Lessons From Latin America’s Struggle to Change

Lessons From Latin America’s Struggle to Change
AP Photo/Gustavo Garello
Lessons From Latin America’s Struggle to Change
AP Photo/Gustavo Garello
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When a wave of popular anger driven by a desire for change sweeps away much of a region’s political establishment, it usually provokes hope and fear in equal measure. This is the case right now in Latin America. Economic distress and public revolt against corruption and excess have taken down ruling parties in the region’s biggest economies. The candidates who promised the most change have been given the chance to deliver it. The verdict on hope versus fear will be in by the end of 2019, and the coming months are crucial. 

The wave started with the 2015 election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina and culminated late last year with the landslide victory of hard-right President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Outsiders, disruptors and reformers from across the political spectrum have taken power in all the major economies of the region; it has been a remarkable shift. The public rejection of the established order at the ballot box was harsh, and justice for the corrupt has been uncharacteristically swift. 

Many defeated establishment figures, including former presidents and sitting officials, have landed in courtrooms and jail cells. The mandate for change was big, and the public’s faith was placed in leaders with little to no apparent experience in governing on such a scale, or with carrying the burden of high expectations. Argentina and Brazil illustrate the hope and the perils of the phenomenon.  

Macri came into power in Argentina as the head of a new coalition aptly named “Let’s Change,” after 11 years of leftist rule by the husband-and-wife team of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, who governed in alternating terms. Mrs. Kirchner is now in a Buenos Aires courtroom facing trial for a corruption scheme that allegedly diverted and laundered millions of dollars in public funds for private gain. She left behind a moribund economy that Macri had to revive, but the new president chose a gradual approach, taking on debt instead of imposing a program of economic shock therapy that might have burned up his political capital.  

Macri’s choice left Argentina more exposed to external shocks, which hit hard and forced him to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. He now faces a steep climb to re-election in October, and Cristina Kirchner will be back on the ticket running against him despite her economic legacy and legal woes. His peers in the region can see in Macri the dangers of walking too softly, and markets are worried about the implications of a return of the old regime.

Brazil, on the other hand, elected someone known for excessive boldness in Bolsonaro. Before he took on the reform mantle, Bolsonaro was best known for his outrageous statements and controversial views on cultural issues. Like Macri, he inherited a broken economy. Now Bolsonaro has to do what Macri did not -- get his Congress to pass fiscal adjustments big enough to stave off financial calamity in the medium term. This is the defining test of his presidency. Should he win approval of a first crucial measure, aimed at reforming pensions, it could open the door to other reforms and a sustained economic rebound. If he fails, the markets will begin to panic, given the fiscal hole Brazil now faces. Only days ago, as the pensions measure was struggling to advance, Bolsonaro said he was moved out of a sense of frustration to circulate a text he’d read on social media. Its message was that it doesn’t appear possible to govern Brazil without playing the old corrupt game that Bolsonaro refuses to play. Like with Macri, and no matter how unloved Bolsonaro might be personally, the consequences of failure are too distressing to imagine.  

The broader lesson is that change cannot be a perpetual high-wire act for untested leaders, and lasting change doesn’t spring up from devastated ground overnight. The collapse of the political establishment also destroyed the credibility of Latin America’s progressive movements, and their corruption scandals crushed public faith in their ideas even though some of their policies really did lift many out of poverty.  

Whether or not the mostly conservative reformers succeed or fail in their efforts this year, the region’s progressives have a duty to repair the public’s broken confidence in them and regain a seat at the policy table. They must contribute ideas, solutions, and effective checks and balances. Their contributions are needed for the sake of democracy in the region, not to mention prosperity. That will mean tough choices and generational renewal. It will mean renouncing old icons who let them and their countrymen down, and turning away from their polarizing methods for gaining and holding power.

The people of the region are watching closely as events unfold in Argentina and Brazil, given the stakes and the potential consequences. Behind all the political drama, there remains the honest wish of the peoples of Latin America who voted in good faith for things to change for the better. We’ll soon see whether they will get their wish.

Harold Ford Jr. is a former U.S. representative from Tennessee. Learn more about him at www.haroldfordjr.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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