Chavismo Is More Dangerous in Defeat
In March 2014 elections, El Salvador's ruling left-wing party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, fought the ascendant right-wing ARENA party to a draw, effectively maintaining their control in the Legislative Assembly but capturing the symbolically important mayor's seat in the capital and largest city, San Salvador.
I wrote then that when Chavismo wins at the ballot box even by a narrow margin, radical change is never far away. (FMLN party headquarters features a portrait of Hugo Chavez set between Pol Pot and Lenin.)
Examples from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua helped prove the point. Leaders in each of these countries - all members of the anti-democratic Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America - routinely undermine the media, judiciary, and electoral councils, with the ultimate goal of dismantling these independent institutions and consolidating power.
In the last months of 2015, however, Latin America saw a sudden and deliberate political shift. The Chavistas' overreach caught up precisely as the country's petro-driven largesse ran out, leading to severe economic failure and the far left's resounding defeat at the polls.
In Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's term as president was marked by 30 percent inflation and a decline that cut foreign currency reserves in half. Her mismanagement of the economy was felt by enough Argentinians that it paved the way for Buenos Aires' market-oriented mayor to succeed her in office and end 12 years of Peronist populism.
In Venezuela, an inflation rate exceeding 100 percent and an economy expected to shrink by 10 percent next year have left supermarket shelves empty. Milk and rice are in short supply in this country, which has the world's largest oil reserves. President Nicolas Maduro's administration incredulously claimed that the country's toilet paper shortage happened because "Venezuelans are eating more," but voters knew better, and they handed the opposition a two-thirds majority in the country's National Assembly.
Finally, no diagnosis of Chavismo's current ills would be complete without mention of the impeachment proceedings against Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, an underwhelming leader with questionable ethics. Accustomed to channeling her more popular predecessor's left-wing populism, Rousseff has stumbled, and Brazil's economy is set to contract by as much as 3.6 percent this year.
What these three political developments portend for the continent's "pink tide" of socialism is yet to be determined. Many have been quick to say the pink tide is fading. "The pink tide turns," declared the BBC. "The pink tide is ebbing," said the Wall Street Journal. "The pink tide seems to be receding...as more centrist or conservative voices are gaining ground," observed the Washington Post.
Unfortunately, this play on words oversimplifies. A closer look shows that where Chavistas still hold power, that power is unabated and is exercised with even greater disregard for democratic principles.
Not two weeks after Argentina elected its new president, Ecuador's Congress amended its Constitution to allow for indefinite presidential terms. Nicaragua did the same in 2014, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales is pushing for similar changes in his country. In Venezuela, Maduro has said that he may enlist the military to settle disputes with the resurgent opposition, which he deems an enemy of his country's socialist system. He has since gone further still, attempting to pack his country's Supreme Court and to challenge the validity of the recent elections.
The real observation here is that when Chavismo loses at the ballot box, radical change becomes more urgent. Faced with losing power or being exposed as ineffectual extremists, its leaders work harder to dismantle democracy. When Chavismo loses, its corrosive nature can actually become more acute.
For this reason, the pink tide cannot be turned back through election victories alone. One party's defeat of another is rarely enough to protect democracy over the long term. The pink tide will ebb only when more Latin American countries achieve three things.
First, countries in the region must strengthen their institutions. In places like Colombia, Chile, and Peru, independent albeit imperfect media, judicial systems, and electoral councils keep elected leaders in check. Party control frequently changes hands in these countries, whose leaders mine the electoral center for political support.
They should embrace their neighbors in North America and across the Pacific through trade agreements and other long-term economic partnerships. Dynamic economies around the world have strong demand for Latin America's abundant exports of natural resources. But the Bolivarian Alliance countries are traditionally suspicious of foreign, especially American, investment (with notable exceptions for China and Russia). This inhibits economic growth and foments greater resentment toward the West.
Leaders in these countries should also support the emerging middle class. Chavismo thrives on legitimate fears and frustrations over economic inequality. But the World Bank shows the wage gap is narrowing in Latin America, where commodity prices helped make the middle class a larger percentage of the population than those in poverty - a first for the region. Economic growth that lifts more people out of poverty is a strong antidote to ideological fanaticism.
The electoral defeat of Chavistas in Argentina and Venezuela is an important first step for Latin America. For these new leaders to now make a permanent break from decades of twisted ideology and toward an economic future rooted in reality, they must maintain the independence of strong institutions, seek investment unabashedly, and ensure all citizens have the opportunity to achieve greater wealth.