Only very recently, observers of Latin American politics were proclaiming the decline of the populist left “pink tide, the various regimes that had come to dominate politics in many countries of the region through much of the 2000s. In 2015 and 2016, centre right leaders obtained a string of notable victories. Mauricio Macri was elected president in Argentina, the opposition in Venezuela obtained a landslide victory in congressional elections, Workers Party President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was removed from power through impeachment proceedings, and President Evo Morales of Bolivia lost a referendum to allow him a fourth term as president. However, recent events suggest that the left remains tenaciously resilient.
Recent Left Successes
In the midst of ongoing political crisis and worsening economic difficulties, the centre-right Brazilian president, Michel Temer, has a dismal 12 percent approval rating. Meanwhile, despite facing corruption charges that could derail his bid for the presidency in 2018, former left President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) is currently leading in the polls. In Ecuador, former left president Rafael Correa’s successor, Lenin Moreno, defeated his right banker opponent in that country’s recent presidential election. In Mexico, Donald Trump’s American First trade and anti-migration policies have given rise to increasing public support for Mexico’s left centre presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). AMLO, who narrowly lost his bid for the presidency in 2006, is leading the polls for the 2018 election. Despite losing the referendum in 2016, Evo Morales, who remains very popular, may nevertheless run for a fourth presidential term. The dearth of alternative candidates, combined with various types of political manipulations, such as pressure on a quiescent judiciary, may facilitate him doing so. Even former Argentine left populist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, although the least likely among populist leaders to be successful, is contemplating a comeback. President Macri, who has stepped up infrastructure spending in regions of left support (a notable departure from his austerity agenda), is clearly worried about the Argentine opposition left.
The Right’s Policy Vacuum
The end of the commodity boom signalled a drop in public support for incumbent governments in the region--a common scenario when there is a drop in economic growth. This development opened the way for the advance of political right. In Brazil and Argentina especially, the political strategy of the opposition centre-right was to foster public opposition by condemning the corrupt practices of left government officials. While corruption is unquestionably an important issue that politicians of all political stripes need to confront, right political leaders have placed much greater emphasis on this issue than on the austerity and market liberalization programs that are at the very heart of their policy agenda. As the Brazilian case so clearly demonstrate, the Latin American right is no less guilty of corrupt practices than the left. The right was waiting for the right moment to engineer a return of its orthodox neoliberal agenda. It has seemingly done so in Brazil and Argentina. Large-scale protests against austerity have contributed to the political crisis in Brazil while the glimmer of some economic improvement has succeeded in avoiding this scenario, so far, in Argentina.
The prescription of the Latin American political right for alleviation of the current downturn in economic growth involves cutbacks in government spending (impacting social programs for the vulnerable), increased labor flexibilization (essentially making it easier to hire and fire), the reduction in taxes on corporations, and hikes in the prices of public services. This policy formula (with the exception of labor flexibilization) has been a mainstay of every economic downturn in the region since the 1960s (usually under IMF auspices), and it has never brought about prosperity. Indeed, all of the recent economic research has rejected the notion that austerity is any sort of panacea. The lesson of the debt crises of the early 1980s, during which severe austerity was imposed in attempt to force country’s to continue payment on their debts, produced sharp increases in poverty and inequality and no growth. Labor flexibilization, as a strategy to increase overall employment, is not effective. What it does do is create more precarious, low paid employment.
The Left’s Challenges
The left regimes of the 2000s achieved more than any former Latin American governments in addressing poverty. These regimes even made inroads into the reduction of the traditionally high levels of inequality. For the first time, Latin American governments marshalled the windfall from commodity booms to secure improvements in popular welfare. These regimes also sought to expand international trade and none has engaged in reckless borrowing and spending. Bolivia’s macroeconomic management has been particularly prudent. It is no accident therefore that some of these populist left leaders have retained the loyalty of their supporters or that, once the dust of the commodity boom drop has settled, they should recoup that support in the face of austerity measures (Brazil).
However, left leaders and regimes are not without their faults. While they directed expenditure toward improved social welfare, they did not take measures to ensure that improvements were sustainable once the commodity bonanza ended. An industrial strategy (broadly defined) that supports employment generating activities is essential. Ideally, such a strategy would involve research and innovation in new areas of export potential. The germ of an industrial strategy did not emerge until 2011 in Brazil; by then it was too little too late. Reducing the extent of commodity dependence is essential to economic stability, sustained improvements in social welfare, and political stability.
Another serious challenge facing left governments is their populist authoritarian tendencies—their disregard, in a number of notable cases (Ecuador under Correa, Bolivia under Morales) for the niceties of liberal democracy. Correa, for example, passed a law to curb the freedom of the media (largely in the hands of the critical political right), a measure that his successor has promised to rescind. A move on the part of Bolivia’s Morales to be re-elected, despite a referendum that showed a majority of the public opposed, may signal a drift toward Venezuela-style authoritarianism. As I suggest in an earlier post, the democratic credentials of both the political right and the left in the region are suspect given the tumultuous histories of most countries. However, as the Venezuelan case demonstrates, maintaining a hold on power by dismantling or infringing on the operation of democratic institutions will quickly erode the left’s support base, solidify the opposition, and undermine its social goals. Finally, probably the most difficult challenge is reducing the level of corruption—a particularly intractable problem because corruption is closely bound up with the tried and true methods of maintaining power and political stability. Nevertheless, it must be addressed.