In the wake of his multiple wins on Super Tuesday, everyone and their mother is linking to Amanda Taub’s longform Vox essay on the powerful link between support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and authoritarian leanings. And it’s definitely worth a read.
What’s interesting to me, however, is that over the past decade, much of South America has been experimenting with myriad aspects of Trump’s authoritarian streak. Many South American rulers also have railed against the “economic warfare” of crony capitalists, the unfairness of Wall Street bankers and the need for strong leadership to correct the mistakes of corrupt, conservative oligarchic rulers of the past.
And what’s fascinating is that over the past year or so, many of the countries in the region have rejected this kind of Trumpian leadership at the ballot box. Consider:
1. Hugo Chávez successor Nicolas Maduro faced a landslide loss in Venezuelan parliamentary elections in December as the opposition gained an unexpected supermajority.
Why did voters reject Maduro so handily? Peter Wilson summarizes over at Foreign Policy:
Almost everyone agrees that Venezuela, which has been unable to develop what are the world’s largest oil reserves, is in deep trouble. Economists forecast that inflation could top 700 percent this year, and that the economy could shrink by an additional 8 percent after last year’s 10 percent contraction.
Also at FP, Christopher Sabatini notes: “Chavismo’s damage is real, and deeply felt. But the government of Chávez and Maduro and the Bolivarian project have been marked more by incompetence, corruption, and criminality, than by ideological coherence.”
2. In November, Argentina rejected President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner by electing the anti-Peronist Mauricio Macri. And just this week, Macri fulfilled a campaign pledge and cut a deal with New York vulture funds holding out for repayment of defaulted Argentine debt. This settles the most acrimonious legacy of Kirchner’s time in office. It’s a big step toward enabling Argentina to borrow from global capital markets.
3. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff … well, I’ll just outsource this to Sabatini again:
Today, Brazil is consumed by domestic trouble. After its economy grew by an average annual rate of 4.6 percent between 2005 and 2008 and by 3.9 percent in 2011 following the global recession, it is expected to contract by close to 3 percent this year, the country’s greatest economic slide since the Great Depression. At the same time, the revelation of a massive corruption scam involving the semi-private, state-owned oil company Petrobras has implicated members of both the ruling PT as well as the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), the democratic-socialist opposition party. More importantly, the scandal has stained many of Brazil’s private-sector icons, from Petrobras to the group of infrastructure companies involved in paying bribes to gain access to more than $23 billion in contracts from the company, such as Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez. Some of those kickbacks found their way to political parties including the PT, allegedly to finance Rousseff’s election campaign.
4. Last week, Bolivian President Evo Morales lost a referendum that would have enabled him to run for a fourth term in office. Even though Morales had been in office for 10 years and was widely considered the most sober of the Bolivarian rulers, a majority of voters rejected what seemed like a panicky move.
The Economist, in writing about Morales’s loss, notes the larger trend across the region as well. It attributes it to the failure of left economic policies:
In Ecuador Rafael Correa has said he will not run again next year. In Brazil the government of Dilma Rousseff is not certain to survive to the end of its term in 2018. This week João Santana, her campaign guru, was arrested on suspicion that he was paid with money from bribes. If substantiated that could prompt the electoral court to call a fresh election. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet, a once-adored president, languishes in the opinion polls.
Three things are behind the left’s fall from grace. One is the end of the commodity boom. The governments in Venezuela (especially), Brazil and Argentina made no effort to save the windfall gains from the boom. Impelled by a refusal to risk unpopularity and electoral defeat, they carried on spending even as commodity prices began to fall. That is an old mistake. As Mr. Morales says, he advised Chávez that “you can’t carry on subsidising so much.” He added that “to maintain the ideology, you have to guarantee [that people have] food.” The second factor is corruption, especially in Venezuela and Brazil. Of the left-wing governments only Uruguay’s is unscathed by scandal. Third, after a decade or more of left-wing dominance voters want fresh faces and the alternation of power.
All this means that Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina’s presidential election last November may presage further electoral success for the centre-right. After a decade in which much of Latin America looked to China, Barack Obama will be widely applauded when he visits Argentina and Cuba next month.
Donald Trump is not a leftist. He is an economic populist, however, and most of South America’s turn to the left over the past decade was grounded in economic populism. Looking back, it would appear that only the commodities boom of the naughts enabled this wave to last as long as it has. With the crash in commodity prices, all of these economies are worse off than before, and will be spending the rest of this decade trying to recover from failed economic policies during a period of lower global economic growth.
South American voters have now decisively rejected the path of economic populism. One hopes that North American voters will do the same.