Why 2019 May Be Remembered as the Year When South America Began to Collapse

The main conclusion one can draw from recent history is that, after the end of the Cold War, the region emerged as the target of great power politics in a world of increasing animosity, writes Valdai Club expert Fabiano Mielniczuk. In the future, 2019 may be remembered as the turning point that marked the beginning of a long period of violence and instability in South America. 

The bright period of stability and peace enjoyed by South American countries during the 2000s is gone. The leftist wave that swept the region and brought economic growth, income distribution and assured popular support for the parties in power is over.

The causes of the prosperity in the last decade are well-known: leftist governments were elected due to the discontent of the poorest with the negative effects of the neoliberal agenda advanced in the 1990s. Once elected, they benefited from the increase in prices of commodities propelled by China’s growth entering in a virtuous cycle of redistributive policies and popular support. However, China is not the only external factor behind the times of bonanza. This period coincides with the neglect of the region by the US, focused on expanding NATO in Europe and fighting the threat of Global Terrorism through a series of disastrous interventions in the Middle East and North Africa – not to mention the sponsoring of color revolutions in the space of the former Soviet Union. Russia, in turn, was recovering from the devastating decade of the 1990s and its involvement within the region was timid, but steadily improving in the second half of 2000s.

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The 2019 electoral marathon in Argentina ended on October 27 with the election of Alberto Fernández, a candidate of the Frente de Todos (Front for All) alliance. The new head of state will take office on December 10, and “without a peep”, will be forced to solve a complex set of vital tasks, primarily economic ones. Many of these problems have accumulated for decades, but their resolution is an urgent concern.
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Things changed after the crisis of 2008 and when the Democrats got to the White House in 2009. Appalled by the increasing influence of China and Russia, the US sought to reassert its influence in the Southern Hemisphere. Since then the left rule in South America waned. The demise started in 2012 with the impeachment of Fernando Lugo, in Paraguay, continued in 2016 with the impeachment of Dilma Roussef in Brazil and was badly aggravated throughout 2019: in April, by the breaking off between Rafael Correa and Lenin Moreno in Ecuador over the handing over of Assange to the British authorities; in May, by the deterioration of the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the attempt to overthrow Nicolas Maduro; in June by jailing the former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo in the US, and in November, by the military intervention that forced Evo Morales to resign the presidency of Bolivia. Despite all the differences in their territorial size, demographic composition, economic structure, ideological commitments and political systems, all these governments had one thing in common: they had intended to balance the historical American grip over the region by furthering economic, political and military ties with China and Russia during the interlude of American neglect.

For the reader familiar with the recent crisis in the region, however, this is a very partial narrative. 2019 has also been a year of violent protests against the new US-aligned governments that took office after the demise of the left. In Argentina, Macri faced social unrest during all his term and lost the bid for his reelection to a left-wing candidate. In Peru, a very serious political crisis emerged when the right-wing president dissolved the parliament and the latter dismissed the former. The military solved the impasse by siding with the president, but the future of the country is uncertain. In Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, former leftist and the newest western ally, faced the upheaval of the indigenous peoples against his economic policies and the future of his presidency is also at risk. Piñera, in Chile, was forced to call a National Constituent Assembly after millions of Chileans went to the streets to protest against increases in public transportation fees and the cost of life – demonstrations that resulted in 20 deaths and hundreds injured by the police repression. Like the leftist countries, these countries are very diverse and do not have much in common despite the fact that, in the ebb and flow of South American political spectrum, they tended to align with the US recently.

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It is clear that the perspective that privileges a structural approach in terms of great power politics is not the only one available. Most of the citizens of these countries have legitimate arguments to take to the streets and demonstrate against their governments, irrespectively of their ideological affiliations. Corruption, electoral frauds, state violence and economic distress are very strong motivations for protesting. Notwithstanding, these problems are known for a long time by these citizens and the region has never been in such a disarray. It invites the reflection on the common cause for this instability. The main conclusion one can draw from this very recent history is that, after the end of the Cold War, the region emerged as the target of great power politics in a world of increasing animosity. In the future, 2019 may be remembered as the turning point that marked the beginning of a long period of violence and instability in South America.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.