Democracy Hasn't Made Latin America Any Less Turbulent
Politics in the region have become even more complex since the Cold War era of revolutions and military juntas.
BOGOTÁ — Latin America elected presidents last year in the region's three most populous countries: Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. Of those, only Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador retains acceptable popularity levels. This month, three more presidential elections are set to take place — in Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay.
In the meantime, Ecuador is in the grip of protests over the end of fuel subsidies, Peru has a president enjoying popular support but with no votes yet, and Colombians are pitted against each other on the streets worldwide over the fate of a former president, Álvaro Uribe, who still has fervent backers even as he faces criminal investigation. Over the weekend, violence spread in Chile after the government had announced rate fare increases for public transportation.
For many years the region was considered the "backyard" of the United States. The reality now is something entirely different.
For some Latin American countries, the world's problems are already having a local impact. The Fourth Revolution in technology, mass migration, left- and right-wing populism, and the "new economic mediocrity" — as the former IMF chief Christine Lagarde put it — affect all of us. But the formulae for responding differ in each place. It's also becoming clear that we can't always rely on the ballot box to resolve our intermittent crises.
Power is not handled today as it was in the mid-20th century. A recurring theme then was the need for a "world police," i.e. the United States. And the discourse revolved around being for or against communism. That global order arrived in Latin America in the form of the Cuban revolution, on the one hand, and the various right-wing juntas, on the other. Together the two extremes encompassed the region's entire ideological spectrum.
We can't always rely on the ballot box to resolve our intermittent crises.
Nowadays, improved education, poverty reduction and the emergence of a fully functional system of non-governmental bodies have together strengthened the social fabric in our countries. But as a result, governance is subject to a near constant reformulation of the democratic majority. It seems, in other words, that Latin Americans insist on renewing the mandates of their leaders every 24 hours, and anyone who lacks the requisite support faces a crisis sooner or later.
Peruvian police patrolling in front of the Congress after its dissolution — Photo: Mariana Bazo/ZUMA Wire
The Venezuelan economist and columnist Moisés Naím observes that these days, power is more easily won. It's also more difficult to wield and easier to lose, he argues. But what Naím doesn't appear to take into consideration are the long-term implications of all this. The unfolding developments in Peru, Ecuador and Argentina could have lasting consequences down the road. More specifically, sudden shifts in those countries could breath life back into the Bolivarian left, and that, in turn could provide a respite for the embattled Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro.
Anyone who lacks the requisite support faces a crisis sooner or later.
A recent interview with Maduro carried out by the former Ecuadoran president and fellow leftist Rafael Correa provided some interesting insights. In it, the head of Venezuela's appalling and illegitimate government admits that he's made mistakes. And yet, he frames himself always as a victim, especially of U.S. sanctions.
Correa, on the other hand, tries in the interview to present himself as a modern, sensible economist by criticizing the Venezuelan government for not charging for gasoline. Interestingly, this was just weeks before the protests that erupted in Quito against his more conservative successor. Is this a case of good cop, bad cop?
In Argentina, the social-democratic presidential candidate Alberto Fernández is being presented as the new face of Kirchnerism — the ideological outfit run by the last president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is now Fernández's running mate. Keep in mind, however, that Fernández was chief minister for Mrs. Kirchner and before, for her husband, the late President Néstor Kirchner. Who's the good cop in this situation?
In Bolivia, Evo Morales may win his next presidential election in the first round, or lose it in a run-off against a former president, Carlos Mesa. In Uruguay, the election is between Daniel Martínez of the ruling leftist coalition, and Luis Lacalle Pou, son of a former president. And in Colombia and Brazil, the fates of two former presidents (Uribe and Lula da Silva) are in the hands of the courts.
Indeed, taken as a whole, developments in this part of the world remind me of an old Argentine saying: "The beauty of it all is that it's starting to get ugly."