Hard Times for Castro's Latin American Heirs
These are hard times for Latin America's populist left, the one that, inspired by the Castro model, was brought to power at the dawn of the present century by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil. After claiming the moral high ground for years, it sees its popularity and electoral weight shrinking by the day.
In Argentina, the hard-left Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner handed over the country's presidency to the pro-market Mauricio Macri, after the latter defeated the candidate of Ms. Kirchner's party in elections held last December. Around the same time, Venezuela's regime, led by President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's uncharismatic handpicked heir, was dealt a crushing blow at the parliamentary elections held on Dec. 6. More recently, Bolivian President Evo Morales lost a referendum that he organized to allow him to stand for a fourth consecutive term in office.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa's popularity fell in 2015, from 60 to 41 percent. More worrisome for him, in a poll conducted last December, 60 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track and 72 percent regarded as "incorrect" the way the government has been dealing with economic problems.
In Brazil, Lula's successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has an approval rating at an abysmal 11 percent, the lowest in Brazil's contemporary history, while 56 percent call for her resignation.
Maduro's popularity is no better. According to a poll carried out last February, 70 percent regard him as incapable of solving the country's crisis, and 72 percent want him to leave the presidency before the end of his mandate in 2019.
Such disaffection stems to a large extent from the limits and flaws of the anti-market model that Latin America's hard left has put in place.
As long as the region was profiting from the unprecedented boom in world markets for commodities, hard-left governments were able to manage in a capricious and inefficient manner the resources at their disposal. Export earnings were enough to fund practically everything: social programs with a high patronage content, of course, but also bloated bureaucracies, lavish public spending and, last but not least, corruption networks.
As soon as the commodities boom came to an end, however, the economic model of the populist left began to crumble and has fared worse than the pro-market agenda implemented in other Latin American countries (Chile, Colombia, and Peru, in particular).
The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America forecasts that Venezuela and Brazil will be the region's worst performers in 2016. Venezuela will be in recession for a third consecutive year, and its annual inflation rate is expected to reach 720 percent, according the International Monetary Fund.
Regarding Kirchner's Argentina (that is to say, before Mauricio Macri's presidency), the IMF warned that the country is showing "unsustainable trends" that will only lead to higher levels of inflation and deficit.
To the public discontent aroused by a deteriorating economic situation, we should add the discredit brought by the rampant corruption that prevails in many if not all of the countries ruled by Latin America's populist left. Scandals involving high-level authorities in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, to name just a few, have torn into pieces the myth of a left keen on, and capable of, ensuring probity in the management of public funds.
A third and no less important cause of public discontent lies in the tendency of those governments to hinder and eventually suppress fundamental rights and freedoms.
Harassment against the independent press and even simple cartoonists, elimination of the autonomy of the judicial system and of the national electoral board, suppression of the constitutional prerogatives of parliaments controlled by the opposition, beating of opposition MPs, arbitrary detentions, as well as torture, form part of the methods employed by those governments with the purpose of quelling criticism and discontent.
The recent electoral setbacks should induce Latin America's hard-left governments to think out of the box and refurbish their economic strategies and governance methods.
A change of tack, however, doesn't seem to figure in their agenda; quite the contrary. The trend is toward "radicalizing the revolution," which in hard-left jargon means to crack down with greater virulence on the opposition, the independent press, and the entrepreneurial class.
Thus, in Venezuela, President Maduro has vowed not to change course. He promises more socialism and more revolution.
Recent moves aimed at tightening Maduro's grip include making career advancement in the military dependent on filling a questionnaire stating allegiance to Hugo Chavez's legacy, and the issuance of a so-called Bolivarian card for followers of Chavismo. Needless to say, those who do not request that card will be identified as opponents to the regime, and they may have serious difficulties in securing or maintaining a job in the public sector (government and state-owned firms) and in obtaining food and medicines at subsidized prices.
The taste for coercive and repressive methods has much to do with the populist left's fascination with the Castro regime. Since Fidel and Raul Castro have succeeded in holding power for more than half a century by smothering dissent, their emulators in the region seem to think that they can reproduce the Castro brothers' prowess by resorting to similar strong-arm methods.
The calculation is risky at best, for the Cuban experience can hardly be transposed today to other countries of the region.
It will indeed be difficult, if not impossible, for any government in the region to apply the level of repression that has enabled the Castro regime to cling to power. In today's Latin America, the political conditions are not the same as those prevailing in Cuba at the time the Castro brothers consolidated their dictatorial grip. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that, however hard Venezuela's leadership tried to prevent an electoral defeat through intimidation, imprisonments, torture, control of the media, gerrymandering, and other dirty tricks, that defeat ultimately took place.
At the turn of the 19th century, the French writer (and disenchanted socialist) Charles Peguy coined a sentence that may be used in due time as an epitaph for Latin America's hard left: "Parties live from their mystique and die of their policies."