Why you should care
Economic mismanagement is bringing down the region's leaders — left and right.
During his campaign to be Brazil’s president in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed by a man in the crowd — an attack that left him “almost dead” when he got to the hospital, according to his son Flavio. But the controversial congressman — dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” — came back to life to win the election.
Yet now his government and other right-wing administrations in Latin America are seeing their popularity wane, prompting some to ask whether the man with the knife could be lurking in the crowd again, at least metaphorically, to take another stab.
The region’s political climate had seemed very different when, in 2014, Mauricio Macri’s win from the center-right in Argentina was seen as heralding the end of the pink tide of left-wing governments that had dominated Latin America for more than a decade. Macri replaced Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a Peronist. In Chile, billionaire President Sebastián Piñera came back to power at the end of 2017 — he had earlier ended two decades of left rule in the region’s most stable economy when he first won in 2009 before losing in 2013. Also in 2017, the pro-U.S. Lenin Moreno replaced Rafael Correa as president of Ecuador. And with his win last October, Bolsonaro ended the political hegemony that the left-wing Workers Party had enjoyed in Brazil since early this century.
But when Macri seeks a second term in today’s elections in Argentina, he’s widely expected to lose to Peronist leader Alberto Fernández, with Kirchner as his vice president, after the incumbent president failed to deliver on his promises to restore the country’s flailing economy. Argentina is in deep recession, the peso is plunging, and the country’s inability to pay its $100 billion foreign debt bill has forced Argentina to turn to the International Monetary Fund for assistance.
It’s not about left or right — it’s about populism laced with a heavy dose of nationalism.
Duncan Wood, the WILSON CENTER
In Brazil, Bolsonaro — a former military officer who has been charged by his own attorney general of inciting hate speech against women and Black and gay people — has seen his popularity plummet. Nearly 32 percent of Brazilians think his government is “bad” or “very bad,” compared to 11 percent when he took office in January, according to the polling firm IBOPE. His handling of the Amazon fires has worried voters and international partners alike, as have corruption allegations surrounding his family and party, among other factors.
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, Moreno — who was Correa’s vice president before a bitter split — this month faced nationwide protests over an unpopular austerity package. Since taking power, he has raised taxes, liberalized labor laws and cut public spending to bring down the public debt that grew under Correa’s watch. And in Chile, Piñera is trying to placate similar protests against rising costs of living and growing inequality.
“Right-wing governments are good at getting elected and stirring up discontent and attacking the opposition, but they aren’t very good at governing,” says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network and a researcher at Reading University in the U.K.
Ledebur argues that, while some of the rhetoric used by leaders such as Bolsonaro can help gain enough support from sections of the population to win elections, turning that into policy turns most people away. “The population gets to a point quite quickly where they can’t tolerate it any further,” she says.
Except that the accusation of poor governance could equally be leveled at the left-wing administrations in the region. Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua are both up to their necks in social and economic crises pushing millions of people to leave in search of a better life. Many investors fear that a return of Peronists in Argentina could make things worse for that country.
Another left-ruled nation, Bolivia, is witnessing some of its biggest protests in recent years amid allegations that leftist president and former coca grower Evo Morales rigged the election to win his fourth term. Term limits on his presidency were lifted in 2017, two years after Bolivians voted against doing so in a referendum.
Still, some of the most popular politicians in the region are from the left. There’s the almost cultlike love for former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, currently in prison on corruption charges. Mexico’s Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (widely known as AMLO) is still enjoying popular support despite key failures. Last week, his military was forced to retreat by cartel henchman when trying to arrest the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in the state of Sinaloa. AMLO has also performed an about-face on migrant-friendly policies in what has been broadly viewed as a capitulation to U.S. President Donald Trump, whom voters widely expected him to stand up to.
What helps AMLO — like populists of every political strain — is his messaging, says José Antonio Caballero Juárez, a law professor and analyst at CIDE University in Mexico City. “His plain language and the over-simplification of events generates two things — people identify with his definition of their problems, and they understand his simple solutions,” Juárez says. “That means they relate to him and trust him.”
Ultimately, though, the swift turn away from Latin America’s embrace of the right is less about ideology and principals than it was when the major left-wing administrations rose to power in the 1990s and 2000s, say experts. The region’s economic challenges — Latin America is predicted to grow at just 0.2 percent in 2019 — are fueling the discontent, suggested Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, in a recent article. “In countries where salaries are not growing, being asked to pay even a little more just to move around is enough to push people out on the streets.”
For the moment, that’s fueling “disenchantment with capitalism and the economic status quo,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. But unless they keep people fed and employed, left governments in Latin America won’t do much better. “It’s not about left or right — it’s about populism laced with a heavy dose of nationalism,” says Wood.