The victory of Mauricio Macri in Argentina’s recent presidential election, and the overwhelming support the Venezuelan opposition appears to enjoy going into next Sunday’s congressional elections, confirm the wave of anti-populist sentiment in Latin America. What a pity that few outside of Latin America seem to be paying attention.
Unlike the United States, where populism is seen as the antithesis of cronyism and elitism, in Latin America it has been propping up the politically powerful for decades, making pawns of the urban and rural poor. Under various “caudillos,” both military and civilian strongmen, it has eroded democratic institutions and led to massive government intervention, concentrating political and economic power in the hands of the few. The last wave, driven by left-wing caudillos, started in 1999 with the ascent of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Chávez was followed by the Kirchners (first Néstor, then his widow Cristina) in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
Although Brazil’s Workers’ Party government—led by Lula da Silva from 2003 to 2010 and by Dilma Rousseff since then—does not share the authoritarian dimension common to the other governments, it too has been, in economic terms and foreign policy, a bastion of Latin American populism.
Now, the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. Brazil’s economy (the largest in Latin America) is in free-fall, due to the decline in commodity prices and the country’s protectionist policies. Venezuela’s economy, dependent on energy prices, is on life support. Argentina’s and Ecuador’s economies are sputtering. Thanks to crony populism in major parts of the region, Latin America as a whole will barely grow this year. And it is the poor, of course, who will suffer the most, not the elites.
The great news, a decade and a half after Chávez inaugurated this populist era south of the Rio Grande, is that the people are saying basta—enough—to the demagoguery, abuse of power and economic diktats.
The defeat of the Kirchner government in Argentina was the first strong sign of the new Latin American zeitgeist. Next Sunday Venezuelan voters, the polls tell us, will strongly repudiate the Hugo Chávez legacy, although widespread election fraud is likely. Chavisimo won’t go quietly.
Similar stories are emerging elsewhere. Barely 10 percent of Brazilians support President Rousseff, and legal proceedings began this week that could lead to her impeachment. Ecuador’s Correa had to suspend his attempt to change the election rules so he could seek permanent reelection. And so on.
It gets more interesting. It has not been uncommon for Latin Americans disillusioned with left-wing populist governments to turn to new forms of populism. In many protests by the emerging middle class in the last couple of years we have heard calls for further radicalization, rather than rejection of populism. This has been a particularly common thread in some of the rallies against Rousseff.
Not this time. The recent elections and polls are telling a different story: a clear shift toward free markets and transparent government, not populist radicalization.
Regardless of whether the leaders are consistent and will engage in real free-enterprise reform, it is clear that Macri’s victory in Argentina amounted to a repudiation of left-wing populism, with its favoritism, price controls and nationalizations, and a call for economic liberalization.
That call is being heard elsewhere as well. The most popular leaders in Venezuela are free market–oriented politicians, such as Leopoldo López (who is in jail), María Corina Machado (who is banned from traveling overseas) and Antonio Ledezma, mayor of Caracas (now under house arrest). The polls in Brazil indicate that Aécio Neves, an open critic of his country’s protectionist policies, would replace Rousseff if the election were held today.
We are talking about a potentially epochal shift towards political and economic freedom and modernization in the Western Hemisphere, ten years after the Fourth Summit of the Americas buried plans for the free circulation of capital, goods, services and ideas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
Who knows? If they would pay attention north of the Rio Grande and elsewhere, maybe these proposals could come back from the dead.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute (www.independent.org), Oakland, Calif. His latest book is Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization and America.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Valter Campanato