Latin America

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Photo: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The tectonic shifts in Latin America’s current political and social scene continue to preclude the emergence of a continent-wide consensus on how to address the challenges ahead and how to approach the future.

The social and political problems facing most of Latin America will not, in my opinion, be solved solely by implementing free market laissez faire governance. Addressing them with any hope for some success will require a concerted effort by all – led by competent political and visionary private sector leaders and incorporating all sectors of society – to achieve eventual socio-economic success where neo-liberal and communist models have hitherto failed.

Chile, traditionally one of the more prosperous and stable Latin American democracies, faces severe unrest from a population that appears fed up with the neo-liberal economic model first introduced into that country by the late dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Under the aegis of Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys” economists, successive Chilean governments both of the right and the left have sustained this economic model that has diminished the buying power of the middle and lower economic classes as well as the social end educational services available to a society that needs them now more than ever.

While the right of center government of President Sebastián Piñera has weathered the storm to date, his party’s political prospects are not good in the lead-up to the next elections scheduled for 2022. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of protesters demand his resignation daily. And income inequality – a major issue that makes populist options attractive, is increasing. While Chile is doing well by Latin American standards, Chileans continue to find the performance of successive right and left wing governments wanting.

Argentinians just voted right of center President Mauricio Macri out of office at the hands of the populist left of center Justicialista (Peronist) Party after just one term in office. The Justicialista Party left an absolute mess after their last term in office. Argentinian voters continue to vote for the very political parties responsible for their ongoing economic disaster and the political and social hardships that this has produced over decades.

Chile and Argentina are two of many countries in the region that suffer from structural challenges that directly affect the ability of the people to get ahead and to obtain strong and effective governments.

Many of these structures date back to the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Latin America has historically been plagued by massive corruption that has squeezed resources from the hands of government agencies into the pockets of political, business, and labor leaders. They have suffered from weak legal and law enforcement institutions that have proven incapable of confronting the private sector and the political “mafias” that plague their societies.

The British and subsequent immigrants who settled in North America sought a new way of life and to rid themselves of the shackles of feudalism. The Spanish and Portuguese “Conquistadores”, on the other hand, set out to plunder their colonies and establish similar authoritarian and feudal institutions of governance. The plunder and nepotism practiced by the political and social elites is a cause of the limited social mobility for indigenous Afro-Latino and Mestizo populations that is still present in these societies.

Another result of the Iberian experience has been the tendency of many Latin American leaders to find ways to remain in power indefinitely.

In some cases (Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua), leaders change the constitution to allow themselves to remain in power indefinitely. Indeed, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales’s attempts to gain public approval to seek another term that went against the constitution that Morales himself introduced in 2009 was defeated in a referendum. However, the Supreme Court, stacked with his supporters, overturned this.

Morales was charged in the public square by the Organization of American States with having doctored the electoral results to win on the first round outright. Three weeks of massive street demonstrations and a decision by many police and military to withdraw their support for Morales in support of the demonstrators forced Morales to resign on November 10th.

Morales leaves a mixed legacy. On the one hand, Bolivia is better off economically than ever, with education levels and social mobility up significantly. On the other hand, his attempts to subvert the constitution and seek to run indefinitely underscored this major weakness of Latin American leaders – not knowing how or when to leave power voluntarily and without changing the constitution to their personal advantage.

The sad fact is that he could have left office in 2016 with a legacy of having been, quite probably, Bolivia’s most successful president ever. Now he leaves under a cloud, his successes opaqued by recent events.

Another challenge facing Latin American countries is in providing their citizens with good education for all, a major step in creating the kind of social mobility that helps ensure political and social stability. With the possible exception of Cuba, most governments have left quality education up to the private sector, increasingly inaccessible to the middle and lower economic classes as costs rise and incomes stagnate. Absent quality education for all, socio-economic development on a massive scale is unlikely, leaving the elites to continue to govern and the middle and lower classes to protest in the streets as is currently happening in many Latin American countries.

Compounding the problem is that most Latin American countries have poor tax policies and inefficient tax collection practices. These starve governments of the funds necessary to provide all citizens with the education, health, security, and social services that they require.

But as many Latin Americans have told me over the years, why should they pay taxes to fund corruption? This is an easy rationale for income earners at all levels to focus on short-term gain and ignore the needs to society while jeopardizing their long term freedom, prosperity and security.

Thus, the vicious circle continues of both corruption and underfunding of government programs needed to improve the whole society. No government to date has been able to close this circle, and none appears to be on the horizon.

On another front, Latin American societies are, on the whole, vertically structured in a way that rewards birthright and connections over merit and competence.

Social mobility like that seen in Canada and the United States is far less prevalent in Latin America, and the opportunities for those from humbler backgrounds to move up the social and economic ladder are limited at the best of times. The resulting frustration of many leads to poor political choices when it comes to voting

On a macro-political level, thirty years after the end of the left-right ideological battles of the Cold War, the hemisphere remains divided along left-right lines.

Currently, the “Lima Group” of countries, composed of governments of the center and right and named after the Peruvian capital where they first met in 2017, continues to advocate for major reforms and a change of government in Venezuela that is a major bone of contention. The “Grupo de Sao Paolo”, composed of left of center and authoritarian governments and named after the Brazilian city where they first met in 1990, continues to favor the failed Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro and opposes neo-liberal policies.

Both sides have some positive and some negative points.

The “Lima Group’s” focus on value of democracy and the need for the full respect for human rights is valid in a world where these values appear to be in danger of further erosion. However, its focus on neo-liberal socio-economic models has not succeeded in making much of a dent as these policies have made it the region of the world with the greatest levels of social and economic inequalities.

The “Grupo de Sao Paolo’s” focus on social justice and economic opportunity for all also has merit. It’s call for better social institutions to reduce inequity and increase the ability of all who invest the proper effort to succeed financially and politically makes good sense. However, its major shortcomings are its tolerance (indeed, in some cases, insistence) on authoritarian political models, the tendency of its’ leaders to try to hold on to power forever, and the group’s closeness to such undemocratic role models as Russia and China.

Membership in both of these groups is highly fluid. Mexico, a founding member of the “Grupo de Lima” has aligned itself with the “Foro de Sao Paolo” since the new government took office. And Brazil, a founding member of the “Grupo de Sao Paolo” is now firmly in the orbit of the “Grupo de Lima” since the election of the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. It remains to be seen in which camp Bolivia winds up now that Evo Morales has resigned.

Also, China and Russia are making inroads into the region posing a challenge to the interests and traditional hegemony of the United States at a time when that country’s leadership appears unwilling to respond. China is promoting a broad communications and transportation infrastructure through its “Belt and Road” initiative, and is becoming the major market for the regions’ natural resources. Russia is pursuing its political interests though its strong support for Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and, soon, Argentina, and may well be in its way to negotiating military arrangements with Venezuela that would lead to the establishment of Russian military and naval facilities in that country.

Unlike most Western democracies, China and Russia do not make their support and investments contingent upon promoting democratic governance or respecting human rights. This plays right into the hands of leaders whose main goals are economic enrichment and political survival rather than the building of strong institutions and allowing their citizens to vote freely and regularly.

The best hope for the region is a leadership that not only leads by example but also creates conditions in which democracy can flourish and people can regain their trust in government.

With all that said, not all is doom and gloom in Latin America.

Uruguay and Costa Rica have stronger middle classes and enjoy political stability. Costa Rica rid itself of its armed forces in 1948 and avoided the political turmoil that struck Central America in the 1980’s. That country has excellent educational and public health systems. Uruguay has had leftist governments and one of its presidents, Jose Mújica, is an ideal example of an honest leader who left office on schedule and made no attempts to change the constitution to broaden his powers or lengthen his stay in office.

Nevertheless, on a global scale, Latin America ranks poorly. Many countries continue to suffer from social and economic polarization, and minority elites continue to rule, often with a strong sense of entitlement and accompanying impunity.

Thirty years ago, at the Complutense University’s annual symposium on Latin America at El Escorial in Spain, Nicaraguan Commandante Tomás Borges noted that, while the Soviet empire’s communist system in Eastern Europe had been imposed through military occupation after World War Two, the Latin American left is a home-grown product arising from historical domestic discontent with the inequities of the political and economic systems and the inherent racism in place.

In my opinion, time and events have proven him right.

Absent strong and honest governmental involvement and the provision of efficient and effective government services, results have been and will continue to be few in coming. The absence of leaders who can transmit a feeling of change and make it reality, public confidence in public institutions will remain weak at best.

Indeed, these efforts and those prospective leaders still appear to be far from evident, and Latin America’s ability to achieve the positive results that can meld economic and social equity with a fundamental respect for democratic values and human rights remains elusive.