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?
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.
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.
On July 17, the Trump administration released a document outlining its negotiating objectives for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The first round of the renegotiations will begin on August 16. While the U.S. administration claims that it has no deadline for the completion of talks, the reality is that the 2018 Mexican presidential election could make the achievement of U.S. goals considerably more difficult. However, renegotiations are very likely to be fraught with difficulties even before the new Mexican administration takes office in late 2018.
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.
U.S. politics is becoming increasingly polarized, characterized by growing rigidity, extremism and, at times, incidents of violence on the part of pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators. What many find most puzzling about the current U.S. administration is how President Trump can continually make what is regarded as outrageous statements without those statements having a substantial detrimental impact on his core base of support. True, his 37% approval rating is one of the lowest so early in a presidential first term. However, even this level of support is difficult to fathom. At the same time, many Democratic supporters have been unwilling to grant the new government even minimal legitimacy, apparently convinced that Trump’s road to the White House was paved with Russian complicity. Europe is now more politically polarized than ever before with the rise in popularity of populist right fringe parties, the result, according to reports, of a general ideological shift.
A growing number of U.S. observers are watching the impact of Donald Trump policy pronouncements on Mexican politics with considerable unease. Left populist leader, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO as he is widely known), currently the favoured candidate in the 2018 presidential election, has been variously characterized as a Mexican Donald Trump and as a Mexican Hugo Chavez. In some ways, these characterizations are apt. AMLO is a charismatic leader, who has regularly delivered tirades against free trade (including NAFTA), rigged elections, corruption in high places, and the country’s ruling elite, which he refers to as the “power mafia.” He voices strong opposition to U.S. Imperialism, a position that is proving particularly attractive given President Trump’s support for a wall along the Mexican U.S. border, his threat of a 20 percent tariff on goods coming from Mexico, and his promises to deport Mexicans working in the United States. President Trump’s recently leaked suggestion that the U.S. might send in its military to help the Mexican government round up its “bad hombres” is only the most recent offensive remark contributing to growing Mexican nationalist sentiment.
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.