Heads of state at the Summit of the Americas, April 2015
From the islands of the Caribbean down to the very tip of the Southern Cone, political winds are shifting. Leftist populism has long been a powerful force in Latin America, however it was only at the turn of the millennium that it really came to the fore as the dominant political force in the region. The perceived failure of neoliberalism, the dominant economic paradigm of the 1990’s, combined with the emergence of the charismatic Hugo Chavez in 2000 as the region’s leftist lion proved to be the forces that tipped the balance in favor of this movement. Over the next decade Chavez and Fidel Castro of Cuba served at the forefront of an ascendant movement that found much currency in anti-American, populist rhetoric, and included the leaders of a number of other important players in the region like Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. Highly visible cracks have appeared in this united front in recent years, however, and all signs indicate that Latin America may be moving in a new direction.
In Cuba, the diplomatic breakthrough achieved by the Obama Administration in January has already paid a number of dividends. In the region, heads of state previously quite quick to criticize the U.S. on any issue have softened their rhetoric, and in some cases have given the U.S. outright praise on its decision to reevaluate its relations with Cuba. In Cuba itself, this détente appears already to be paving the way to not only an increase in relations between the US and the island country, but also a relaxation of a number of the particularly troublesome aspects of the country’s authoritarian rule, especially with regards to the holding of political prisoners. On the economic policy front, even before the watershed normalization in January, Cuba had been relaxing its strict rules on private ownership for a number of years, a trend that has been highlighted in a number of prominent news outlets in the U.S. with regards especially to the country’s vibrant scene of small restaurants run out of local homes, called paladares.
Across the Caribbean Sea, the left-wing government in Venezuela appears to be in the midst of changing its stance on a number of previously untouchable issues, although this has not yet resulted in improved relations with the U.S. as in the Cuban case. The sharp fall in oil prices in the past year has brought to the surface the inherent weaknesses of Venezuela’s petro-economy that have long been visible in the international arena but have only recently become impossible for the government to ignore in the domestic one.
Holder of the world’s largest estimated oil reserves, Venezuela has been shaped quite significantly by the movement of domestic oil prices, perhaps more so than any non-Middle Eastern country. As a result of its status as the world’s most oil-rich nation, Venezuelan governments over the years have formed a tacit covenant with voters — in exchange for a generous welfare program, as well as gasoline subsidies that make gas in the South American country the world’s cheapest at $0.06/gallon, Venezuela’s leaders have asked for little more than their backing and continuation of a mandate to lead the country based on leftist, populist principles. This covenant has insulated Venezuela from the consequences of its actions both domestically and internationally; domestically in the sense that its leaders have been able to make policy decisions that would get them voted out of office in most other countries, and internationally because it has been able to act with impunity without fearing an international backlash. Even before Chavez, aspects of this covenant had been in place for a number of years, but under him its scale increased substantially.
With the shock of falling oil prices hitting Venezuela particularly hard, however, all of this may soon come to an end. Inflation is over 60% (and may be as high as 120%), and forecasts for this year have predicted a 7% fall in GDP. Although there are few world leaders more ideologically obstinate than Maduro, the Venezuelan president has begun to realize that Chavez’s economic model and social welfare system are unsustainable in a global economic environment of sustained low oil prices. He has begun to act accordingly, proposing a rise in gas prices and a modified system of exchange rates, a system some analysts see as a currency devaluation in all but name.
After Hugo Chavez’s death in 2012, few expected immediate, radical change in Venezuela due to the degree to which his ideas and his ideological allies themselves had become entrenched in the country’s institutions and society writ-large over the past 15 years. But the degree to which Maduro, Chavez’s successor who came to power after emerging victorious in a 2012 election against a popular centrist opponent, has endeavored to keep things exactly the same as they were under Chavez — even to the point of attempting to adopt Chavez’s characteristic style of speech and movement, not to mention his policies — has been a surprise to many. Maduro, however, does not possess the charisma and likeability that allowed Chavez to run roughshod over opponents both domestic and international while maintaining a disarming, cheeky demeanor. Add the country’s economic problems and the potential loss of both an ideological compatriot and a key contributor to the country’s social welfare system in Cuba to the mix, and you have a country on the brink of serious political change that will come, if not peacefully in the polling booths, then violently in the streets.
Although Cuba and Venezuela are the countries most likely on the brink of significant political and societal change, other countries in Latin America are likewise in the midst of periods from which their leftist movement will emerge severely weakened. In Argentina, the ruling leftist Victory Front (FPV) party may be on its way out due to both the endemic economic problems it has exacerbated in recent years, and a massive scandal that has embroiled the country since the beginning of the year.
In 2011, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was elected president after her husband and predecessor’s death caused an immense outpouring of support in her favor, which translated into success at the polls. Barring any other extraordinary circumstances, Kirchner’s party will have no such luck this time around when voters hit the polls in October, which is perhaps a good thing. While she has in the past been praised domestically and regionally for her passion and willingness to stand up to the U.S., IMF, and other major international players, in recent years her support has dwindled, along with her approval ratings. What had previously been seen by many as passion has now been revealed to be brashness and erratic behavior, exhibited in the inexcusable cultural faux-pas she committed during an important trade visit to China in February, and in her behavior in the wake of the death of Argentine Prosecutor Alberto Nisman earlier this year.
But her behavior will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Instead, the massive inflation the Argentine economy has experienced while Kirchner has been in office, the sovereign default the country went through last August, and the revelations from the Nisman case that Kirchner’s administration had been involved in an inexplicable plot to protect Iranian officials suspected of being involved in the planning of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires will likely be the three issues which weigh most heavily on voters’ minds in October.
For this reason, a non-Peronist candidate actually has a decent shot at winning the presidency for the first time in a number of years. Mauricio Macri, current mayor of the city of Buenos Aires and darling of the center-right opposition, has managed to cobble a formidable alliance composed of his own party—the Republican Proposal—and two other key opposition parties—the Civic Coalition and the Radical Civic Union. The most powerful man in the country’s largest city, Macri’s position has given his ideas on how to turn Argentina around — i.e. settling with its creditors, shoring up relations with the US, and ending the government’s currency controls — credence on a national level.
Macri’s coalition passed its first test last month, as his preferred successor and former cabinet chief Horacio Rodríguez Larreta won handily the primary for the election to choose the next mayor of Buenos Aires. The actual elections take place in July, and if Larreta can pull off a victory then, it can only mean further good news for Macri. Still, Buenos Aires is only one city of many from which Macri needs to win support in order to have a chance at winning the presidency.
For this reason, it is certainly too early to count either of the other two candidates — Former National Cabinet head Sergio Massa, Kirchner’s preferred candidate, and current Governor of Buenos Aires Province Daniel Scioli — out of the election. If Macri and Scioli both run, there is the distinct possibility that they split the vote of those opposed to Kirchner’s party, ultimately letting Massa win and keeping Kirchner’s coalition at the reins of Argentina.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, the winner will have to confront the undoubtedly toxic taste left in the mouths of Argentines after Kirchner’s last few years in power. It is hard to imagine Argentina’s next leader being more impulsive, erratic, and politically and economically destructive than its current one. Combined with the normalization of relations that the U.S. has undertaken with Cuba, a move that has removed a substantial point of criticism from Argentina’s arsenal (as it has with all other Latin American countries as well), it seems likely that some form of moderation may win the day next October in Argentina.
Various factors are converging at the moment to change the direction of politics in Argentina, Cuba, and Venezuela — three countries that have long stood at the forefront of the region’s leftist populist movement. Some may pose the more than legitimate question of whether other countries in the region—Bolivia, Uruguay, and Ecuador, among others—will simply pick up the flag of leftist populism that the three countries discussed in this article appear to be poised to begin inching away from. Will Bolivia’s Evo Morales become Latin America’s new leftist lion, with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica leading the charge behind him? Evidence suggests this possibility as unlikely. Undoubtedly, politics in these countries remain predominantly leftist and populist. However, with the US-Cuba rapprochement muting the longtime rallying cry of the Latin American left, the unity of this front appears to be broken, and neither Morales, Correa, or Mujica has the regional or international sway to repair it, even if they wanted to.
The Obama administration understands the intertwined nature of the countries in the region, and its decision to finally normalize relations with Cuba was not simply a move meant to right a historical wrong, but rather a calculated one intended to speak to a whole region that has (for good reason) long mistrusted American intentions in its borders. It remains to be seen whether this approach will work, but with a little help from a further decline in oil prices and another few missteps from Kirchner, the Chavezian breed of politics in Latin America may very well find itself without a certain home for the first time.
Jacob Brunell is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in Government and minoring in International Relations and Latin American Studies.
Image Attribution: “PRIMERA SESIÓN PLENARIA, VII CUMBRE DE LAS AMÉRICAS, PANAMÁ, 11 ABRIL 2015” by Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0