While I have spent much of the past decade working in former Communist countries in central and eastern Europe, the region that I’ve visited the most over my career is Latin America. This came about by accident; I never studied the region formally but kept getting invited there and developed a genuine interest and affection for it. It’s a part of the world that is rich in democracies and a laboratory for democratic institutions, and yet has the most concentrated inequality. The countries there are disappointing, infuriating, and yet often appealing and hopeful.
The first decade of the 21stcentury was the last hopeful period. There was prolonged economic growth driven by commodity exports that was reducing inequality in virtually every country, and creating a new middle class. While there were disasters emerging in Venezuela and Nicaragua, the largest countries Mexico and Brazil were being led by center-right and -left politicians and there seemed to be a chance that their democracies might evolve along more European lines.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
That hopeful trend came crashing down in the century’s second decade. Growth began to taper off after the 2008 financial crisis. A populist government settled in in Argentina while Brazil’s Worker’s Party became mired in corruption and gave way to Jair Bolsonaro’s populism of the right. Post-Pinochet Chile had been seen as the region’s big success story, but it saw massive student protests and the election of a leftist president, Gabriel Boric, the first to come from outside the centrist Concertación. I visited Peru in this period at the invitation of the business community. The country was experiencing rapid economic growth at that time, and my sponsors wanted me to talk about how soon their nation would join the club of rich developed nations. I gently tried to explain that they wouldn’t become an economically developed country until their political system had become much better institutionalized. And indeed, the place has fallen apart in recent years with a series of short-lived presidents accused of corruption, leading to the election of a left-wing candidate, Pedro Castillo, who ruled incompetently and tried to stage a coup. This attempt was quickly reversed by the congress, but his supporters continue to protest, often violently, across the country. And Mexico went from center-right presidents Felipe Calderón and Peña Nieto to a longtime leftwing challenger, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
One of the most recent countries to join this leftward shift is Colombia, with the election of Gustavo Petro as president last summer. I had visited Colombia quite a few times beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and returned at the end of January to Bogotá to teach one of our Leadership Academy for Development programs with the help of the Center for International Private Enterprise. Fifteen years ago, I was particularly interested in the transformation of Medellín. The latter city had recovered amazingly from the depths of violence it experienced under Pablo Escobar and the FARC guerilla group. The country’s murder rate was far higher than in Mexico this past decade, but began to fall substantially due to initiatives undertaken in the early 2000s. The country’s recovery was due to a combination of hard policies that strengthened the army and police under conservative president Álvaro Uribe, and by innovative social programs started by centrist politicians like Sergio Fajardo and Alonso Salazar. The city used infrastructure creatively to build trust among the poor, stringing the now famous cable cars up to the barrios on the city’s hillsides. I felt sad that similar neighborhoods in American inner cities never received that degree of sustained political attention.
The new president Petro had been a member of the M-19 guerilla group in his youth, and served as mayor of Bogotá from 2012-2015. He was the first president to be elected from outside a small circle of elite politicians, and he came into office promising a long list of major reforms—of the health care system, labor law, pensions, police, security, and agriculture. To take one example of the challenge he faces (or is perhaps creating), Colombia has a reasonably well-working health care system that combines public and private provision. Petro wants to bring all of it under the control of the state, which likely does not have the capacity to run such a system effectively. It is not clear that he will have the legislative support to accomplish this reform, much less the rest of his ambitious agenda. He has coopted a large number of conservative legislators by shielding them from prosecution for corruption, but their willingness to go along with such massive changes is not guaranteed.
The biggest risk Colombia faces, according to several of my interlocutors, is that if Petro is frustrated in his effort to bring about change through legal means, he will resort to stimulating protests and popular mobilization to get his way. This happened when he was mayor of Bogotá and faced a judicial inquiry. He is very popular with young people in the country, who are tired of being ruled by the same group of elite politicians. Petro is described as arrogant, excessively self-confident, and inflexible; he dislikes the private sector, the police, and other existing institutions that are likely to oppose many of his suggested reforms. He has already visited Venezuela and reopened relations with the Maduro regime. The country could descend into the kind of anomic protest and violence that Peru is now experiencing.
What worries me about the rise of the new Left in Latin America is not that we will see another Hugo Chávez appear who will wreck the foundations of his country’s economy and turn the political system into a Cuban-style dictatorship. The problem is rather that there seems to have been very little learning over time: many of the new leftist leaders maintain the same kind of stiff-necked hostility to the private sector and believe that nationalization will bring about social justice. None of them command impressive legislative majorities that will allow them to rapidly change their societies. Chile’s Boric tried to replace his country’s constitution with an entirely new one, one that was soundly rejected in a referendum, while Castillo is out of office entirely. The only exception to this is Mexico’s Lopez Obrador, who remains extremely popular despite his country’s lack of economic growth during his tenure. AMLO, as he is known, is still stuck in the 1960s, pushing a revival of Mexican fossil fuels and uninterested in issues like feminism and identity politics that have been taken up by younger leaders like Gabriel Boric.
Latin America needs sustainable social policies that will reduce informality, aid the poor, and open up institutions to all citizens. The region needs economic growth above all as it reels from the effects of the Covid epidemic. I suspect that the pendulum will eventually start swinging back to the right as the new generation of leftist leaders fail to produce results. But the region as a whole will not address its social problems unless its politics becomes less polarized and parties of the center left and center right emerge. Gustavo Petro was elected in part because his opponent was a social media-savvy 77 year old populist of the right, Rodolfo Hernández, who was ultimately not serious about being Colombia’s president. At the moment, a more centrist and viable future is not visible.
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