The anti-neoliberal wave rocking Latin America
Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, was hailed as a savior — but he ended up just becoming another fall guy. On Sunday, Argentine voters pulled the plug on his time in power, delivering an emphatic first-round victory to center-left rival Alberto Fernández, who campaigned on a populist “Peronista” ticketwith former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as his running mate. The ascent of Fernández and Kirchner, who are not related, reflected a broader rejection of Macri’s center-right platform and mounting despair over the country’s systemic economic crises.
“When Macri took office in December 2015, he said his pro-market reforms would bring immediate and solid economic growth for 20 years,” wrote Sebastián Lacunza for The Post. “But at the end of his four-year term, poverty has increased by some 10 percentage points, annual inflation is over 50 percent and the public debt is equal to 100 percent of GDP, on the verge of default.
Macri, a wealthy businessman, was hailed abroad when he came to power as a welcome turn away from almost a decade of Kirchner’s protectionist, free-spending and allegedly corrupt rule. The Economist gleefully saw “the end of populism”in his surprise electoral success. A 2016 segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes” showed Macri with his young daughter and fashion designer wife, Juliana Awada, and dreamily observedthat “you can’t help but think of the Kennedys and Camelot.”
In Washington — where suspicion of left-wing politics further to the southis a multigenerational, bipartisan tradition — experts mused at the time about the waning of the Latin American leftand a new free-market-friendly zeitgeist reshaping the region. They placed Macri’s rise at the start of a broader rightward shift: In 2016, left-wing Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was impeached, and in Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former International Monetary Fund economist, was elected president. In 2017, Harvard-educated millionaire Sebastián Piñera returned to power in Chile. In 2018, U.S.-educated Colombian conservative Iván Duque won the presidency. By the beginning of this year, Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno had initiated a major move away from his demagogic predecessor Rafael Correa’s leftist interventionist policies. Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist who raged against the region’s left on the campaign trail, was inaugurated in January amid investor hopes that he would loosen regulations and privatize swaths of Brazil’s public sector.
But the political map looks vastly different now in the shadow of Macri’s defeat. A bribery scandal forced the 2018 resignation of Kuczynski, who was placed in pretrial detentionin April as prosecutors prepare corruption charges against him. (Peru, meanwhile, is gripped by a constitutional crisis, with the country’s current president having dissolved an opposition-dominated legislature that voted to suspend his rule.) Bolsonaro has had a tumultuous first year in office and finds himself increasingly politically isolated. Fernández himselfearlier brandedBolsonaro as “racist, misogynist and violent” and tweeted on Sunday his support for imprisoned leftist former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Earlier this month, mass protests in Ecuador against an unpopular package of austerity measures saw Moreno temporarily relocate his government away from the capital, Quito. He ultimately agreed to reverse his decision to scrap billions of dollars in fuel subsidies, risking a major IMF loan. Indigenous leaders at the heart of the uprising cast their struggleas a battle against neoliberalism, the laissez faire economic creed many on the continent still associate with years of Cold War-era dictatorships and American political meddling.
In Chile, the largest protests in a generationsaw more than a million people take to the streets of Santiago on Friday. The spur of the demonstrations was an increase in subway prices, which catalyzed widespread anger at the deep inequities in Chilean society. Clashes between security forces and protesters left at least 17 people dead, stoked the flames of unrest, and deepened the protesters’ demands for wholesale change. In a bid to ease tensions, Piñera enacted a sweeping cabinet reshuffle and promised a suite of reforms, including increases in the minimum wage and pensions. But that didn’t stop new bonfires from raging in city streets on Monday, with a fresh round of demonstrations slated for Tuesday.
Chile’s upheaval has prompted calls for a new social contract in a societythat outside observers have long viewed as one of the more stable in Latin America. Even politicians in Piñera’s government recognize the need for a fuller national dialogue. Some protesters cast their revolt as the unfinished business of reckoning with the dictatorial legacy of U.S.-backed general Augusto Pinochet. “Our constitution today is the heritage of neoliberalism in Chile, dating back to Pinochet,” said Isidora Cepeda Beccar, a political activist in the Chilean capital, in an interview with the left-wing U.S. publication Jacobin. “To change things fundamentally we need to cut those roots. We need to create new rules of the game.”
In Argentina, the anti-neoliberal uprising came in the form of the ballot box.But it’s unclear how Fernández — a less polarizing figure than Kirchner — will drag his country out of the morass. “Voters had to choose between two failures,” Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at the New School for Social Research in New York City, told Today’s WorldView, pointing to both the dead end of Macri’s approach and the missteps of his more populist predecessors.
Ricardo Kirschbaum, editor in chief of the leading Buenos Aires daily Clarin, suggested that the new president may have tolook across the Atlantic for inspiration. Fernández takes as “his lodestar the case of Portugal: from 2014 onward, social democrats ruling in a coalition with the Communist Party pulled that country out of a deep recession, one that was similarly induced by the austerity measures put in place by a conservative government working in conjunction with the European Central Bank, the IMF, and the European Union,” Kirschbaum wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Like his Portuguese counterpart, Prime Minister António Costa, Fernández counsels a move away from austerity and a return to protectionism.”
Whatever comes, Macri’s own political star has plummeted. Far from a regional trendsetter, he became politically radioactive in the final period of his presidency, weighing down the challenges of right-wing politicians elsewhere. “In Bolivia, Macri’s likely departure is thought to strengthen [left-wing President] Evo Morales in the campaign against center-right moderate Carlos Mesa,” wrote Brazil-based political scientist Oliver Stuenkelin Americas Quarterly last week. “In Uruguay, which elects a new president later this month, the center-right candidate Lacalle Pou sought to distance himself from Macri.”
Whatever ails the continent’s sluggish economies and polarized societies, mild-mannered center-right politicians like Macri can’t muster a response. We may see, as Stuenkel suggests, “more economically liberal candidates joining illiberal nationalist forces, as happened in Brazil.”
But even Bolsonaro’s political experiment is a fragile oneand could face a similarly angry backlash if he fails to deliver on his economic promises. “We will see to what extent this will last for Bolsonaro, who seems to be the true heir of Pinochet,” said Finchelstein. “Eventually Brazilians may reject him, too.”