7 Reasons Why Latin American Populists Are On the Retreat

Mauricio Macri's victory in Argentina was a turning point for Latin American politics.
Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina was a turning point for Latin American politics. (Youtube)

EspañolOver the last months, Latin American populist movements have received three hard blows.

First, in Bogotá, Colombia, the so-called progressive left failed to elect a mayor after 12 years in power. Then, in Argentina, a conservative coalition defeated the strong Peronist movement for the first time in decades.  In terms of public perception, the biggest setback for the statist left occurred in Venezuela, where the opposition took the country’s Congress back from Chavismo.

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If you want yet another example, in Guatemala, the political outsider Jimmy Morales won the presidential election by a landslide, defeating populist candidates.

Aside from the electoral failures, there is a paralyzing crisis within Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party (PT), internal divisions rip apart Uruguay’s lefty Broad Front coalition, and Evo Morales appears to be headed towards defeat in a referendum on whether he can re-elect himself indefinitely. Latin American citizens, it seems, are trying to restore republican democracy.

Over the years, Latin American leftists have skillfully used their time in power in order to take over the entire state apparatus. So why are they losing now? Here are the seven main reason.

1. They don’t really solve people’s problems

Progressive governments initially rolled out welfare programs to allegedly help the poor, but they proved to be unsustainable in the long term.

When people overcome poverty, they start demanding more than mere subsidies.

2. The age of high-price commodities is over

Warren Buffet once said that “you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” Similarly, populist governments wasted the commodity boom cycle by failing to get their finances in order.

Now they have no money to spend and, consequently, their popular support has waned since it was based strictly on handouts.

This situation is particularly salient in Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

3. Hypocrisy regarding corruption

Progressives came to power promising to end “politics as usual.” But corruption scandals have tainted all of Latin America’s leftist governments. This includes the regime in Uruguay, the region’s “best-functioning democracy” according to international NGOs.

Corruption is particularly ripe in Venezuela, which sits at the bottom of Transparency International’s ranking in the Americas since, among other things, prominent government officials are frequently accused of drug trafficking.

Having spear-headed the 21st-century socialism movement by financing political groups across Latin America, the Venezuelan economic fiasco should serve as a warning to voters across the continent, who should scrutinize any candidate proposing a chavista agenda.

4. The opposition finally came together

[adrotate group=”7″]In Argentina and Venezuela, opposition movements managed to put their differences aside, and this allowed them to win the elections. The populist governments, which had thrived with a strategy of divide and conquer, were conquered themselves in the end.

An unfortunate example is Bolivia where a fragmented opposition has failed to stand up to the ruling Movement for Socialism (MAS), which pulls all the strings to remain in power.

But some alliances against populist governments even go beyond the political scene and involve civil society actors, such as in Ecuador.

5. Rhetoric can only get you so far

Latin American progressive parties have forgot Deng Xiao Ping‘s famous slogan: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

That is, people want solutions. After countless pompous speeches, odes to the motherland, to the glorious past, and to the national heroes, the people have realized that the emperor has no clothes. And they want the government to solve their problems now.

Latin Americans are also acutely aware that the rhetoric of class warfare has no place in today’s world. It is a tactic borrowed from the Castro regime, except that it works in Cuba because the Communist party rules with an iron fist.

6. False majority

Invoking the name of the “people,” Latin American populists have labelled dissenters as rich, right-wing oligarchs. But as society descended into poverty, the supposedly few rich oligarchs opposing the government became the new majority. Apparently, those opposed to the hard left were neither very rich nor very few.

Leaders have abused their power, resorting to often laughable ideological manipulations to justify their acts. In doing so, they have harmed those for whom they claimed to stand. This is the inevitable fate of every socialist government.

7. Next!

For many Latin Americans, it is shocking to see those who have failed in their elected offices do everything they can to delay their exit. Emulating the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, presidents across the continent like Rafael Correa and Evo Morales have manipulated their country’s institutions in order to stay in power.

Politics, however, moves in cycles. Just like 21st-century socialism was for the most part a reaction against what the left claimed were free-market policies during the 1990s, the current wave is rejecting populism’s intolerance and ineptitude.

All countries under some version of the chavista model are now in a worse situation than those which adopted a freer, more moderate political and economic system.

We have yet to see whether the current changes will strengthen Latin American countries’ institutions and fulfill citizens’ yearnings for functioning government. While some countries are still agonizing under the populist hangover, others are moving forward with models that have proven to work for the last two decades.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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