Latin America is a young region; one-third of its population is between ages 23 and 40. But most recent presidents and party leaders came of age during the Cold War. Now, that’s changing.
On Dec. 18, Chilean voters elected the country’s first millennial president, 35-year-old leftist Gabriel Boric. The country’s Constitutional Assembly also just made 40-year-old María Elisa Quinteros and 33-year-old Gaspar Domínguez its leaders. In 2018, Costa Rica elected its youngest president ever, Carlos Alvarado, at 38. And in 2019, El Salvador elected then-38-year-old Nayib Bukele president. In Colombia, a full six contenders in this year’s presidential race are between ages 38 and 46.
These politicians may be rejuvenating politics. But they are also injecting uncertainty about the future of the region’s party systems.
Several forces had conspired to hold back Latin America’s generational turnover in politics.
For one, when many countries returned to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s after years of military dictatorship, traditional political parties led by an aging old guard were also revived.
These parties, led in a top-down fashion like Argentina’s Peronists and Chile’s Concertación coalition, kept tight control over younger members’ political careers and party platforms. The high entry costs of electoral campaigns also meant younger candidates could scarcely afford to contest nominations in such highly stratified parties, let alone finance independent bids for public office.
Moreover, Latin America’s millennials had less interest in political systems riven by traditional left-right divides born of the Cold War. Young activists — from Chilean student leaders to women protesting femicide in Mexico — didn’t easily find a home among parties that still spoke the language of anti-communism and Cold War geopolitics. Often, instead of running for office, they took to the streets.
Then there were the everyday obstacles holding millennials back. While university matriculation rates doubled across the region between 2000 and 2010, fewer than half of students who began their studies finished by age 29. Low-quality education became a major concern for those scrambling to find jobs and pay off debt.
Commonalities across millennial politicians
Across Latin America, the final years of the 2010s were plagued by corruption scandals, stagnant growth, and a regionwide protest wave. That upset Latin America’s established parties, leaving the old guard in shambles.
But by discrediting the old, the turmoil also opened the door to younger candidates. The millennial politicians who have emerged span the ideological spectrum but tend to share three traits.
First, they know how to tap anti-incumbent sentiment. As younger voices with short track records, they have the credibility to campaign as “outsiders.” In 2019, when Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele had yet to earn his reputation as the region’s newest autocrat, he railed against leadership by “los mismos de siempre” (the same folks as always) while wearing jeans, aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket. Gabriel Boric, before softening his tone to win the 2021 election, criticized leaders of both the center-left and center-right parties as out of touch.
Second, Latin America’s millennial politicians are more willing to shed established party labels, often in a bid to distance themselves from perceived corruption. Many switch parties or create new ones as often as it suits their careers. Daniel Quintero, the young mayor of Medellín, Colombia, began his career with the Conservative Party, founded his own party, then won a congressional seat under the Liberal Party’s banner — all before becoming mayor of Colombia’s second-largest city as an independent.
Third, they’re social media-savvy, enabling them to connect with young and independent voters who have typically stayed home on election day. Bukele refused to participate in live TV debates in the 2019 presidential race, preferring to put his message out on Twitter, a platform he has since weaponized against critics. Meanwhile, Samuel García, the 33-year old governor of Mexico’s wealthiest state outside the capital region, Nuevo León, was catapulted to victory by his influencer-spouse Mariana Rodríguez, and regularly takes to Twitter and YouTube to denounce corruption and machismo. In some places, relatable and accessible candidates are driving an increasing share of young voters to the polls.
The millennial wave could reshape the region’s politics
Unhinged from doctrinaire platforms and adept at using social media to shape the public narrative, millennial politicians may be ready to elevate neglected issues. In a region rich with natural resources and as part of a generation acutely aware of climate change, politicians like Chile’s Boric and Peru’s Verónika Mendoza, a top contender in last year’s presidential race, made environmental issues central to their campaigns. Likewise, elected officials such as Soledad Chapetón, the former mayor of Bolivia’s second-largest city, are helping to undo the historic underrepresentation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in politics.
Gen Y officeholders also reflect a changing electorate that’s willing to shed some social taboos from a previous era. Marina del Pilar, the first female governor of Mexico’s Baja California state, announced in July that she would be taking office in November while pregnant, in a country where female politicians have long faced gender discrimination. And Eduardo Leite, the governor of the large and populous Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul since 2019 and a contender in next year’s presidential elections, announced in July 2021 that he is gay, making him the first openly LGBTQ candidate to vie for Brazil’s top job.
The rise of millennial politics also poses risks. Attempting to break with the past, young officeholders tend to staff their cabinets with similarly fresh faces, perhaps failing to learn from more seasoned advisers. Moreover, if younger candidates continue to shun ideological purity and static party affiliation, political expediency may become the primary grounds for political decision-making. That might result in more pragmatic dealmaking, uniting figures across the spectrum to get things done. But it could also jeopardize checks and balances between more pliant legislatures and the executive branch or fuel further breakdown of political parties, making it harder for presidents to form the coalitions needed to govern.
For good or for ill, one thing is certain: The millennial takeover of Latin American politics will only accelerate from here.
Will Freeman (@WillGFreeman) is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University and a 2022 Fulbright-Hays grantee to Colombia, Guatemala and Peru. Paul J. Angelo (@pol_ange) is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a foreign area officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. These views reflect those of the authors only.