Latin America’s political map may change in 2018, but perhaps not for the better

Here’s a fact that few people are taking into account when talking about the Venezuelan crisis or Latin America in general: the region’s biggest countries will have elections over the next 12 months, which could change the hemisphere’s political map.

Between now and October 2018, there will be presidential elections in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, while Argentina will have key congressional elections next month that could decide that country’s political future.

And many of these elections will take place amid a climate of disenchantment with democracy, and growing anger at traditional politicians for their inability to curb corruption and fight crime.

A poll presented in Miami this week by the Latin American Public Opinion Project of Vanderbilt University shows there are reasons to be worried. The poll, Americas Barometer 2016/2017, says support for democracy in the region has fallen from 66.4 percent two years ago to 57.8 percent today.

It’s the lowest support for democracy since Americas Barometer started conducting its annual poll in the region in 2004. What’s more, some of the lowest levels of support for democracy are in the region’s biggest countries. Only 49.4 percent of Mexicans and 52.4 percent of Brazilians believe that democracy is the best political system.

The poll also shows that nearly 38 percent of Latin Americans would support a coup d’etat if that helped fight crime and corruption.

At a time of rising of populism in the United States with last year’s election of President Donald Trump, and steady advances by populist parties in Germany and other European countries, one can only wonder whether Latin America won’t follow suit with the election of new populist leaders.

It could very well happen. In Mexico, leftist populist former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is leading in the polls for the July 2018 presidential elections, and may get a boost from Trump’s border wall and anti-NAFTA trade agreement tirades. In recent interviews, Lopez Obrador went through all sorts of rhetorical pirouettes to avoid criticizing Venezuela’s populist dictator, Nicolas Maduro.

In Colombia, some polls say the leftist populist former Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro is leading in a field of more than 20 presidential hopefuls for the May 2018 elections. As a youth, Petro was a member of the M-19 guerrilla group.

In Brazil, right-wing populist congressman Jair Messias Bolsonaro is among the top contenders for the October 2018 presidential race. A former military officer, Boisonaro has praised the dictatorship that ruled his country in the 1960s.

In Chile, former center-right President Sebastian Pinera is likely to win the Nov. 19 presidential elections. Some analysts warn that, amid a rise of popular discontent in Chile, Pinera may be the last centrist politician to win an election in Chile’s immediate future.

What would happen in the unlikely — but possible — scenario that populist candidates win in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia?

“The danger is that populists would take advantage of people’s disenchantment with democracy, present themselves as saviors, destroy democratic institutions and grab absolute powers,” says Frank Mora, head of Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center. The center was a partner in the Americas Barometer survey.

Economically, a new wave of authoritarian populism in Latin America could threaten the region’s incipient recovery by, among other things, scaring away investors. Legitimate investors prefer countries with strong institutions, rather than those with strong leaders who can change the rules of the game at their whim.

Politically, a new crop of authoritarian populist leaders may break the region’s growing consensus to demand the restoration of democratic rule in Venezuela. At the very least, it would mark the end of the so-called Lima Group — the group of 12 countries including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru that have jointly demanded a return to democratic rule in Venezuela.

It’s too early to say whether any of this will happen. But it’s not too early to predict that the window of opportunity to exert collective regional pressure on Venezuela’s regime to restore democracy is narrowing. If the region doesn’t escalate its diplomatic sanctions against the Venezuelan regime now, it may be much more difficult to do it 12 months from now.


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