The Caravan of Central Americans making its way toward the U.S. border has led to the amassing of some 5000 U.S. troops along that border. This mass migration is driven by a confluence of factors that have a long-standing history in the region: most notably widespread poverty and violence. Central American countries, more than any other countries of the region, are, in the words of the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, “at war with the past.” They have a history of repressive dictatorships, extreme concentrations of wealth, and poverty. Part of that history, however, has involved the involvement of the United States in ways that have exacerbated the very problems that are causing the current massive out-migration.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I teach Latin American politics, I usually begin by counselling my Canadian undergraduates that it is important to resist the natural human inclination to pass judgement. It is tempting to do so because Latin American politics is rife with authoritarian strong men, corruption, and procedural irregularities. However, in the words of Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano, “History never really says goodbye. History says, 'See you later.'” This is particularly true when trying to make sense of the current turmoil in Venezuela. The Venezuelan crisis is the culmination of a complex and long historical process. Contrary to much of the mainstream media, it is not a good versus evil struggle between the forces of repression and the forces of democracy.
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.
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.
With the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998, the country became the darling of the intellectual left. Chavez pledged to confront the country’s reactionary oligarchy and redistribute the bounty from the country’s petroleum wealth to eradicate poverty, and deprivation. Until recently, supported by buoyant international petroleum prices, the “socialist” experiment seemed to work fairly well, although with intermittent and growing political tensions and increasing political polarization. Between 1999 and 2011, poverty and infant mortality rates declined. Today, however, the country faces a severe economic and humanitarian crisis involving inflation of over 700 percent, rising poverty, severe shortages in food and medical supplies, and burgeoning crime rates. Venezuela is now one of the world’s most violent countries.
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.
With the decline in commodity prices, Latin America faces the possibility of a downward political and economic cycle. During the last fifteen years, as the region has enjoyed economic prosperity with the rise of commodity prices on the international market, left/centre governments spent liberally on the expansion of social policy initiatives. These measures spread the wealth among all socio-economic groups in ways that have not occurred in the past. Poverty declined and there has even been a reduction in the region’s high level of inequality. However, these countries now faces a new critical juncture as left/centre governments face corruption scandals, loss of political power, widespread protests, and the rise of the political right. The commodity boom papered over both institutional inadequacies and hard redistributive decisions. Governments spread the wealth but did not substantially redistribute it, ensuring that middle and upper classes retained an inordinate share of state largesse. Faced with economic downturns and declining state revenues, governments will now have to make hard decisions about the allocation of diminishing state resources. This reality is already giving rise to an increased level of political polarization and contestation, a development that, in combination with the economic downturn itself, may worsen prospects for continued progress toward social inclusion.