Latin America: the pendulum swings

On Sunday, the victory of the conservative mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, in Argentina’s presidential run-off election not only ended twelve years of populist rule by the Kirchners – Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) followed by his widow Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) – but will also have serious implications for the advance of the so-called “pink tide” in Latin America and the geopolitical balance of the region.

With the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in December 1998, democratic elections had given rise to a leftward trend in Latin America. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile (interrupted by the term of the centre-right Sebastián Piñera in 2010-2014), Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay all elected leftist governments of varying shades. This was mainly in rejection of the neo-liberal, free market, macroeconomic policies of the Washington Consensus of the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, which had served to increase poverty, inequality and inequity in the region, with the rich generally getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

The rise of the left thus saw the widespread emergence of more populist policies, with a mixture of radical efforts to redress the socioeconomic balance, as in Venezuela, and pragmatic, ‘third way’ economic and progressive social policies, as in Lula’s Brazil. More importantly, the convergence of leftist ideologies, coupled with a rise in anti-US sentiment fuelled by the George W Bush years, also saw a strengthening of the regional integration process in Latin America, with the creation of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac), not to mention the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba).

Now, however, the times would seem to be a-changing and the pendulum may be swinging the other way. Right-of-centre parties have returned to power in Honduras (2010) and Paraguay (2013). In Latin View, on November 10, syndicated columnist and leading Latin America watcher Andrés Oppenheimer opined, on the basis of Mr Macri’s pre-election, business-friendly positions in favour of opening Argentina again to free trade and foreign investment – almost inevitably dubbed ‘Macri-economics’ – and his strong criticism of populist, authoritarian regimes, that victory for the conservative candidate “would change Latin America’s political map.” Mr Oppenheimer also expressed the hope that this would signal the end of “15 years of corrupt leftist populist governments that have left their countries bankrupt” although he qualified this somewhat by adding, “I’m not yet willing to bet that this regional scenario will come true, but there’s an even chance that it will.”

True to expectations, President-elect Macri, who assumes office on December 10, has already confirmed his intention to lift protectionist trade and currency controls and free up the stalled Argentine economy, although these do not necessarily mean a return to the neoliberal policies of the 1990s. But it will take time to reverse 12 years of ‘kirchnerismo’ and its legacy of institutional decline, corruption and economic mismanagement, especially as Mr Macri won with only 51.4 per cent of the vote and will govern with a minority in both houses of Congress. The adjustment process could be very painful.

More significantly though, in the context of the geopolitical dynamics of Latin America, Mr Macri has also said that he plans to request, at the next summit of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), on December 21, in Paraguay, the enforcement of the trading bloc’s democratic clause against Venezuela, because of the political persecution of opposition leaders and human rights abuses there. Any sanction by Mercosur would, however, require unanimity, which could prove difficult to achieve.

The move would nevertheless signal a game-changing shift in regional attitudes towards Venezuela and the authoritarian rule of President Nicolás Maduro. The first test of this new pressure being brought to bear will be what the Bolivarian government does to ensure the integrity of the forthcoming Venezuelan legislative elections and whether it respects an unfavourable result.

Whatever happens on December 6 in Venezuela, Argentina’s position at the Mercosur meeting should give a clear indication as to how it intends to proceed in other bodies such as Unasur and the Organization of American States.

According to Abraham F Lowenthal, a Latin American expert at the Washington think-tank, the Brookings Institution, “an Argentine shift – combined with tendencies in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile to review their role regarding Venezuela – will increase the pressure on Caracas to find a way out of the country’s dangerous cul-de-sac.”

The balance of power has changed in Argentina and it is changing in Unasur, on which Venezuela has hitherto relied as a buffer against hemispheric and international pressures.

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