Latin America’s Leftists Get a Wake-Up Call

Mauricio Macri's victory in Argentina may lead to a new era of honesty about human rights abuses in Latin America.

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“The thing you have to remember about Argentines,” a former Chilean government minister once cautioned me, “is that they aren’t like other Latin Americans. They’re Italians who speak Spanish, but dream in French.” Across the continent this week, a great many other ministers must be hoping he’s right. The reason: if Argentines are like other South Americans, it does not bode well for the region’s struggling leftist governments.

On Sunday, conservative candidate Mauricio Macri narrowly overcame his leftist opponent Daniel Scioli in a runoff vote to become the country’s first center-right president in over a decade. The defeat of Scioli — once a heavily-favored leftist candidate backed by president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — has, at a stroke, transformed Argentina’s political landscape, and may well do the same for the rest of South America.

The defeat of the president’s favored successor has been welcomed by the market. Under Kirchner’s erratic breed of personalized populism, as well as that of her husband and presidential predecessor, South America’s second-largest economy was hamstrung by protectionism — and twice defaulted on its foreign obligations.

Macri comes into power promising substantial business-friendly reforms, but it will be a difficult slog — Argentina’s congress is still dominated by President Kirchner’s erstwhile supporters, as are its governorships. The economy is looking decidedly grim. Even so, with his election there’s a palpable sense that the investment climate has nowhere to go but up.

Regionally, the collapse of Kirchnerism represents both a sign of the public’s dissatisfaction with the 21st century socialist model espoused by Kirchner and her regional allies, and a potential catalyst for further weakening of South America’s socialist status quo. Whether this weakening really comes to pass will depend on how closely Macri the president mirrors Macri the candidate. Should he continue to speak out against violations of human rights and civic freedoms in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador, as he has done, this will do much to undermine a shameful legacy of silence that has deeply damaged the region’s democratic norms.

For much of the tumultuous twentieth century, socialism was a widespread and deeply admired ideology in Latin America. But it actually ruled only in cordoned-off Cuba, and within the autonomous fiefs of armed guerillas in places like Mexico, Colombia and Peru. Where the left did attain political control on a national scale, as in Allende’s Chile or Árbenz’s Guatemala, national armies, sometimes with tacit (or less-than tacit) support from the United States, would often intervene to oust them.

This changed with the election of Hugo Chávez to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998. His meteoric rise helped inspire the revolutionary democratic movements — allied to and influenced by chavismo to varying degrees — that came to power in much of the region. South America’s presidential palaces soon became the nearly exclusive purview of the left: first in Chile, then Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and beyond, in what came to be known as the “pink tide.” At its high-water mark, around 2009, every major South American government save Colombia was left-wing and populist.

Today, that tide is unmistakably receding. Cuba has entered détente with the United States while actively seeking international investment more aggressively than ever before. The guerrilla movements are fading (as in Peru) or suing for peace (as in Colombia). The charismatic old guard has either died off, like Chávez and Nestor Kirchner, or else formally stepped aside, like Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Their heirs of these leaders are struggling to retain popular support. And epic corruption scandals haven’t helped. A campaign contribution investigation in Chile led President Bachelet to sack her entire cabinet in May. The Lava Jato scandal in Brazil has hamstrung both the national oil company and the national economy. And, of course, the January murder of Special Prosecutor Nisman has caused a furor in Kirchner’s own Argentina.

Years of fiscal irresponsibility during last decade’s commodity boom are now making themselves felt. South America’s economies are sputtering (if not shrinking outright), and governments are struggling to control inflation and unemployment. Economic necessity has forced many of them to attempt reforms and reduce spending, fueling perceptions that they kowtow to Wall Street in a decidedly un-revolutionary manner, and costing them much of their public support. Today only Bolivia’s popular revolution, boosted by demographic support for its first indigenous president, remains truly popular. The rest of South America’s leftists are mostly languishing in the 20-30 percent range of approval (significantly less in the case of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who is under threat of impeachment.)

Macri’s victory will only exacerbate their problems.

During the rise of the pink tide, new international institutions like Unasur, Mercosur, and Alba were set up with the goal of advancing regional integration, protecting their members’ national sovereignty, and collectively minimizing the influence of outsiders like Washington.

Whenever these organizations’ member states have faced outside criticism — whether regarding electoral hijinks, press freedoms, or judicial shenanigans – they have responded by closing ranks. For the offenders, the support of their fellow leftists helped to counter international condemnation. The region’s more moderate leftist governments, like Brazil’s and Chile’s, could placate hardline domestic constituencies through visible support for more radical revolutionary projects elsewhere, allowing them to keep their own revolutions a bit more superficial and market-friendly.

Until now, few have dared to violate the unwritten designation of South America as a “judgment-free zone” regarding human rights practices. Colombia, the continent’s only large nonaligned economy, was dependent on support from its leftist neighbors for its tricky peace negotiations with FARC rebels. Thus, the behavior of the uncharismatic Chávez replacement Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, with his penchant for gagging the media and taking political prisoners, has only rarely elicited grumbles from regional institutions. The spotty human rights record of Ecuador’s government, led by Rafael Correa, flew entirely under the radar.

As the largest Hispanic country in South America, Argentina can now challenge this shameful silence from within, and Macri seems more than ready to do so. On the night of his election, Lilian Tintori — the wife of Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López — attended the victory party. Soon after, Macri confirmed that he would seek to invoke Mercosur’s democracy clause to suspend Venezuela for “persecution of opposition leaders.” The timing could not be worse for Maduro, who seems on the verge of losing his parliamentary majority in legislative elections next month. Ecuador’s Correa, too, has cause for concern, given his recent crackdown on journalists, a fact that may well have helped motivate him to actively campaign for Scioli.

Should Macri make good on his promise to denounce Maduro at Mercosur’s December 21 summit, he will have the odds stacked against him. Other than Argentina, only Paraguay’s government is not openly allied to Maduro within the bloc. The remaining members, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, are unlikely to throw Venezuela under the bus for now. Even so, in the face of such a move by a core member, their inaction will require some level of public justification and debate. Ignoring the indefensible is easy. Defending it, less so.

In the photo, supporters of Mauricio Macri celebrate after he defeated ruling party candidate Daniel Scioli in a runoff election on November 22, 2015 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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