Bolivian President Evo Morales’ defeat in last week’s referendum to extend his term in office is a new sign of the demise of Latin America’ leftist populist leaders, and of the beginning of a new political cycle in the region — the era of pragmatism.
After twenty five-years of ideological slogans — first with the pro-free market governments of the 1990s, and most recently with late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s “Socialism of the 20th Century” revolution in the 2000’s — Latin Americans are suffering from political fatigue.
Voters in Argentina, Venezuela, and Bolivia have dealt crushing defeats to their countries’ leftist populist leaders in recent months, despite facing seemingly unsourmountable electoral obtacles. There are also signs that political winds are changing in Ecuador and in Brazil, the region’s biggest country.
Last November, Argentina elected President Mauricio Macri, a center-right engineer who shuns ideological labels and presents himself as a doer. He stands in sharp contrast with his predecessor, former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was an ally of Venezuela and made fiery speeches against U.S.-style capitalism almost daily.
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In Venezuela, despite massive voter intimidation and a government-run electoral system that gave huge advantages to pro-government candidates, the center-right MUD opposition coalition won the Dec. 6 legislative elections by a landslide. The opposition coalition now controls the National Assembly, and is considering constitutional moves to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
In Bolivia, despite Morales’ control of the electoral tribunal, congress, the judiciary and much of the media, the opposition won the Feb. 21 referendum. Morales, who took office in 2005, had called the referendum to change electoral rules and run for a fourth term, which would have allowed him to stay in power until 2025.
In Ecuador, radical leftist president Rafael Correa has said he won’t seek a new re-election next year. Under his term, Ecuador has restricted press freedoms and squandered much of its oil bonanza of the past decade. Now, facing hard economic times, Correa vows to step aside.
In Brazil, the region’s biggest country, President Dilma Rousseff is facing a possible congressional impeachment or a decision by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to annul her 2014 election victory and call for early elections in connection with the Lava Jato (Car Wash) campaign financing scandal.
Rousseff’s top campaign strategist, Joao Santana, was arrested last week under charges that he received $7.5 million in illicit contributions from the state-run Petrobras oil company for his work during the president’s campaign.
Guillermo Lousteau, a professor of political science at Florida International University and head of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy, says Latin America’s shift away from Chavez-styled leftist radicalism started long before Macri, when Peru’s President Ollanta Humala was elected in 2011.
“Humala was close to Chavez, but quickly realized that the Chavez era was waning, and took a different direction,” Lousteau says. “Now, across the region, we are seeing a trend toward less ideological presidents.”
My opinion: I agree. We are seeing the start of a new political cycle in Latin America, after 15 years in which leftist populist caudillos benefited from their countries’ biggest economic bonanzas in recent history thanks to record world prices of oil and other commodities.
Now, with commodity prices down, leftist populist caudillos have no money to spread around, people are resenting their rampant corruption and the fact that they failed to invest in quality education, health, and infrastructure. Their governments are falling apart.
What’s sad is that the upcoming generation of Latin American leaders will have to deal with their countries’ economic downturn, and adopt much-needed belt tightening measures. In a few years, the former populist caudillos will be telling people, “You bought your first car when we were in power.” Few will remember that their populist fiestas wrecked their countries’ economies for years to come.
If Latin America wants to break its cycle of recurrent populist regimes, its new generation of pragmatic leaders should seek to write into their constitutions strict controls against irresponsible spending, and mandatory investments of a percentage of their countries’ commodity income to fund quality education, health and infrastructure. That would be the best legacy of Latin America’s new era of pragmatism.
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