Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Is the Left Fading Across Latin America?

Leftist governments in Latin America have suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks. In Venezuela, the opposition trounced President Nicolás Maduro’s party in the Dec. 6 legislative election. In Argentina, business-friendly Mauricio Macri took office as president after defeating his ruling-party opponent. Chile’s president has seen her approval rating sink, and Brazil’s president is facing an impeachment attempt. Do these developments have enough in common to signal a political shift in the region? Or are these countries’ political changes just a result of a downturn in the economic cycle caused by the boom, and then bust, of commodity prices? Are the leftist politicians who have taken a hit merely victims of external economic factors, or are their own policies to blame?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "The populist left is badly damaged, but it is not dead. It is perhaps the end of a cycle, but it is hardly the end of an era. Elections in Venezuela and Argentina could be viewed as evidence of the continuing strength of leftist populism in Latin America. In Argentina, after 12 years of Kirchnerism, four years of declining growth, high inflation and tight currency restrictions, the government’s candidate lost by less than three percentage points. Yes, the Venezuelan government lost in a landslide. But, despite suffering the world’s worst economic performance and highest inflation, the government still won 41 percent of the vote with a bland and clumsy president in charge. Remember, too, that it was only a year ago that left-wing President Rousseff was re-elected in Brazil. Now most Brazilians want her impeached—but that shouldn’t be a surprise given the nation’s deep economic slump, the government’s muddling response and the massive corruption scandals that have tarnished the government. But by now, almost every political party has lost a large measure of credibility. The opposition has been erratic and lacking in constructive alternatives. Sure, Latin American centrists and conservatives have gained ground, substantial ground, this year. But it is not because of their policies or programs—and certainly not because of their ideology. Rather, this has occurred because left-wing governments like those in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela have made such a terrible mess of things. That’s good news. It is also good news that the new leadership will have to do better than their conservative predecessors or they, too, will get the boot from increasingly pragmatic voters."

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research: “The recent setbacks for left governments do not represent a political shift in the region, but neither are they primarily the result of changes in the international economy. They have different causes in each case. In Brazil, the crisis is perhaps the most self-inflicted. Beginning in 2010, as world exports were slowing, the Brazilian government began to implement a series of pro-cyclical economic policies—including interest rate hikes, drastic cuts in public investment, targeting higher primary budget surpluses and other measures that reduced aggregate demand. President Dilma Rousseff doubled down on these policies after her re-election, appointing a right-wing finance minister, and the result was the current recession. In Venezuela, the biggest problem was the fixed, overvalued exchange rate, which combined with an artificially induced shortage of dollars in the fall of 2012 brought on an inflation-depreciation (in the black market for dollars) spiral that took the black market dollar from 12 bolívars per dollar in October 2012 to more than 800 today, and inflation from 18 to more than 100 percent. Argentina also developed a black market for dollars beginning in 2011, but was on its way to returning to borrowing from international financial markets until a New York judge of questionable competence decided to take more than 90 percent of its creditors hostage on behalf of the vulture funds. But in none of these countries have voters opted to go back to the neoliberal past, which saw little or no growth of per capita income (and considerable negative growth in Venezuela) for two decades prior to the 21st century, and no poverty reduction (unlike the large 21st century declines in poverty). The current governments will have to resolve their economic problems, or they will lose power; but Latin America’s second independence and overall leftward shift is not going to be reversed.”

Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board, president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior policy advisor at Chatham House: “The electoral changes in several Latin American countries over the past few months have as much to do with citizen disaffection with incumbent politicians as with economic policies that have driven some countries to the brink of bankruptcy. Certainly in the cases of Venezuela and Argentina, the ongoing factors of high inflation, currency devaluations and scarcity of consumer goods led electorates to choose change over continuity. Unfortunately, in the case of Maduro and his ‘chavista’ government, the defeat he suffered will not lead to any significant improvement in the lives of Venezuelans, at least not for the time being. The unending drop in the price of oil and difficulties in obtaining foreign currency will mean that the economic situation will get much worse. It remains to be seen how both Maduro and Macri can govern with opposition majorities in their legislatures and whether there is any improvement in the global economic scene. Brazil is a different case: the far-reaching Petrobras corruption scandal, together with the precipitous drop in commodity prices and wavering economic policies of the Rousseff administration mean that the country’s GDP probably lost close to 4 percent last year. Growing dissatisfaction with Dilma and the politicians who are being investigated for serious corruption has led to an impeachment effort, which is likely to destabilize her government for the next six months at least. While external factors are important in explaining the current situation in these countries, domestic policy decisions, corrupt politicians and leaders serving for lengthy and multiple terms are certainly part of the problem.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, president of Latin Intelligence Corporation: “Venezuelans voted against scarcities in food, medicines, legal, viable employment and security, all fueled by the disastrous policies of a socialist government. Argentines voted against a lack of domestic and international faith and trust in Kirchnerism. Chileans are taking to the streets to protest against favoritism and perceived lack of opportunity for the majority. Brazilians are threatening to impeach their president because they are fed up with structural and institutional weaknesses that facilitate corruption at the highest levels of industry and government while a once-buoyant economy falters. To say this augurs a turn to the right is premature, for it ignores the fact that the expectations revolution created by the commodities boom has hit reality’s wall: whether on the right or the left, governments no longer have the revenues that enabled them to implement distributive policies that raised millions out of poverty and helped build emergent middle classes across the region. While expectations remain high, governments’ revenues stagnate or decrease. It is within this gap that discontent over and rebellion against those in power translate into change at the polls. If the newly elected, working with diminished resources, fail to deliver quickly on their promises of ‘a better tomorrow,’ they will soon find themselves victims of the same ‘vote them out’ syndrome that prevails today. Those who applaud the demise of the left cannot forget that governments of the left and of the right have been equally responsible for the disastrous, often murderous, personal and collective havoc their abuses of power and misguided policies have bestowed upon their citizens.”