The new anger – 2019 in review: protest and populism in Latin America | The Americas
THIS YEAR the world remembered the forgotten continent, mostly for unfortunate reasons. The year began with the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, as Brazil’s president. It ended in a wave of protests that finished the presidency in Bolivia of Evo Morales, a leftist with populist tendencies and Latin America’s longest-serving leader, and rattled prosperous, seemingly stable Chile.
The countries unsettled by protests and drastic political change have vastly different economic and political circumstances. Brazil was emerging from a deep recession when Mr Bolsonaro was elected. Mr Morales had presided over years of strong growth and a reduction of poverty. Colombia, where strikes took place across the country in November and December, is a stable democracy with a well managed economy. Venezuela, where the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, is recognised as the legitimate president by some 60 countries and many of his countrymen, is a dictatorship whose economy is in ruins.
Despite these differences common characteristics help explain the discontent in many Latin American countries. One is that after a period of rapid growth caused by a rise in world demand for the region’s commodities, economies have slowed. Growth since 2014 has averaged less than 0.6% in Latin America and the Caribbean (though the number would be higher without Venezuela’s terrible performance). Because of weak growth, millions of Latin Americans who recently entered the middle class fear dropping out of it again. In several countries inequality was top of the protesters’ list of complaints.
Scandals across the region have weakened voters’ faith in democracy. Mr Bolsonaro made his name by denouncing bribe-takers whose misdeeds were revealed by the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigations. These included some of the country’s most powerful politicians, among them the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company at the centre of the investigations, also bribed politicians and officials in countries across the region, including Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico. In Peru four former presidents are under investigation. (One, Alan García, shot himself in April as he was facing arrest on charges related to Odebrecht.) Peru’s current president, Martin Vizcarra, is popular, largely because he dissolved an unpopular congress. Less than a quarter of Latin Americans are satisfied with how democracy works, according to a survey by Latinobarómetro in 2018.
In several countries, such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, these grievances have led to peaceful change within the democratic order. Mexicans reacted to corruption and slow growth in 2018 by electing to the presidency a left-wing populist, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In Argentina, the recipient of the IMF’s biggest-ever bailout, voters booted out the centre-right president, Mauricio Macri, and elected Alberto Fernández, a Peronist whose vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (no relation), helped wreck the economy when she was president, from 2007 to 2015.
Mr Morales was chased out of Bolivia by voters who saw through the government’s attempt to rig his re-election. Chile and Ecuador, where unrest was triggered by price rises (of transport in Chile and of fuel in Ecuador), had no election scheduled in 2019. Their presidents have sought to calm citizens by retreating. Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, rolled back the fuel-price rise. In Chile the grievances went far beyond the fare rise, which the country’s president, Sebastián Piñera, agreed to reverse. Many Chileans are angry about the country’s unequal distribution of wealth and power, about niggardly pensions (for which people are supposed to save themselves) and about long waiting times for doctors’ visits and poor schools. Mr Piñera has agreed to hold a referendum in 2020 on how to draft a new constitution.
Will this year’s region-wide exercise of people-power improve people’s lives and the quality of politics? There are reasons to doubt it. Neither Mr Bolsonaro nor Mr López Obrador seems to know how to control corruption or the violent crime that plagues their countries. Mr Bolsonaro has delivered a useful reform of the unaffordable pension system, but Mr López Obrador seems as clueless about the economy as he is about crime. Argentina’s new president is untried.
Bolivia’s interim government has yet to set a date for a new election. When it finally takes place, many Bolivians may doubt its fairness. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, seems to have tightened his grip on power. In Ecuador, Mr Moreno, whose approval rating is below 30%, is struggling to comply with the terms of an IMF agreement. Peru will be in suspended animation until a new congress is elected in January 2020.
Only in Chile does there seem a strong prospect of progress. The “Chilean model” has made the country one of the region’s most prosperous but it is due for an overhaul. Mr Piñera’s constitutional convention could provide that. The trick will be to guide the country towards a European-style welfare state rather than towards Latin American populism.