After nearly two years of deadly contagion, deepening poverty and flailing leadership, Latin American politics is overdue for a reset. Conciliation and consensus would go a long way in a region with nearly 30 percent of global deaths from covid-19 but only 8.4 percent of world population, some 22 million “new poor” in 2020 alone, and as yet distant signs of recovery. So would some structural reforms to kick start growth and narrow the widening income gap.
Instead, voters across the hemisphere look poised for a booster shot of toxic polarization, fiscal denialism and political faith healing that could condemn much of the region to more social upheaval and another lost decade.
So much the better for the scrum of political parachutists, populist Jacobins and self-styled redeemers who are clamoring for national attention and ballots.
It’s not just Brazil, which under President Jair Bolsonaro has become the benchmark for the brand of bilious rightwing populism sweeping the map, even as a reinvigorated and quarrelsome left surges.
In Chile, the presidential election has come down to a battle on the ideological fringe. José Antonio Kast, a right-wing nativist with a soft spot for former dictator Augusto Pinochet, won the first round on Nov. 21 with 28 percent of the votes. He will go to a runoff next month against runner-up (26 percent) Social Convergence candidate Gabriel Boric, a two-term lawmaker and onetime student radical who has hyped a society without classes.
The choice is a jolt for many in Latin America who, not unreasonably, saw Chile as a model for turning political consensus and conciliation into progress and prosperity. The dictatorship gave way to the Concertación, a remarkable 20-year governing pact of center-left technocracy. Pinochet hard-liners lost ground to boilerplate conservatives. That was then. If the political establishment congratulated itself on democratic civility, everyone else saw a gentlemen’s club with a bouncer at the door. The collapse of centrist candidates in Sunday’s legislative election only confirmed the suspicions. The land of Concertación is now a centrifuge.
Across the region, anemic economies and the lingering public health emergency have fueled a revolt against sitting authorities and politics as usual.
Having turfed out three presidents in a single week last year, Peru elected left-wing teachers union leader and proud political outsider Pedro Castillo, who rode into power in July astride a horse and ambitions as broad as his sombrero. He’s been trying ever since to keep his squabbling coalition of ideologues from imploding — he’s now on his third interior minister and second prime minister — and wary investors from bolting. Peru’s economic recovery and Castillo’s own mandate hang in the balance.
In Colombia, former guerrilla insurgent Gustavo Petro is the candidate to beat in 2022 amid the darkening public mood over the hapless administration of center-right president Iván Duque, who seems equally loathed by the left and the right. The ruling Peronist coalition under Argentine President Alberto Fernández took a beating in the Nov. 14 midterm elections at the hands of firebrands on both sides of the aisle. Honors to Libertarian arriviste Javier Milei, a free market fundamentalist known for taking stands — pro guns, go Donald Trump, shut down the central bank, what climate change? — as alarming as his hair.
Yet the problem is not so much the growing chasm between the hardening left wing and an obstreperous right. Newbie populist charmers and self-appointed avengers are merely filling a leadership sinkhole. The bigger threat is the incapacity of incumbents and the air-gapped political establishment to deliver basic public services and back transformational reform over fiscal alchemy.
Consider the Fernandez government’s crowd-pleasing gambit to freeze prices on hundreds of goods before the midterms. No one was pleased. Ditto for Bolsonaro’s haste to mortgage Brazil’s civilizing public spending cap on yet more off-budget emergency pandemic payouts and another round of pork for congressional cronies. Never mind that the profligacy could blow up the deficit, clobber Brazil’s credit score and ricochet back against the poor through higher inflation and borrowing rates. (Nor is it clear how former president and Workers Party icon Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — sometimes the pragmatist, sometimes the populist dirigiste — would rule if, as polls forecast, he bests Bolsonaro in next year’s election.)
Feckless executives have accomplices. Legislative approval ratings are dismal, falling to 23 percent in Peru and 11 percent Colombia. In September, regard for Brazilian lawmakers hit 13 percent, a recent low. The funk may be deepest in Chile, where overall confidence in government has sunk to just 17 percent, the lowest rate among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Chile’s woes are a conundrum and a cautionary tale. Two decades of institutional stability and market friendliness turned the nation of 19 million into not just a magnet for investment, but an exemplar of poverty reduction and, for a time, falling inequality. Yet improving fortunes also raises expectations, which easily curdle into frustration when social mobility stagnates. The OECD recently reported that Chile’s poorest families would need six generations to ascend to the ranks of average wage earners.
The risk now, as political neophytes rewrite the constitution and voters swoon to fresh faces, is that Chile squanders its legacy of gains and tradition of consensus building on a political moonshot. “For Boric, inequality is the only issue. He thinks that fixing inequality will magically translate into future growth. Kast thinks that lowering taxes will generate growth,” economist Juan Nagel, at the University of the Andes, told me. “Both are dead wrong.”
That’s a caveat that ought to resonate far beyond Chile, where the predatory political fringe threatens to metabolize the demoralized middle. Whether the message can get through as branded politicians tumble into ignominy and the redeemers rail is a tougher call.
Mac Margolis is a former Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He is the author of “Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”