Latin America was celebrated and reviled in the first decade of this century as the place where neoliberalism had been successfully challenged. The president of Brazil, the largest and most populous country in South America, was a former union leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as Lula. Leftists headed all three southern cone countries: Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Nestor Kirchner, the Argentine president, saved his nation from a prolonged depression by renegotiating the country’ debt, forcing international banks and investors to take massive write downs, as did Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Hugo Chavez used Venezuela’s oil wealth to lift many of his countrymen out of poverty and to aid Cuba and leftists elsewhere in the Americas. He, like Castro before him, turned his peripheral country into an obsession of the U.S. government, which grouped Venezuela with Iraq, Iran and North Korea as threat to American security and power. Leftist presidents in Bolivia and Ecuador drew inspiration from Chavez’s assertive independence and from the redistributionist and developmentalist policies of Brazil and Argentina. Peru’s opposing parties are less clearly defined ideologically. All of them are basically neoliberal and lose power when their leaders are linked to corruption scandals.
Despite significant successes in reducing inequality and raising most peoples’ standard of living while fostering rapid growth in the overall economy, leftist governments in the richest countries have lost power. Rightists won election in Chile in 2010 and 2018 (alternating with the social democrats) and in Argentina in 2015. Brazil has chosen leftists in the past four elections: Lula twice and then his chosen successor Dilma Rousseff also twice. However Rousseff was deposed in 2016 in a legislative coup, impeached by the conservative majority. While the charges against her were purely political, and the conservative who replaced her is genuinely corrupt as are most of the parliamentarians who voted for her impeachment, nevertheless Brazilian voters elected right-wingers to Congress making Rousseff’s removal and her replacement by a rightist politically possible.
Leftists remain in office in Ecuador, where Lenin Moreno replaced Correa in 2017, in Venezuela, where Nicolas Maduro won election in his own right in 2013 after assuming office following Chavez’s death, and Uruguay where in 2015 a leftist won the presidency for the third time in a row. Bolivian Evo Morales won a third term in 2014, but then in 2016 lost a referendum that would have allowed him to run for a fourth term in 2020.
How can we explain the right’s successes in the richest and largest South American countries? Parties in Latin America do not alternate election victories as frequently as they do in the U.S. and some other countries. There are no institutional or cultural reasons the left couldn’t remain in power, and indeed it has done so successfully in some of South America. Nor did leftists lose because they failed to improve living standards or expand the economies of their countries. Indeed it is the opposite. These governments have been more successful economic stewards than their rightist predecessors, yet in they were not rewarded for their achievements.
I see four reasons why the left has not been able to reap the electoral rewards for their policy achievements. First, all the countries, except for Chile, have a high level of corruption that spans parties of the left and right. While rightist tend to engage in far more massive corruption, voters get as angry at a president, like Lula, who got a beachfront apartment remodeled in return for official favors, as they do at the current president Temer, who is accused of taking massive bribes in return for handing over public lands and lucrative government contracts to large corporations.
Second, wealthy rightists own most of the media through the Americas. Even in Venezuela, despite fifteen years of leftist presidents, newspapers and television stations remain in the hands of conservatives who use those outlets to present biased anti-government reports. It is expensive and time consuming to create alternative media or social organizations that can challenge the monolithic views of established media. In any case, rightwing views are placed alongside popular television shows and splashy photos and news articles. Readers and viewers come for the entertainment, gossip and drama and then get spoon fed rightwing slogans and disinformation.
Third, the strategy of using China to escape U.S. dominance and challenge World Bank and IMF dictates has been only partially successful. Leftist governments were able to renounce debt and reject ‘structural adjustment’ because their countries realized ever more revenue by sell minerals and agricultural products to China. China in return loaned money without making political demands. While Chinese loans will in the end be more expensive in purely monetary terms than IMF or World Bank loans, they do not carry requirements to cut social spending or to privatize government assets. However as China’s economy has slowed its expansion and, even more significantly, begun to switch to domestic consumption rather than manufacturing for export the demand for Latin American raw goods has slowed. When economies slow, the incumbent parties pay the political price, and the incumbents have been left parties. If growth continues to slow, then the current rightwing presidents will be tossed out of office in the next elections.
Finally, despite growing national autonomy, Latin American governments still are heavily influenced by the U.S. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have shown little desire to encourage left governments. Indeed, Obama, like Kennedy half a century earlier, even gave tacit support to coups that drove leftists out of office. There is yet to be the wave of coups that overthrew democratically elected governments such as occurred in Kennedy’s time. However, the U.S. raised no objections to the 2009 coup in Honduras or to the stolen election that allowed the rightist president to take a second term there in 2017. Conversely, the U.S. has condemned left presidents’ efforts to run for additional terms of office and portrayed Chavez as a dictator no matter how many times he and his party won fair and open elections.
As more governments in Latin America turn to the right, Latin solidarity against U.S. interference declines. While the Organization of American States voted unanimously, with only the U.S. in opposition, to condemn the stolen Honduran election, that stance was only symbolic. No government took steps to ostracize the illegitimate Honduran government in either 2009 or 2017. Unless and until Latin American governments unite against outside interference, they all will be vulnerable to U.S. support for the efforts of their wealthy elites to turn elections and policies to the right. The day when China becomes so strong and the U.S. so weak that governments truly can neutralize one great power with the other remains in the (probably distant) future. Until then, we are unlikely to see a return to the heyday of leftist power in Latin America.