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Macri’s Triumph Pushes Latin American Populists against the Wall

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Dec 1, 2015, 1:19 pm
After Macri's triumph, Latin America's populist governments are facing dwindling public support and declining revenues.
After Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina, Latin America’s populist governments are facing dwindling public support and declining revenues. (T13)

EspañolOur region rarely marches in step, but recent history shows that a wave of political change in a certain direction can arrive more or less at the same time. Mauricio Macri‘s triumph in the second round of Argentina’s presidential election was narrow, but it seems to foreshadow a volte-face leading to the retreat of the populist left, which has dominated many countries during the past decade.

If we look at general political trends, we find that, in the 1950s, all Latin American nations began to close their borders to foreign trade. Leaders thought that they could industrialize their countries by following the nefarious mandates of “import substitution” policies. Extreme protectionism, however, only brought economic backwardness and serious market distortions, many of which persist to this day.

Guerrilla groups arose in almost every country, and dictatorial governments fought them or resisted other communist threats. We then experienced, in broad terms, a turn towards democratization which coincided with foreign-debt crises. Governments responded with economic reforms that aimed to open up to foreign trade and investment.

Some 20 years ago, we could finally sense some optimism: almost every country in Latin America had a democratic regime and a much more open economy than in the immediate past.

At the outset of the new millennium, however, the region sadly began to move backwards. Hugo Chávez’s triumph in Venezuela opened the door to old evils which had afflicted us, especially autocratic government in the hands of a caudillo and ever greater state intervention in the economy.

Various countries abandoned liberal democracy, which had been our ideal. Encouraged by the high price of raw materials in the global markets, they assigned huge amounts of public funds to implement populist policies. They spent massively and claimed to fight poverty, but their supposed generosity was nothing more than a political tool to gain adepts and win their votes.

The state’s enormous growth, meanwhile, could only promote the most astounding corruption.

Today, however, we are before a new scenario. Populist governments no longer have enough resources to carry out their ill-advised schemes. In Venezuela and Argentina, meanwhile, they have imposed disastrous foreign-exchange controls, which conceal currency devaluations and very high levels of inflation.

Brazil, meanwhile, faces serious economic problems, as large fiscal imbalances and a lack of growth impoverish ordinary citizens. Other countries must deal with similar predicaments.

Latin American citizens, however, have reacted positively, and this is encouraging. One perceives a new attitude in the region, a citizen mobilization that rejects corruption outright. In Guatemala, this has led to the fall of both the president and vice president, who are now in jail.

In this Central American country, the subsequent presidential election, held last September, clearly proved that voters no longer fall for populist siren calls, such as more hand-outs and infinite amounts of “aid.” Manuel Baldizón, an unmasked demagogue, came in third place in the first round of voting. In the runoff, voters humiliated Sandra Torres, another unscrupulous populist.

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In Argentina, the majority that elected Macri ended the Kirchner family’s reign — and there’s no other way to call it. Voters have put a stop to a suicidal economic policy and to a confrontational, retaliatory style of politics. They have rejected a system that was moving Argentina away from the type of democracy that respects individual liberties, a democracy for which they have fought on so many occasions in the past.

Macri’s triumph brings a change of direction. Probably, it will spur profound transformations in other Latin American countries.

Many of the region’s populist governments are now against the wall, knowing that they no longer count with astronomic revenues from raw materials while they face a different, critical attitude from a citizen majority. President Evo Morales of Bolivia has said that he seeks amiable relations with Argentina’s president-elect.

In Brazil, meanwhile, popular pressure is building up against the Workers’ Party, President Dilma Roussef and Lula, the socialists’ historic leader. In Venezuela, the troubled and already tainted elections to be held on December 6 will show, I think, citizens’ true level of rejection towards a government that has only brought scarcity, inflation, and the country’s physical and institutional decay.

Latin America can leave populist, statist temptations behind. In fact, it’s already doing so. Change and freedom are signaling the end of a decade of setbacks for republican values. We are also witnessing the end of unpunished corruption and wasted opportunities, the consequences of windfalls from raw materials falling in the wrong hands.

Translated by Daniel Raisbeck.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324