The recent elections in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, and the massive protests in Chile, Ecuador and Haiti suggest that Latin America’s political map is about to change. But it’s not likely to be the tectonic shift to the left that many are predicting.
More likely, it will be a political partition of the region into three blocs.
The first bloc will be led by the right-wing government of Brazil, the biggest country in the region, and will include the center-right governments of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Honduras and Guatemala. It is likely to be joined by Uruguay if center-right candidate Luis Lacalle Pou wins the Nov. 24 runoff elections, as most pollsters forecast.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who is often described as Latin America’s Donald Trump, is negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with the United States.
He has already become — perhaps by default — the new regional darling of Wall Street investors. In recent days, Brazil’s Congress passed a pension reform that the business community had been demanding for years, and Bolsonaro announced a $10 billion investment from Saudi Arabia.
At a time when most Latin American economies are stagnant or declining, Brazil’s is projected to grow by 0.9 percent this year, and by about 2 percent next year.
Bolsonaro has already suggested that if he signs a bilateral trade deal with the United States, Brazil may leave Mercosur, the free-trade bloc that also includes Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Under Mercosur rules, no member country can independently sign a bilateral trade deal with a non-member country.
Brazil’s departure from Mercosur would be devastating for Argentina, Bolivia, and other neighbors, whose exports to the giant Brazilian market are vital for their economies.
Diplomats in the region speculate that if Brazil’s economy keeps growing, the country will become the regional leader on foreign policy issues, such as efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela, or demand new elections in Bolivia following its dubious Oct. 20 election.
We may get a hint of Bolsonaro’s regional ambitions during his scheduled trip to Washington D.C., and South Florida on Nov. 25 and 26. Perhaps trying to impress Trump, Bolsonaro is almost sure to speak about Venezuela and other regional issues, diplomatic sources tell me.
Latin America’s second bloc, which many refer to as the “Group of Puebla,” will be made up of the economically troubled but politically powerful left-of-center governments of Mexico and Argentina.
Argentina’s President-elect Alberto Fernandez takes office Dec. 10. Monday, he is scheduled to travel to meet with Mexico’s leftist president Andres Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City.
Fernandez already has announced that he will follow Mexico’s steps and withdraw from a group of more than 50 world democracies — including the United States and the 28-country European Union — that has declared Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro an “illegitimate president.”
López Obrador and Fernandez have also congratulated Bolivia’s authoritarian ruler Evo Morales for his self-proclaimed Oct. 20 election “victory,” despite the fact that a 92-expert electoral mission from the Organization of American States denounced possible fraud by the Morales regime.
The region’s third bloc will be made up of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. They are, in most cases, bankrupt dictatorships, but retain some political influence in the region through loyal radical leftist groups who can take to the streets and make life difficult for many presidents.
Which of these three political blocs will prevail? In the short run, probably none.
But next year, if Bolsonaro signs a trade deal with the United States and stops making stupid anti-gay, anti-environment and anti-freedom of the press comments that make him politically radioactive to his potential allies in the region, Brazil may become a de facto regional leader by its sheer economic power.
Mexico and Argentina, whose economies are in decline, will be too consumed by their own internal problems; and Venezuela and Cuba will continue to be little more than regional troublemakers.
It’s going to be a somewhat chaotic political map, which may give Venezuela’s dictatorship some breathing room, but it won’t be the massive shift to the left that some predict.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera