With today’s inauguration of the newly elected President Mauricio Macri, a left-leaning administration in Argentina is being replaced by one from the centre-right. In Venezuela, the opposition scored a crushing victory in parliamentary elections on Sunday over the populist socialist movement founded by Hugo Chavez, whose successor, Nicolas Maduro, has led his country to the brink of economic collapse.
In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff, leader of the Workers’ Party and successor of the charismatic Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has approval ratings in single digits and may yet face impeachment – a year after winning a second term.
Even in Chile, South America’s model democracy, prosperous and largely free of the corruption and populism that have marred the politics of its neighbours, the Socialist President Michelle Bachelet is in serious trouble, her popularity down to 25 per cent two years after winning the largest electoral victory since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990.
It is always dangerous to generalise about a continent made up of very different countries. But these separate developments suggest that a wind of conservative change is blowing though South America, threatening to topple the left and centre-left governments that came to power at the turn of the millennium.
External factors, obviously, have played a big part in the turnabout. The economy of an area that depends heavily on raw-material exports has been hard hit by the collapse in commodity prices, most notably in the cases of Venezuela (oil) and Chile (copper). When economies struggle, public resentment grows at the old bugbears of corruption and cronyism, tolerated when times are good.
In Brazil, the scandal centred on the state oil company, Petrobras, has compounded Ms Rousseff’s problems, while corruption helped fuel the backlash against the Chavismo movement in Venezuela. More generally, the left-wing leaders fell into the trap of promising the poorer sections of the population more than they could deliver, as the economy turned sour. Forced to scrap ambitious social plans, or even to bring in austerity measures, they have alienated their supporters.
A rightward shift may be congenial to Washington, as it seeks to improve relations with Latin America. But in economic terms, spending cuts and other more “realistic” economic policies will not of themselves provide the answer. The factors that brought the left to power between 1998 and 2004 – widespread poverty and social inequalities – remain. A resurgent centre-right will neglect these problems at its peril.
Nowhere is this problem more acute than in Venezuela, supreme example of the continent’s failure to translate its vast resources into commensurate prosperity for its citizens. With power divided, it is vital that Mr Maduro and the opposition that now controls the National Assembly work together on economic reforms.
Voters did not necessarily reject the ideological premises of Chavismo. What they were demanding was an end to the economic miseries of daily life: shortages of basic goods, black markets and runaway inflation. That will only be achieved by an end to price controls and subsidies, the installation of a single exchange rate and encouragement for the private sector.
The immediate signs are not good. On Tuesday, Mr Maduro went to the mausoleum of his predecessor to vow to protect the socialist revolution from the “bad guys” who now control parliament. The likelihood is of more turmoil in Venezuela. And for the continent as a whole, turbulent times may lie ahead as well.
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