Latin America and the Caribbean: The gap between rhetoric and reality
By David Jessop – May 21, 2016 Caribbean News Now
As each day passes, the internal situation in Venezuela deteriorates. Rumours of military coups and unstoppable violence swirl, street protests escalate; ordinary citizens suffer shortages of medicine, everyday foodstuffs, and almost everything else, while enduring rapidly escalating inflation.
It is a situation that has led some commentators to suggest that when taken with other developments in South America, leftist political thinking is being rejected by once sympathetic electorates.
The circumstances, however, are otherwise.
Last November, in Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her socially-left Peronist party lost power in the Argentinian elections and was replaced by Mauricio Macri, a pro-business conservative.
In February, in quite different circumstances, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, lost a referendum that he hoped would give him a fourth term in office from 2019. Although widely credited with lifting huge numbers of indigenous Bolivians out of poverty through the more equitable distribution of the country’s income from its vast natural gas reserves, his reputation had been hit by scandals within his political party.
Then in Brazil, on May 12, Dilma Rousseff, the country’s left-leaning president, was impeached and forced to demit office. In a time limited period in the coming months the country’s senate must decide by a two thirds majority if she was guilty of breaking laws relating to the way that the country’s budget was presented, and whether to dismiss her. In the interim her deputy, Michel Temer, the vice president, and a conservative, has been appointed in her place. The decision followed allegations of widespread corruption in politics and popular street protests.
Ms Rousseff described what happened as a coup. Its objective, she said, was to stop her from governing. “I have made mistakes, but I have not committed any crimes. I am being judged unjustly, because I have followed the law to the letter,” she told her supporters and the media.
All of which has led to a view that the political parties of the left are in decline and electorates are demonstrating their anger by turning against leaders whose views are based on socialist or left of centre thinking. The suggestion by some think tanks and parts of the media is that the consequent political changes in these and other countries will shape a new hemispheric agenda.
It is a view that is simplistic, lacking nuance and balance. It fails to account for the quite different political and economic scenarios that prevail in each country, or the continuing support for left of centre governments in countries where social programmes are well delivered and economic growth can be sustained. It also ignores global trends that suggest that the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed has changed, and voters everywhere are more volatile; ceasing to forgive elites who assume privileges and the right to govern, if they do not deliver what they promise.
If one wants to look for commonalities as to what is changing politics in the Americas, it may therefore be better to consider issues such as economic mismanagement, corruption, cyclical trends in commodity prices, the changing nature of global demand especially from China, the collapse in oil prices, and the failure of governments to prepare for a downturn, for example by establishing sovereign wealth funds in better times.
More generally, the analysis is based on a false left-right dichotomy. The reality is that in Latin America in recent years and in many other parts of the world what constitutes a party of the left has become blurred as some Marxist-Leninist derived models have proved outmoded in their execution, bureaucratic and uninspiring, while others have embraced the market.
What can be seen across Latin America and the Caribbean is an economic downturn in countries that have not diversified, remain heavily dependent on income from commodities, mining and oil: countries with governments that have failed to manage or balance the rhetoric of their social objectives with economic realism, good management, a genuine desire to address corruption, and to find ways to balance middle class aspirations against the social needs of those of ordinary workers and the poor.
What is also interesting, when it comes to hemispheric political analysis, is to wonder why some on the left who sought to deliver greater equality, and an end to capricious decision making, corruption and authoritarianism, have themselves become increasingly autocratic in response to setbacks.
In contrast, there are left of centre leaders in the Americas who have adapted to the reality of ensuring results, and who are finding ways of delivering socially-based, less ideologically-driven and more pragmatic long-term policies that to varying degrees seek to marry the market to their social thinking.
For example, look at Nicaragua. There Daniel Ortega’s ruling Sandinista Party has abandoned the approach it took in its first term in office, which took it down similar paths to those pursued in Venezuela by President Chavez and continued by President Maduro.
When returned as president in 2011, Mr Ortega maintained many of the market oriented policies of his predecessor while being a rhetorical populist and democratic socialist, with the consequence that today Nicaragua has an eclectic set of policies that have successfully delivered one of the highest GDP growth rates in Latin America, pro-actively encourages foreign investment, and places a strong emphasis on delivery.
There are also other examples in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic’s ruling Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD) has undertaken a similar transition from its early socialist origins. Re-elected recently by a landslide after delivering the highest economic growth in the Americas, President Medina and his predecessor President Fernandez chose to embrace the market while delivering extensive social and infrastructural programmes.
Some on the left argue that what is happening in parts of Latin America is being driven by omnipresent US and capitalistic forces determined to overthrow socialism, and it is true that in parts of Washington there is a more than opportunistic interest in what is now happening in Venezuela.
That said, Latin American and Caribbean history demonstrates that any country, wealthy or not, that is unable to govern wisely, will eventually open up the possibility of one or another form of domestic or external intervention, letting down the vulnerable who had faith in a cause.
The message should therefore not be about left or right or ideology, but that governments everywhere unable to relate their rhetoric to implementation, are unlikely to be forgiven.