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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.