Comments, Globe, In Focus, Latin America

The additions and subtractions of a changing Latin America

The last quarter of 2019 is proving especially hectic in Latin America : social revolts as have not been seen in a long time in several countries; elections with mixed results and in some cases extremely close run; and as a common denominator in more than one situation, the military again deployed in the street using dubious legal interpretations and methods.


Pablo Sapag M.


All this brings mixed results for each country, but also a regional realignment that may set the course for Latin America for the next few years.

With regard to the riots, and although in each case there may be more underlying reasons, the trigger has consistently been a government decision that has directly affected the pockets of the people already pushed to the limit by the high cost of living and deficient public services. Raising the price of public transport in Santiago and proposing new tax exemptions for businessmen in Chile, eliminating the fuel subsidy in an oil producing country as in Ecuador, or proposing neoliberal style labour, tax and pension reforms as President Iván Duque did in Colombia did not seem very appropriate measures for countries hit by the fall in prices of their natural resources which sustain their precarious export economies.

Then there are the elections. In Argentina, the Peronist Alberto Fernández clearly prevailed after the short neoliberal experiment of Mauricio Macri whose measures ended in what Argentines fear most: the marked devaluation of the peso and its accompanying measure, bank restrictions and currency exchange controls that limit the money you can take out of the bank.

With former president Cristina Fernández as vice president, Alberto Fernández intends to put this the region’s third economy on the path to growth again with a more socially equitable distribution of the benefits.

In other words: pure justicialism, the ideology that since the time of General Perón structured the Argentina of European immigrants and the native Creole and mixed races, the legacy of the Spanish colony. An ideological Peronism that has transcended the figure of its founder to the bewilderment of those who analyse Latin American politics using classical and foreign premises.

In its neighbouring Uruguay and after fourteen years of Broad Front governments represented by Tabaré Vázquez and Pepe Mújica, Luis Lacalle Pou has won a very tight victory. The son of a former president of the Republic and whose surnames are of course linked to politics, he has returned the National or White Party to power.

In a country that is racially and culturally even more homogeneous than Argentina, a certain gradual consensus is expected in turning the pendulum towards the Uruguayan centre-right.

Bolivia is a different case, where a challenge to the results of the first round of the presidential elections ended in street violence with President Evo Morales in Mexico and a very uncertain future that jeopardizes what has equally been achieved over almost fourteen years of his governments.

At that time the Bolivian ethnic and racial reality was finally reconciled with institutions that had been reserved for the tiny white minority and a handful of assimilated mestizos that excluded the indigenous and mestizo majority of the country.

All this was achieved while maintaining economic growth, upholding fiscal responsibility and for the first time in history without military uprisings.

That is over.

It was the military that tipped the scales, helped by the myopia of Morales in trying to achieve a new term in office and thus falling into one of the recurring evils of Latin American politics: autocratic leadership that almost always ends up burying innovative ideological projects adapted to the reality of the region but in need of time to get beyond their most outwardly visible forms.

In Chile, the military has also returned to the street. They were called by President Sebastián Piñera to enforce the state of emergency during the violent days of October and November that left a good couple of dozen protesters dead and almost 300 totally or partially blind due to pellet shots in the face delivered by riot police.

Now he wants to give them special powers to guard essential facilities and thus give a break to the ‘Carabineros’, the highly militarized Chilean police.

Bad news for a country ruled by the white minority, boasting a European culture, that has monopolized power from colonial times on and which after Independence was reinforced by Central European immigrants who were even more remote from the great Chilean mestizo mass, a group that is not aware of its place because, unlike the natives, it has no representatives or claims of its own.

Hence the speed in being summoned and age-old prominence of the Chilean military and police, who inspired the formation and uniforms of their peers in Colombia, where for different reasons the military have also been on the frontline for too long. Perhaps the Chilean difficulties and the impossibility of quickly bringing the situation under control after what happened in Bolivia will have more impact in the region in the long term.

From its own ethnic and racial equation, Bolivia was the obvious example that these elements must necessarily be part of the ideological management of Latin American politics.

Personifying this in Morales put in jeopardy the Bolivian indigenist justicialism that Álvaro García Linera articulated so well and which Morales put into practice in his early years later succumbing to his own success.

Models like the Venezuelan or the Nicaraguan ones have also been victims of placing personality above ideology.

In Cuba and after hyper personification with Fidel Castro, an attempt is being made to save an ideological project whose hallmark is more state nationalism than communism and whose outstanding business involves enfranchising the Afro-Cubans.

The same goes for Brazil, where the Afro-Brazilian majority is not only politically excluded, but until yesterday faced the dismantling of the precarious social state introduced by the equally hyper personified Lula Da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

Having said when he won the elections that his model was Chile, President Jair Bolsonaro has just given up the most neoliberal measures of his government programme.

Given the weight of Brazil and its influence in Latin America, it is a victory of the first magnitude for those who have rebelled in Chile.

It remains to be seen whether there will be profound changes but stopping the spread of the model to Brazil and its projection across Latin America is not insignificant for a Chile that needs to rediscover its Latin American identity, denied by the white and culturally European elite that controls all formal and symbolic means of power in Chile.

Nor is it insignificant that Bolsonaro is feeling less secure and starting to give prominence to Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s  Mexico, a Mexico that since the fall of the Berlin Wall had lost its status as a Latin American regional power to Brazil’s advantage. Things, lots of things, are moving in Latin America.

What is unclear is the direction of travel or the result of this new equation.

(Translated by Nigel Conibear) – Photos: Pixabay

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