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The Latin American Left Is in Flames

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The Latin American Left Is in Flames

Caught between inflation, falling public revenues, and their own demagoguery, the continent’s new socialist leaders are at risk of being crushed. August 8, 2022
Politics and law

We are witnessing a revolution, it seems. The six largest countries on the Latin-American continent have gone over to the Left—a Left of words and promises that, unsurprisingly, are already proving untenable. In Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, has been president since 2018. A career politician, he renounced his socialist commitments at the outset of his presidency to save the country’s ruined public finances. But other, less experienced leaders on the left, prisoners of their ideology and of their programs, as generous as they are demagogic, already find themselves up against the wall of reality: the economy, for its part, does not lie.

The electoral success of these left-wing leaders owes to their promises to redress incontestable historical grievances. Thus, in Peru, it was satisfying for many to see a young son of a peasant, Pedro Castillo, promise to feed everyone and to guarantee equal access for all to education and health care. In a country where prosperous ruling elites have always forgotten the poor, generally indigenous or of mixed parentage, was Castillo not the very incarnation of justice? The situation in Chile is similar: Gabriel Boric, a former student leader, is shaking up a worn-out political class that defined itself as either for or against Augusto Pinochet, while concerning itself not at all with the poor, especially the indigenous, such as the Mapuche of Patagonia and the southwest. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, a former Marxist guerilla, was already in the legislature, but he was the first in his country to address the immense black and mestizo population, until then ignored by revolutionaries as much as by the bourgeoisie of Bogotá and Medellín. In Argentina, Alberto Fernández is supposedly on the left, but he is above all Peronist. Peronism is defined by the art of emptying the public treasury to redistribute it to the party’s clients—until the day comes when the accounts are empty, the local money has lost all value, and the only recourse is to call in the firemen of the International Monetary Fund.

In Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, who will probably regain the presidency in November, embodies European-style social democracy, supported by the most competent and least corrupt administration in Latin America. But Lula’s reputation is based essentially on luck. His first two terms, 2003–2011, coincided with a strong rise in the price of the raw materials that Brazil exports (soy in particular) and price declines in imported fertilizers. Lula distributed this windfall widely in the form of social and educational projects, which led to the emergence of a new middle class. This scenario also benefitted Argentina, Peru, and Chile. Since the whole continent depends on exports of a limited number of raw materials (Chile alone has found a way to diversify), good presidents are those who have had the luck to take office when prices are rising.

Unfortunately for the Left’s new wave, export prices are falling, while the price of imported oil and fertilizer is rising. Global inflation and the war in Ukraine are coming down hard on the continent. To this must be added the financial and health costs of the Covid pandemic, which is far from over in countries lacking solid health-care infrastructure. As a result, these leaders’ promises of social benefits are untenable, and the new middle classes face a looming regression.

The peoples of these countries are reacting by disavowing their new leaders. In Peru, Castillo’s approval rating has fallen to 19 percent. In Chile, the Mapuche, to whom Boric had promised everything, are in revolt, forcing the president to send in the army. The worst is yet to come: Boric has called for a vote in September on a new constitution, a monstrous document that guarantees everything to everyone, with a strong taint of ecologism. It will probably be rejected by referendum, bringing about an institutional crisis. In Santiago and Bogotá, where demonstrations are directed traditionally against the Right when it is in power, people are now protesting what they see as the treason of the Left, and social networks are feeding the frustration. In Colombia, people were growing restless even before the new president was inaugurated on August 7.

Caught between inflation, falling public revenues, and its own demagoguery, the new Left is at risk of being crushed. But who will benefit from its demise? Military coups and the return of caudillos are not out of the question. What of the Right? The extreme Right, Catholic and deeply conservative, remains powerful, but it lives on nostalgia for a Latin America where only well-off whites were heard. As for the liberal Right, as embodied by former president Sebastián Piñera in Chile, its electoral base is narrow, and it seems more attentive to the support of private entrepreneurs than to the forgotten masses and indigenous peoples, in particular. This is why the self-proclaimed liberal, Mauricio Macri, did not win reelection in Argentina: he tended to confuse the presidential palace for his personal polo club.

One might think that the destruction of the economy and the rule of law by leftist dictators in Venezuela and Cuba would prevent other Latin American countries from being inspired by Marxist rhetoric. It is not the case, however, because each country on the continent is self-centered and rarely looks beyond its borders. “Latin America” is an abstract concept that does not account for the individuality of its nations.

I will refrain from giving advice to the peoples of Latin America, who cherish their national dignity and sovereignty. But from Buenos Aires to Mexico, the situation is perilous, and wisdom has no apparent representation.

Photo by Carlos Garcia Granthon/Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

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