Butterfly Effect: Next President’s Big Challenge — Latin America - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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China and Russia are consuming America’s foreign policy debate. But the next president will first need to put out a fire closer to home.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Banging pots and pans, thousands of Chilean protesters thronged the streets of Santiago last weekend, as they have for months now, demanding action against police brutality, greater government accountability and a new constitution. “Wake up,” they’re cautioning President Sebastían Piñera’s administration. But their warning could just as well be aimed at Washington.

In the midst of a pivotal election campaign, with a recession and the pandemic to contend with, the United States’ bandwidth to think beyond its borders is understandably limited at the moment. Russia and China — again, justifiably — are hogging the little attention that the rest of the world can grab in this political season in America.

Yes, Beijing and Moscow will undoubtedly remain the biggest challenges for the U.S. in the coming decade. But America’s next president — whether it’s a reelected Trump or former VP Biden — will face a new challenge much closer to home than the faraway conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the South China Sea. Washington’s next big headache could come from Latin America.

Last Sunday, Bolivia elected 57-year-old Luis Arce as its next president in a landslide win for the leftist Movement for Socialism — widely known as MAS — of former leader Evo Morales. Just last year, Morales fled the country alleging a coup, after the Organization of American States (OAS) questioned a vote count in which he was shown victorious. Since then, the OAS analysis has itself been questioned by independent analysts. And now Morales and his movement are back in charge.

In Chile, protests against Piñera’s conservative, pro-business government are hardening ahead of next weekend’s landmark referendum on whether to continue with a constitution that was adopted in 1980 under dictator Augusto Pinochet. Across the border in Argentina, a Peronist government under President Alberto Fernández has aligned itself with the region’s left — so much so that Bolivia’s outgoing president, Jeanine Áñez, accused Buenos Aires of interfering in that country’s election. (Morales is currently in exile in Argentina.)

And despite all of the U.S.’ efforts, Nicolás Maduro remains in power in Venezuela, the opposition against him increasingly fractured ahead of parliamentary elections there in December.

If Trump remains in power, he’ll face an anti-conservative backlash from large parts of South America as the left rises there again. But Biden won’t find it much easier if he wins. Anti-American rhetoric has long been a central feature of the Latin American left’s politics, and those sentiments have strengthened over the past four years.

There’s a reason for that, and it lies in America’s patchy record in the region. I could take you back to America’s role — confirmed by declassified National Security Agency documents — in Brazil’s 1964 coup against democratically elected, left-leaning President João Goulart.

But we need look no further than the current protests in Chile. The South American nation became a test laboratory for neoliberal economics, embraced by Pinochet, whose own rise was facilitated by the U.S. The so-called Chicago Boys — a group of Chilean exchange students mentored by economist Milton Friedman — returned to dominate Chile’s economic policies in the 1970s. They led Chile to soaring economic gains that made it the envy of several other nations, but their policies also triggered deep income inequality that’s at the heart of the protests currently roiling the nation.

This history is important because of the way it frames the Latin American left’s deep-seated suspicion of Washington. Take Bolivia, for instance. There’s no evidence — as of now at least — that the U.S. had any role in the ouster of Morales last year. Yet the region’s left sees America’s hand behind any reversal it faces.

Managing that sentiment from a surging Latin American left won’t be easy for the White House, whoever inhabits it come January. If it’s Biden, he’ll face additional challenges. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly clashed with him. After Biden proposed a global fund to help Brazil battle the fires scorching the Amazon rainforest, Bolsonaro accused the former U.S. vice president of “coward threats” and “greed.” Bolsonaro is among a handful of right-wing populist leaders who are close to Trump.

Climate change could also pose a challenge for a Biden administration with Mexico. That country’s leader, Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, has — like Trump in the U.S. — doubled down on fossil fuel exploration, in contrast to the Democrats’ green agenda.

None of these are challenges America hasn’t faced before. Latin America had an even stronger left-leaning coalition in the first decade of the millennium, when Brazil was under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rafael Correa led Ecuador.

But dealing with these geopolitical details in its extended neighborhood will mean the next president of the U.S. will need to divert some of the resources he could otherwise have expended on countering China and Russia.

Yet every challenge is also an opportunity. If Biden wins and wants to truly convince the world that America under him won’t be a bull in a china shop, he could start by demonstrating his famed charm in winning over Latin American leaders whom he might not agree with on key issues. For Trump, it would be a chance to show just how good he really is at striking deals with those opposed to him.

Either way, it’ll be a key test for America’s next president. If the U.S. loses in its own neighborhood even temporarily, winning against China and Russia will become that much harder.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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