Sympathetic observers placed great hope in the left regimes that came to power between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s—these regimes seemed to be on the right track since they reduced poverty substantially and made inroads into high levels of inequality. What went wrong?
While some observers, both journalistic and academic, maintain that Latin American politics is either moving to the political right or becoming less polarized, the clearest trend is rising political turmoil with a final destination that is far from clear. Political polarization continues to be an integral part of the Latin American political scene.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Mexican presidential election with a resounding majority of around 53 percent of votes cast—the highest since 1982 when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was still able to manipulate electoral outcomes. Mexican public expectations are high and the problems that the country’s new president must deal with are enormous. Making his task more difficult is that fact that AMLO has a heterogeneous support base with the various groups having different interests and priorities.
In the wake of its most recent economic crisis, Argentina has just signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The agreement will reinforce the austerity measures introduced by centre/right president, Mauricio Macri, since 2015. Most observers blame Argentine populism for the country’s current economic debacle and urge strict austerity, institutional reform, and an end to corruption as the solution. However, such measures are not likely to solve much because they do not address the root cause of populism. Understanding the enormous reliance of populism is key since the most pessimistic of observers suggest that the current Argentine crisis may be the harbinger of worsening economic and (political) troubles in the region and beyond.
Inequality is not good for democracy and it is, as is widely known, on the rise everywhere. While wealth has always been instrumental in shaping political outcomes in electoral democracies, the concentrated wealth that has arisen with economic globalization has produced ever-more brazen forms of authoritarian behaviours on the part of political elites as they respond to the interests of their powerful economic allies. While details differ from country to country, there is an important common denominator: the role of economic power in giving greater leverage to political claims. In the worst cases, the economically powerful buy politicians, the media, and troublesome individuals. In all cases, the alliance between political leaders and economic elites has coincided with a notable distancing between political leaders and their publics.
During the past two decades, China’s rapid economic growth and pressing need for commodities has resulted in increased trade and investment in Latin America, along with expanded lending operations to fund important infrastructural projects. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has largely neglected the region and at times shown outright disdain. Amid the current Chinese/American trade spat, President Donald Trump is visiting a South American country (Peru) for the first time this week where he is expected to warn Latin Americans against continued close trade ties with China. The question is: what does U.S. Chinese rivalry mean for Latin America? Under the current circumstances: perhaps some short-term gains for some countries, but in the longer-term, Latin America needs to find its own development path, one that is as independent as possible from both the ideologies and interests of these two powers.
Mexican, U.S., and Canadian negotiators are currently meeting in Mexico City for the seventh round of North American Free Trade (NAFTA) negotiations. This round will deal initially with the least contentious issues, thereby opening the way to tackling the most contentious one. With the Mexican presidential election on July 1 rapidly approaching, however, arriving at an agreement on a “modernized” NAFTA is looking increasingly problematic.
On Sunday, February 4th Ecuador held a popular consultation (consulta popular) on seven questions; five of which were binding while the remaining two are to guide the government in developing future policies. There are strongly opposed opinions on the meaning of this public consultation and on its consequences for Ecuadorian politics and for the political left. The case provides us with insights into the Latin American political dilemma.
Much has been written on the fight of millions from Global South countries in recent years. The main drivers of this out-migration have been civil war and/or high levels of social deprivation. This flow of migrants has had profound political implications in the Global North where it has been linked to the rise of new populist movements and parties. Indeed, the Trump phenomenon has played on growing American xenophobia that has been deepened by economic instability, labor precariousness, and regional poverty--all of these features have characterized the current phase of U.S. capitalism.
In a country of modern office towers, luxury condos, gated communities, and stylish outdoor cafes, 41 million people live in extreme poverty. In one major city, the extremely poor cover fifty city blocks, either living on the streets or in makeshift dwellings, without electricity, sanitation, or clean water. They suffer from the diseases of poverty, particularly intestinal parasites. This underclass is ignored, if they are not scorned, by the country’s middle and upper classes. This not a country in Latin America; it is the United States and the fifty blocks of desperately poor are in Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world.
Chile’s run-off presidential election, held on December 17, witnessed the victory of billionaire businessman, Sebastían Piñera over the left-wing candidate Alejandro Guillier. This will be Piñera’s second term in office; he served as president between 2010 and 2014. The victory was a substantial one, with Piñera winning 54.6 percent of the vote while Guiller, supported by outgoing left-centre President Michelle Bachelet, garnered 45.4 percent of the vote. Much of the press coverage of the election claims that the Chilean election is part of a general right-ward swing in Latin American politics. However, such an assessment papers over what is really going on—not just for Chile, but for other countries of the region as well.
Democracy, in its liberal democratic manifestation of free and fair elections, the guarantee of civil liberties, and the protection of minorities is under threat in many parts of the world. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is only the most obvious manifestation of the fragility of liberal democracy. There are reports that human rights violations, corruption, racism, and discrimination persist across Europe. A recent report by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe raises concerns about the damage caused to democracies by new populist movements and parties given their predisposition to undermine human rights and the protection of minorities. Most Latin American countries, which were under authoritarian rule from the 1960s until the early to mid-1980s, have particularly fragile democracies. Once again, the Latin American experience offers some important insights into the world-wide erosion of democratic practices.
The recently released Paradise Papers, named for the idyllic settings of many of the world’s tax havens, are a collection of nearly 13 million files detailing the financial affairs of the world’s global elites (politicians, corporate executives, and celebrities). This release follows on the heels of the Panama papers, released in 2015, and 3 earlier similar disclosures. Nearly one-half of the Paradise papers consists of documents from the offshore law firm, Appleby, headquartered in Bermuda. The remainder come from corporate registries in 19 jurisdictions mostly in the Caribbean. The papers provide insights into a global industry engaged in moving around big money to evade taxes and hide assets.
When charges against former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff resulted in her removal from office, protests throughout the country led many within the mainstream media to speculate that widespread public intolerance of corrupt behaviour would usher in a new public morality. Surely, such a demonstration of public anger against corruption would alert the country’s politicians to the fact that appropriation of the public treasury for personal gain would no longer be tolerated. Unhappily, this was naïve thinking as recent events so clearly demonstrate.
NAFTA (North American Free Trade) re-negotiations are underway with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visiting Washington and Mexico over the last week in an apparent effort to manage U.S. President Trump’s growing protectionist proclivities. The Canadian Prime Minister has called for stronger labor rights and environmental standards. He has also advocated for chapters protecting the rights of women and indigenous peoples. Improved labor standards means not just improved working conditions for Mexican workers but also better wages—this latter aimed at reducing the imbalance between Mexico’s cheap labor market and those of its northern neighbours, a disparity held to be in part responsible for the flow of American and Canadian firms southward. Trudeau’s pronouncements indicate recognition that NAFTA has not adequately taken into the account the interests of those who have been the “losers” in the agreement.
In Mexico, earthquakes and politics are closely intertwined. The country’s 1985 earthquake (centred in Mexico City with a magnitude of 8.1) left 10,000 dead and 30,000 injured. It proved to be a defining political moment in the country’s politics. The failure of the government of President Miguel Hurtado to respond to the devastation, including his refusal of outside assistance, prompted widespread grassroots social mobilization. Spontaneously, thousands of assistance groups organized themselves to come to the aid of earthquake victims. A great many of these newly formed civil society organizations, and their opposition to the government, has been fueled by its callousness in the face of the earthquake tragedy, and has formed the bases of a new political front (the National Democratic Front) that challenged the ruling party (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, PRI) in the 1988 presidential election. It is widely believed that the PRI presidential candidate lost that election although the party managed to hang onto power. Faced with clear evidence of impending defeat, the government closed down the country’s computerized voting system, rejigged the vote tally, and declared victory. But Mexico’s transition to electoral democracy had begun. The use of electoral fraud gradually diminished as it became important to convince the country’s new NAFTA partners that Mexico was a worthy trade partner. By 1997, the ruling party had lost control of Congress and by 2000 the presidency.
NAFTA renegotiations are in full swing. The second round is currently underway in Mexico City with the main issue emerging as differential labor standards among the three countries. The main concern on the part of Canadian and U.S. negotiators and their respective trade union movements is the much lower wages and poorer working conditions in Mexico as compared to the other two countries. The argument of course is that lower pay and poor working conditions in Mexico are at the root of the flow of jobs southward, putting downward pressure on labor standards in the U.S. and Canada and swelling corporate profits. The argument that NAFTA has been a bad agreement for working people in all three countries is a compelling one. That being said, can a renegotiated NAFTA agreement do anything much to address workers’ plight in Mexico? Some observers are optimistic, even seeing Trump’s push for better wages and working conditions as potentially positive for Mexican workers. However, I have my doubts.
Venezuela’s increasing slide into brutal authoritarianism has continued unabated. The country’s recently elected constituent assembly, boycotted by the opposition, has now taken over the powers of the country’s opposition-controlled Congress. With an estimated 124 deaths in opposition protests, international pressure against the regime has intensified. Much of that pressure has come from the U.S. In addition to U.S. imposed sanctions on some two dozen former and current Venezuelan officials, President Trump has declared that he will not rule out “a military option.” The Trump government is also contemplating the banning of oil shipments, a measure that would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan economy. All of this has supposedly come about in an effort to support the cause of Venezuelan democracy. Trump has characterized the country’s opposition anti-government protesters as engaging in a struggle ”for democracy, freedom, and rule of law,” and has declared that their just demands “continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator” (a reference to current President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro). The pot, I fear, is calling the kettle.
From January 2017, Venezuela’s political crisis, involving a sharp deterioration in social conditions, large-scale street protests, government repression, and human rights violations, has steadily worsened. With the election of a Constituent Assembly on July 30, the country has become increasingly isolated internationally. The European Union, most Latin American Countries, and the United States have all condemned this election, widely seen as a power grab on the part of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. Sanctions against Venezuela are under serious consideration, and the U.S. has threatened military intervention. This increasingly intense international pressure will not produce a lasting resolution of Venezuela’s predicament; indeed, it will probably not produce any resolution at all.