Why We Can Break the Grip of Latin America’s Incumbents


On January 22, 2016, Evo Morales began his third consecutive term as Bolivian president, set to govern until the year 2020. Meanwhile, on March 1, Tabaré Vázquez will return to power in Uruguay, after having left office only five years ago.

In addition, Dilma Roussef was recently reelected in Brazil; likewise was Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Cristina Fernández in Argentina, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile. That means almost half of the presidents who will preside this year — and more than half in South America — have already served as president.

El "caudillismo" no ha muerto en Latinoamérica, pero adopta ahora ropajes "democráticos" (Flickr)
Ecuador’s Rafael Correa (center) and Bolivia’s Evo Morales (right) are two of the many Latin-American presidents who have marched on to reelection. (Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry)

Does this constitute a recurrent dictatorship? A vacuum of competitors for leadership? A lust for power? All are legitimate questions, but the tendency among these politicos toward wanting reelection, despite criticism, continues to receive popular support. The question is, for how long?

In part, this support is the result of social-welfare programs, especially subsidies and vouchers for basic services such as the “Family Wallet” in Brazil, the “Opportunities” and “Tortilla Subsidy” in Mexico, and the “Universal Children’s Appropriation” in Argentina.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) and the International Employment Organization, 21 percent of Latin Americans received subsidies in 2014. Ecuador’s 43.1 percent was the highest, followed by Brazil on 28.5 percent of the population, and then Mexico on 27.2 percent. Those who received the least were in Chile, at 3.7 percent.

Keep in mind that these programs exist in the context of high commodity prices (oil and natural gas). These revenue flows have allowed Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and Bolivia, in the words of Colombian analyst Román Ortiz, “[to garner] political support on the state’s dime.” High commodity prices, however, are coming to an end, due to economic stagnation in Europe and Japan, coupled with a slowdown of growth in China.

At this juncture, a truth is becoming more apparent: the named governments are more part of the problem than the solution to Latin America’s economic challenges, particularly corruption and instability.

It is too early to say what will happen when 15 years of populist and socialist hegemony comes to an end, when there is a pivot towards market-oriented reforms. Maybe it is prudent to agree with Michael Reid of the Economist, who believes that South America is beginning a march towards moderation. The stage has been set by Venezuela and Argentina, whose neopopulist experiments have been nothing but detrimental, but their shift will be difficult.

Can people change? In Latin America, anything is possible, as demonstrated by Alan García’s second term. It is a sure bet that he is seriously considering a run for his third term as Peru’s president.

Translated by Thalia C. Siqueiros. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

This article first appeared in Latinoamérica al día.

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