The South American rainbow

Publicado : 26 Mayo, 2011 en Portada, Prensa

Por Gabriel Gaspar | Director Programa Análisis de Coyuntura – FES; Fundación Chile 21

Recent elections indicate that, while Latin America has maintained its political diversity, the trend is leaning to the left – that is, critical of the status quo.

It sounds paradoxical. Latin America, and South America in particular, have enjoyed strong growth and swiftly emerged from the global financial crisis. In many countries, the fight against poverty is bearing fruit and, in several, there has been a significant increase in the size of the middle class.

In Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos won a resounding electoral victory. You could say the right won, but the new president relaunched the political agenda with a successful easing of tensions with neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador. He has proposed initiatives with a clear progressive bent, such as the Law of Victims, and has made room in his government for liberal voices.

He broke with the isolation of Alvaro Uribe, his predecessor, without distancing himself from the US. Santos today enjoys an approval rating of above 80 per cent.

In Chile, Sebastián Piñera took office as the first president from the right elected in more than 50 years, but for a variety of reasons he has not managed to bring Chile’s various political currents together and his popularity has sunk to 40 per cent.

The glory days of last year’s rescue of 33 trapped miners have passed. The spectre of former president Michelle Bachelet’s return to office is looming over the Chilean government (presidents cannot seek consecutive terms in office).

In Brazil, the left retained power. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva left office as the most popular president in Brazilian history after tens of millions of people emerged from poverty and as many again graduated to the middle class. Brazil has managed to put itself firmly on the global agenda and its economy is one of the most powerful in the emerging world.

In Uruguay, president José Mujica is a former Tupamaro rebel who has applied realism and has restored Uruguay’s ancestral republicanism.

Evo Morales in Bolvia has a stable majority, despite a misstep over the rise in fuel prices at the end of last year. His project is to create a new Bolivia – one that would bring in the rural and ethnic majorities that have been left on the margin of society since colonial times.

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, Rafael Correa is heading a “citizen’s revolution”. Bouncing back after an attempted police revolt, he has recently won a referendum which, if only narrowly, approved the reforms his government was seeking.

Three elections are left: Peru next month, Argentina in October and Venezuela next year.

The second round in Peru’s elections is a good example of what is happening in the region. How is it possible, in a country like Peru that has enjoyed spectacular growth, that the candidates most critical of the government beat its supporters into the run-off?

Peru has growth, but it has been miserly growth compared with the needs of most people. More than 10m Peruvians, a third of the population, lack access to drinking water. While Lima is transforming itself into a modern metropolis, provincial towns remain relegated. The centre-right was split among three candidates and the result was obvious: the nationalist Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the former president, went through to the second round. Both represent the plebeian, Indian, highland, mixed-race Peru in which social inequality is mixed with strong racism.

A cycle in Peruvian politics marked by big, traditional parties has finished. Acción Popular, on the right, capsized years ago. Izquierda Unida succumbed amid the Shining Path violence and the authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori, Keiko’s father. The Christian Popular Party fought its last battle over the mayor of Lima. The once powerful APRA succumbed with the government of Alan García.

Instead of traditional parties, groups short on content and long on charisma have appeared. It is difficult to predict the second round – many votes are “hidden” – and differences have narrowed. But whoever wins will lack a political and parliamentary majority and will have scant room for manoueuvre, making big changes difficult.

Why do Peruvians vote for “non-traditional” candidates? It’s simple – because the country is progressing, but the majority isn’t. Rather than worrying about which way the train is going in Peru, it appears that many people just want to get on. And that is true for many other countries.

In Argentina, no one doubts that Cristina Fernández will win. In Venezuela, the opposition is back on the election scene and President Hugo Chávez will face a strong test – but in a context where the major actors have chosen an institutional field to play out their differences, and that is a positive thing.

Is it possible to put a single label on all this diversity? There are some common threads. This is a region which long ago left dictators and guerrillas behind. These are also societies which are lugging heavy social and institutional deficits, though some are demonstrating that they can address these tasks – Chile, Brazil and Uruguay have the highest indices of growth and equality.

These are economies which are, for the most part, open to the world, though with diverse strategies. Some have opted for a broad and diversified openness (Chile), while others have chosen to associate with peers. There are differences, too. One formula is the a rather “defensive” integration, such as that attempted by the countries of the Bolviarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean promoted by Venezuela. Others are seeking more flexible formulae.

Latin America is growing but social inequality must still be addressed.

Growth spurred by commodities threatens to shift the economic focus back to raw materials and away from adding value. There has to be investment in human resources and technology. Strengthening institutions and fighting corruption are other outstanding issues, along with public security, under threat from organised crime and drugs trafficking.

Gabriel Gaspar is a Chilean political scientist, a former ambassador to Colombia and Cuba and a former deputy defence minister