The left is in retreat in Latin America

Miami Herald Editorial Board

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri at the government house in Buenos Aires.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri at the government house in Buenos Aires. AP

The terrible events in Brussels last week have eclipsed President Obama’s visits to Cuba and Argentina, but they do not diminish the significance of the trip and the transformational moment that Latin America is undergoing.

The left has lost decisively in three recent elections in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, and it is not faring much better elsewhere.

The heralded “21st Century Socialism” of Venezuela has been exposed as a junk heap of unworkable schemes. In Colombia, the region’s longest-running guerrilla movement is near capitulation. In Brazil, Workers’ Party hero and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the focus of a gigantic corruption scandal. His protégé, President Dilma Rousseff, faces calls for impeachment.

And then there’s Cuba. Once the beacon for regional insurgency, it has become a supplicant for international investment from the capitalists it once condemned.

The left is in retreat throughout the region. But this is no time for gloating. Latin America still faces serious challenges: Criminal violence in Central America. Grinding poverty. Mediocre educational systems. Ingrained corruption and inequality, weak judicial and law-enforcement systems. That’s just a partial list.

Yet certainly Latin America is in a better place than it has been in a long time. There are lessons to be learned about how it got here and how to end once and for all the up-and-down cycle of its recent history.

One is that good times built on easy money never last. Venezuela is Exhibit A. Today’s turmoil was preceded by the decade-long oil boom that fed the late Hugo Chávez’s ego and allowed him to build a regional alliance of like-minded leaders. When the money ran out, so did the popularity of Venezuela’s government, at home and abroad.

Another lesson lies in the destructive power of corruption. Brazil, too, enjoyed an oil and commodity boom and new-found wealth, part of which, to his credit, Mr. da Silva used to pull many Brazilians out of poverty. But he and his party turned the national oil company into a political piggy bank. Now the past is catching up with Brazil’s politicians.

That points to a priority the entire region must adopt: stronger judicial systems.

So far, Brazil’s judiciary is standing firm. Countries that lack a strong system of justice will continue to see their treasuries plundered.

Finally, there is the need to reject the siren call of populism, usually a mask for authoritarian government, and to respect civil liberties, especially freedom of the press.

Here, Argentina is a case in point, and why Mr. Obama was right to visit the country at this crucial time in its history. Corruption, easy money and populist politics form part of an old story. The late Néstor Kirchner and his widow, Cristina, took Argentina on another merry commodity-fueled ride for years. They left Argentina broke, its international credibility ruined.

Along the way, they demonized and punished the press for reporting the truth. That, too, is part of an old story in Argentina and other places in Latin America. Where press freedom is under assault, authoritarian government flourishes.

Today, businessman Mauricio Macri is putting Argentina on the right track. He’s working to pay the nation’s debts, avoiding populist rhetoric and partnering with the middle class and employers to restore the nation’s economy and credibility.

“The U.S. stands ready to work with Argentina through this historic transformation in any way that we can,” Mr. Obama declared last week in Buenos Aires.

Mr. Obama came to the right place at the right time to encourage regional change.

If Argentina can offer lessons in democratic renewal, then there’s indeed hope for the rest of Latin America.