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Populism in Latam
Students protest in Medellin, Colombia, on Oct. 12. Having rejected
demogogues just a few years ago, the region is now poised to welcome them back.
Is Populism Making a Comeback in Latin America?
Predicting the future of Latin American politics is never easy. To paraphrase the 19th-century revolutionary Simón Bolívar, it is akin to plowing the sea. But even a casual glance over the political horizon should set alarm bells ringing. There is a real danger that outsiders with a stake in the region — from diplomats to global investors — are sleepwalking into 2018. Next year could herald the most consequential regional political realignment in a generation.
Nearly two out of three Latin Americans will choose a new leader over the next 12 months. Beginning in November, Chile, Paraguay, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil and will each hold presidential elections (Venezuelans are also scheduled to vote, although Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship is highly unlikely to allow a free or fair election). There are another eight Latin American elections scheduled in 2019.
There’s just one problem: It’s impossible to know which way these elections are going to go. At the moment, all of these countries feature pragmatic, moderate candidates at or near the top of the polls. Yet there is a real risk of hard populist turns to the right and the left that could radically change policies toward security, trade, the economy, and Latin America’s relationships with the world — including the United States.
In part, that’s because many foreign observers have gotten used to thinking about populism as a crisis Latin Americans have already overcome. The region experienced a leftist revival during the 2000s — a so-called “pink tide” swept in left-wing presidents from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They benefited greatly from a golden era of high commodity prices and relentless Chinese demand for natural resources. The tide started to turn, both politically and economically, once commodity prices began falling in 2011.
Restored to power, the region’s political moderates have produced positive economic results in recent years.
Most of the region’s economies are again growing after six years of crisis. This uptick is admittedly modest — about 1.2 percent expected regional GDP growth in 2017, compared to a projected global average of 3.6 percent. But the sound fiscal policies embraced by several governments have analysts predicting regional growth of around 2 percent in 2018.
There are growing signs of exuberance across the region’s financial markets. Brazil’s stock market traded at record highs in September, up nearly 100 percent from dramatic lows in early 2016. And Mexico’s peso is one of the world’s best-performing currencies this year — and this is after tumbling 15 percent the day after Donald Trump’s election last year.
But just because Latin America’s economies are improving doesn’t mean that liberal policies are here to stay. The specific backdrop for next year’s “election wave” varies from one country to the next. Generally speaking, however, voters are frustrated.
According to the latest polls, faith in democratic politics around Latin America is at historic lows. The proportion of Latin Americans supporting democracy slid from 66 percent in 2014 to roughly 58 percent today, with more than 40 percent saying they are prepared to support a military coup to tackle crime and corruption. Young people are especially disillusioned — roughly 20 million of Latin American 15-29 year olds are unemployed. Many are taking to the streets — and their digital equivalents — to vent their frustrations. The prospect of low-paying jobs is forcing a good number into the informal economy, including crime. Latin America already has 43 of the 50 most murderous cities in the world.
Consider the case of Brazil. The country’s largest companies have been in lockstep with President Michel Temer, who has overseen his country’s limited recovery this year. The country’s GDP — which accounts for 40 percent of total regional GDP – just expanded for the first time in almost three years: 0.6 percent so far in 2017, with projections of 2.2 percent in 2018. Temer’s caps on public spending and proposed entitlement reform are keeping financial markets satiated. An unprecedented, and overdue, corruption probe is also helping the country get its political house in order.
Yet Temer’s popularity ratings are at a rock-bottom 3 percent. This is largely owing to public disgust with far-reaching government corruption scandals and kickback schemes, and the fact that most Brazilians have yet to feel the stirrings of economic recovery. A majority of Brazil’s citizens want to see a shake-up of traditional politics and are suspicious of existing political institutions: Over 70 percent say they care less about the political parties competing for votes than the message of individual candidates, and more than 91 percent believe no political party is free of corruption. Almost 60 percent of Brazilians would like to see a president who does not belong to one of the three big parties. The ground is fertile for populists and reactionaries from the left and right.
Robert Muggah and Brian Winter/Foreign Policy/ October 23, 2017
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