The term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?
The pink tide in Latin America, which saw a slew of left leaders elected throughout the region during the first decade of the century, has pretty much come to an end.
Right wing presidents have been elected in Chile (2010 and 2017) and Argentina (2015). In Brazil, the political right gained executive power with the impeachment of left president Dilma Rousseff. This development was followed by the election of right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, as president in 2018. While a left president was recently re-elected in Ecuador, policies are becoming increasingly business friendly. The main outlier is Mexico, which recently elected left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). That government is already facing rising business opposition.
When Latin America made the transition to electoral democracy in the mid-1980s, the process was hailed as marking the end to the region’s fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. Recent, events, especially in Brazil, tell a different story. Between 2006 and 2011, it seemed possible that the program of a moderate social democratic program could be reconciled with a neoliberal global orientation: Brazil dramatically reduced poverty, public spending was kept in check, while big businesses expanded both exports and investments abroad. Now we see a sharp turn to the political right in Brazil and the inevitability of policies that will contribute to social deterioration. With 99 percent of the votes in, right populist presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, leads with 46 percent of the vote. He is expected to win the second round of voting on October 28.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On May 24th, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the Brazilian Congress demanding the resignation of President Michel Temer and an end to his austerity measures. He has recently taken power, having engineered the removal of Workers Party (PT) president Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). The increasingly violent unrest was also fueled by revelations of corrupt practices on the part of Temer, videotaped paying off a witness in one of the country’s worst corruption scandals. There are now calls for Temer’s impeachment. The accusations against the president, however, are only the most recent manifestation of ongoing political upheaval over widespread corruption, involving most of the country’s political class and powerful business leaders.
For much of the twentieth century, unaccountable governments, generally unresponsive to public demands, characterized most countries of Latin America. While from the mid-1980s, electoral democracies seemed to have put an end to the cycles of left populist authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships, authoritarian features (lack of accountability, the absence of the rule of law, etc.) have remained firmly entrenched.
Regardless of who wins the U.S. election, a new era in the U.S. approach to international trade agreements is about to emerge. Donald Trump has railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the worst trade agreement ever signed by the U.S. and promised to withdraw support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) if elected. Although not as strident, Clinton, in a reversal of her past pro free trade position, now says that she would renegotiate NAFTA and has come out in opposition to the TPP. Of course, rising opposition to economic globalization and trade integration is not confined to the U.S. as Brexit amply illustrates. We now face a critical moment in the history of global capitalism.
It is now apparent that neither democracy nor the neoliberal prescription of dismantling the state has been successful in mitigating widespread corruption in Latin America. In Brazil, Eduardo Cunha, the powerful politician and former leader of the lower house, who orchestrated the ouster of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, has recently been arrested on corruption charges. Many more high-level Brazilian politicians and businessmen are currently under investigation, including the current president of Brazil, Michel Temer. Former President Lula has also been charged with corruption. Investigations of corruption in Argentina have reached top-level politicians and the businessmen closely allied with the Kirchner administrations. The Argentine federal prosecutor has indicted former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, who amassed a fortune during her tenure in office, on corruption charges. These charges have included, among other transgressions, intervention in a currency trade involving Argentina’s Central Bank that may have cost the country billions of dollars. Distressing for many observers, is the fact that these governments had come to power through the electoral process and were part of the “pink tide,” left leaning regimes that promised social justice in the wake of the persistence of poverty and high levels of inequality. The mainstream media (optimistically) characterized the widespread protests in Brazil against the Rousseff administration as indicating growing public anger against the mismanagement and greed of politicians who had promised improved distributive outcomes. Hence, there is the expectation that the next stage will involve important changes in policy and institutional arrangements that will finally put an end to, or at least mitigate, corrupt practices. This thinking will be convincing only to those with short memories.
As a variety of commentators have noted, the U.S., faced with rising inequality and a growing perception that only the wealthy have benefitted from economic growth, has begun to witness the demagoguery and populist appeals believed characteristic of nations south of the border. This blog entry considers another similarity: the obstacles faced by women politicians advocating “within system” change aimed to benefit the disadvantaged; it considers the difficult political obstacles presented by powerful economic and political interests that manipulate misogynistic sentiments to block change.
This blog entry was inspired by recent events in Brazil—the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro. It also owes a debt to one of my graduate students (a Mexican), who took my Gender, Globalization, and Development course this past winter. His remarks, particularly when the discussion turned to the Mexican case, emphasized the importance of achieving a better grasp of exactly what men think and why they behave the way they do. He observed that the literature on globalization, gender, and development, while accurately pointing out all of the ways in which women are exploited, subjected and repressed, does not really illuminate the ways in which male identity contributes to the problem. True, everyone agrees that patriarchy is at the root of female oppression, and that it involves power. However, we need to know why patriarchy has been so enormously resilient. This question is especially puzzling since patriarchy, particularly in its extreme forms, is arguably counterproductive to everyone’s welfare.
After twenty hours of debate, the Brazilian Senate voted this week to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff stepped down from the presidency on Thursday and was replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer. Given the strong sentiment in favor of initiating the impeachment process (55 votes in favour out of 81) Rousseff is not likely to return to power.
There are at least three important questions arising from these events.
The recent scandals in a number of Latin American countries raise the issue of institutional capacity and the vexing issue of what is at the root of state incapacity in Latin American countries, particularly in those cases that have made recent significant progress in reducing poverty. This blog entry argues that there are long-standing historical and structural conditions that make corrupt practices extremely resilient. The reform of formal institutions will not be effective unless it is accompanied by efforts to grapple with those underlying conditions.
In this entry, Teichman discusses the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), drawing on some of ideas elaborated on in The Politics of Inclusive Development. Policy, State Capacity and Coalition Building, 2016. (Link to publisher).
In this entry, Teichman discusses the Brazilian crisis, drawing on some of the ideas developed in The Politics of Inclusive Development. Policy, State Capacity and Coalition Building, 2016. (Link to publisher).
Brazil appears generously endowed with attributes that should contribute to the achievement of equitable and inclusive development: its ample agricultural land and mineral wealth affords a wide array of commodity exports while the country’s a large domestic market can support the development of industry and manufacturing. Nevertheless, Brazil’s historical development trajectory has been far from inclusionary, involving high levels of inequality, persisting poverty (reduced substantially only fairly recently), and exclusion. In the early 2000s, the World Bank identified the social exclusion of blacks, children, youth and indigenous people as one of the country’s most pressing development challenges (1). Brazil has had historically high levels of socioeconomic inequality, a feature sometimes linked to a dependence on commodity exports—one of the implications of the so-called resource curse. However, inequality and exclusion also arise from a history of highly unequal political power relations and the operation of exclusionary institutions.