Neo-liberal conservatives now have to deal with the usual unsolved economic problems and the highest levels of urban violence in the world
The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazilian President rounds off a long South American electoral cycle which began in 2015 with Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina, followed by the successes of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru in 2016, Sebastián Piñera in Chile in 2017, Mario Abdo Benítez in Paraguay and Iván Duque in Colombia in 2018. In the main South American countries conservative politicians with neo-liberal leanings on economic matters have now returned to power in what feels like a throwback to the 90’s. Either tentatively as in Argentina or brazenly as in Brazil, we are once again hearing of “market” recipes to overcome the crisis: in other words we are once again considering overcoming a difficult economic situation by cutting welfare and privatizing whatever state assets are left.
On the foreign policy front, after years of multi-lateral and non-aligned rhetoric, which produced the USAN (the Union of South American nations), the expansion of Mercosur to include Venezuela, the birth of the G20 and the Brics group countries, Washington is once again the main focus. Even in this instance one can expect a return to the 90’s when the leadership was held by the various Fujimori’s, Menem’s, Bucaram’s and Cardoso’s, all vying with each other to be considered reliable by US diplomacy and international organisations, with the International Monetary Fund topping the list. That season left in its wake growing social inequality, a fire sale of public assets through shady international deals and scuppered educational and health services. In a couple of cases, Argentina and Ecuador, the countries actually defaulted. This led to the reactions by citizens that triggered the long wave that brought progressive governments into power throughout most of the subcontinent. Presidents with extremely diverse political cultures who attempted, with mixed fortunes, to revive the state’s authority to redistribute wealth, sharing an understanding of globalisation that led for example to the dismantling of ALCA, the Free Trade area of the Americas, promoted by the United States.
During the Noughties there has not only been a greater redistribution of wealth through welfare but civil rights have also flourished and South America, particularly thanks to the Brazilian leadership, ended up playing an important role on a global level. However, the limitations of this progressive wave were soon apparent, owing to the underestimation of two phenomena that would end up crippling the parties in charge. The first element to be overlooked was the gradual spread of urban violence, which rose exponentially as soon as the drug cartels started to manufacture “poor man’s drugs” in the favelas: social violence, extreme poverty, easy money and a vast quantity of weapons in circulation generated an explosive cocktail that changed the conditions in entire cities for the worse.
The second front that was swept under the carpet was the rule of law. Instances of corruption, a long-standing and ingrained practice in Latin American countries, were not stamped out or even contrasted by left wing governments, and in actual fact a good number of progressives used illicit channels to fund their political movements or line their own pockets. And the first indications that this plague was spreading into the left wing camp were arrogantly ignored. This explains the victories of Macri and Bolsonaro, but the same reasons could have produced a change in management class even in Venezuela, if the country had not witnessed a return to authoritarian rule.
The context in which the problems listed above got completely out of hand was the economic crisis that afflicted the world from 2008 onwards and reached Latin America in 2012. The crisis brought to light the limitations of a number of progressive formations which, though capable of redistributing wealth when the going was good, proved incapable of governing when things got rough, and were thus overwhelmed by the dramatic short circuit brought about by public indebtedness allied with climbing inflation.
The traditional conservatives in the Piñera mould, or the Bolsonaro radical types, this time round have managed to lay claim to the “change” button, in an alternating cycle between conservative neo-liberals and progressive forces which, since the return of democracy, seems to be repeating itself. Practically no one has been elected based on their economic policies: votes have been won by promising to stamp out violence, criminality and corruption. The paradox is that the citizens who have granted the majority to conservative Presidents don’t agree with much of their economic programme. The rights acquired during the previous political period are not to be touched. This is the message that has been passed on to the new power mongers.
The main difference between the new Presidents and their predecessors, making the appropriate allowances, is that the latter had a geopolitical vision. They had come to terms with the dynamics triggered by globalisation and, by waving the old flag of Latin American unity, had essentially built the foundations of a regional community, which could then take on a different stance towards its various global partners. The Middle East, Africa, Russia and particularly China have become new strategic partners and new markets, enabling the subcontinent to break its historic dependence on Europe and the United States. The most obvious limitation was that, with the partial exception of Brazil, the condition of commodity exporters had an impact on the prosperity of South American countries and the possibility of enacting political decisions ended up depending on raw material trading cycles. All it took to send the whole plan awry was a slowing of the Chinese economy and the long European recession. At the current stage old paths are being beaten once more: each country is back to weighing in separately to get the best deal.
Over the course of the last two decades, unlike what happened in the past, the US’s impact in Latin America has been more down to economics that politics. The United States market imports 220 billion dollars’ worth of goods from Latin America, while its companies invest 20 billion dollars a year south of the Rio Bravo; vast sums that are supplemented by the 40 billion dollars that Latino families living in the US send back to their countries of origin each year. Amid these new and old situations, the asymmetric relationship between the United States and Latin America is in any case a historical fact, and it doesn’t look like Washington has any intention of having countries where it has always exercised its power unilaterally becoming “partners”. Donald Trump, who has no strategic outlook on South America, will exploit the sentiment of the new Presidents in his favour by offering or denying access to United States markets. As his only real interest in Latin America is linked to immigration and security, the priorities of his presidency will focus on Central American countries and Mexico.
If the “joint factors” of the economic crisis, the increase of violence and political corruption has generated the current turmoil, the fact remains that for South America the slowing of the globalisation process and the tendency to review multilateralism is undoubtedly a problem. One of the great missed opportunities for the Mercosur countries, and also for the European Union, is the trade agreement that has languished for 15 years due to vetoes from both camps, particularly on the agricultural front. It’s hard to see how the deal could be clinched in the current climate. This failure will be compounded by the foreseeable standby imposed on the Mercosur itself, as announced by the Brazilian President Bolsonaro, who in his first visit abroad ignored Argentina, its long-time trade partner, in favour of Chile, a country that is historically allergic to multilateralism.
Another significant development in recent years is the deterioration of democracy, among successful or failed attempts to change its fundamental rules, as witnessed in Bolivia, Venezuela, Paraguay and the clashes between state powers seen in Brazil. Oppressed and angry citizens are now questioning democracy and contemplating the return of “strong leadership”. During the past years there have been considerable steps taken regarding individual and social rights which today some would like to see restricted. To what extent the new Presidents will be able to come up with a positive and inclusive narrative having taken power remains to be seen. Conversely, we’ll have to wait and see how long it takes their electorate to “discover” the economic thinking of their new representatives, which in the past they had violently rejected.
Much has been written about the crisis of the left in Latin America, which still represents tens of millions of voters, but very little about the crisis of the historic centre-right. The same centre-right that has been strangled by the radical right in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, is on life support in Argentina, and a minority, though in government, in Chile. If the only cards that the new conservatives have up their sleeves are a security clamp down and neo-liberal recipes, the duration of their governments is set; they won’t last long. The point is what will take their place, given the constant divisions and mutual slagging on the other side. What’s missing in Latin America is a joint vision that might provide a solution to the criminality, corruption and poverty. Without it, the politics of South American countries will hover between alternating populisms, instability and economic mayhem. In an international climate where everyone seems out to save their own bacon, this political fragmentation and the end to any South American stance on globalisation is not good news for the future of multilateralism.
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