by María Noel Irabedra
Latin America is a continent full of surprises; so much so that its dynamism and rareness sometimes challenges the traditional notions that we use to define political, social and cultural circumstances. This continent has witnessed a significant number of political spins and turns, from guerrilla warfare and revolutions to severe military dictatorships, and it has also been the birthplace of curious expressions of political power.
In past decades, we have seen how Venezuela has been governed by a hybrid regime in the hands of the late President Hugo Chavez, and afterwards Nicolás Maduro; we have seen Néstor and Cristina Kirchner guide Argentina based on questionable manners for more than ten years; and Brazil has been driven by Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, and his party colleague Dilma Rousseff, whose current hold on power is being seriously questioned. And these are just three examples of an era that seems to be approaching its end in Latin America; an era defined by the rebirth of populism and leftist ideological dominance. This new epoch that seems to be appearing may be a reversion to the region’s origins or maybe it will open new doors. God only knows!
A new leftist, and maybe “neo-populist” wave spread across Latin America after a predominant center-right flood that took part in the second half of the twentieth century. This new wave was the result of several circumstances among which we can identify the growing presence of a predominant middle class with new demands, the people’s need to break from traditional regimes that no longer fulfilled their expectations, and the need to look for alternative ways of managing the region’s countries in the aftermath of a bumpy ride that encompassed social movements, rampant inequality, transitional periods of social agitation, guerrilla warfare and military dictatorships, sometimes with significant foreign interference.
And for a while this political shift seemed to work relatively well. Until the vices and flaws of the regimes started to emerge.
Most of these countries had suffered severe military coups, and had been damaged to such a degree that they placed great hopes in these new regimes that promised more than what they could ultimately deliver to their people. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t make any real effort to improve their countries — which they did, by, for example, creating great social welfare programs — or that their policies have not been successful (for example in terms of fighting inequality), but that they used demagogy as one of their major political weapons, corroding the path towards democratization.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, under the flag of Simón Bolívar, won the democratic elections for the first time in 1998 and remained in power until his death in 2013. Anybody would be able to notice the peculiarity of this situation. One of the biggest treasures of democracy is the possibility to change leaders frequently, which endows democracy with good health. Yet it is not necessary for a democracy to exist in its theoretical definition, which can thus lead regimes to be considered “democratic” even without a change in leadership. In the case of Venezuela, we can see how the extended mandate of Hugo Chavez slowly transformed a regime, which might have seemed harmless at the beginning, into a truly questionable one, through the unhurried metamorphosis of the regime from being an alternative to liberalism and a potential positive change, to an installed hybrid regime that restricted civil rights, failed to guarantee free and open elections and could not provide its people with the most basic resources. All this illuminated the great nepotism and poor administration that Chavism brought to Venezuela in recent decades.
Argentina transitioned through a different path. In 2003, after a huge economic crisis and the constant failure to establish long-standing governance, a new political orientation inspired by Peronist Populism made its appearance with Néstor Kirchner. With him came a series of policies oriented to the redistribution of wealth, a strong nationalist rhetoric and other measures that made his popularity surge. In 2007, Néstor Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernández, won the presidential election, mimicking the evolution of Evita and Juan Domingo Perón, the figureheads of late Peronism, but straightaway Kirchnerism gently started its downfall. As with most good things, they often come to a sudden end, and, in the case of Kirchnerism, the policies that were adopted ultimately inflicted a general economic downfall that was precipitated by a healthy combination of manipulating economic indices, encouraging clientelism and graft, adopting a narrow and isolationist perspective on international relations, and harassing the opposition and the media.
Brazil is one of the largest countries in the world as well as one of the anticipated major economies of the near future (BRICs), but it has also proven difficult to manage. In 2002, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva won the presidential election after a term marked by unemployment and enormous debt. He established a political campaign focused on the eradication of poverty and the fight against inequality, which he conducted relatively well, but it was not enough. In 2010, after Lula’s second term, Dilma Rousseff was chosen to be his successor and won reelection in 2014. The biggest problems they had to face were the economic crisis related to crude oil prices and the many allegations of corruption that emerged alongside their mandates. While Lula was previously detained and facing charges that could lead to his imprisonment, he has now been appointed as a minister in the government of Dilma Rousseff. Dilma is herself now facing an impeachment process due to severe corruption accusations.
Keeping with tradition, Latin America is changing again. Nicolás Maduro is stumbling, embracing a provocative and defiant attitude towards the rest of the Venezuelan institutions, especially the legislative branch where the opposition recently achieved a majority; Dilma Rousseff’s mandate is in serious danger of ending sooner than expected as a consequence of her deviant behavior; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recently lost the election to Mauricio Macri, a centre-right politician. In other countries, changes are moving along more smoothly, as in Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia, where Evo Morales lost a referendum in which he intended to extend his mandate one more time. Things are changing again. Is the left coming to an end in Latin America? We will have to wait, but one more time, Latin Americans are asking for a change.
Author bio: María Noel Irabedra was born and raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she is currently studying international affairs. She is on exchange at Sciences Po, pursuing her Master’s degree in International Security. Her interests vary from philosophy to history, music and photography.
Quote: “One of the biggest treasures of democracy is the possibility to change leaders frequently, which endows democracy with good health. Yet it is not necessary for a democracy to exist in its theoretical definition, which can thus lead regimes to be considered “democratic” even without a change in leadership.”