The Guardian view on Latin America’s left leaders: pink tide could lift all boats | Editorial

The region’s politicians need a different model to deal with social unrest and political instability

Football and national identity in Argentina fused after the Albiceleste won the World Cup in 1986 with Diego Maradona. The country’s democracy, recently restored after decades of coups and murderous army rule, celebrated Maradona’s rise from a shantytown to almost single-handedly defeating the rest of the world. The burst of countrywide pride, however, belied Argentina’s fall: it began the 20th century as the seventh richest nation in the world, but had dropped to the 70th place by 1990.

Decades later, it’s much the same story. In the year that Maradona led his nation to the title, inflation averaged 116%. Annual inflation today is approaching 100%. Between Maradona and the World Cup-winning team led by Lionel Messi this year, the country has defaulted on its foreign debt three times, has had two national currencies, and received, in 2018, the biggest-ever International Monetary Fund bailout.

Argentinian football soared as its politics sank to a low ebb. Just weeks before Messi’s triumph, the leftwing government’s vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was sentenced to jail over a $1bn fraud – a charge she denies, saying it is politically motivated. This might seem a cautionary tale for Latin America, which two decades ago had mixed success under “socialist” governments. By 2017, right-of-centre politicians dominated the region. But the pink tide began to rise once again a year later with Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. When Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, returns to office on Monday, left-leaning leaders will be in control of six of the region’s seven largest economies.

They are now charged with bridging big economic, gender and racial divides. Political polarisation is undermining democracy, making it harder for many to respect compromise. Four years of far-right rule by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has inspired protests calling for a coup to stop Lula becoming president and left public services on the verge of “collapse”. Latin America’s political economy often feels broken.


Geology, as much as geography, is destiny in Latin America. With 60% of the world’s lithium, the white gold of electric batteries, and the world’s largest oil reserves, the neighbouring US carries a big stick. In the 1980s, the Washington consensus led its nations to borrow in dollars and liberalise their capital accounts to attract foreign investors. The lost decades that followed the neoliberal turn in the region saw stagnation, coups and armed conflict. This was the chaotic backdrop in Latin America as authority over spending and investment was transferred out of elected legislatures and into markets, courtrooms and central banks.

Two leftwing governments in Chile and Peru have tried – and failed – this year to rewrite pro-market constitutions. The Chilean president, Gabriel Boric, was swept into office on a wave of social unrest in 2019. However, his proposal for a new, progressive charter was rejected in a September referendum campaign drowning in misinformation. He survived the loss and is seeking to draft a new constitution. In Peru, Pedro Castillo – a former teacher and union leader – attempted to dissolve Congress and elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution after a chaotic year. He ended up impeached, detained by police and replaced by a leftwing former ally. The bloody clashes between Mr Castillo’s supporters and Peruvian security forces suggestt repression remains part of the maintenance of order.

The world, post-Covid but convulsed by Russia’s Ukrainian war, is in flux. This offers Latin America some hope. A different global model once worked in its favour. Keynesian policies held sway between 1950 and 1980, and saw the region develop without damaging boom-and-bust cycles. This period, bounding the late Pelé’s career, ended with democracy replacing dictatorship. The flaws of globalisation today have been increasingly obvious since 2008 – and nowhere more so than in Latin America, which Brazil’s former finance minister Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira says has been condemned to “quasi-stagnation”. His country has seen higher-end exports like vehicle parts and electronics give way to trade in iron and oil.

Rentier politics

The last generation of leftwing leaders could thank high commodity prices for their public investment programmes. But that entrenched a rentier class with an interest at preserving the status quo, such as Brazil’s rich landowners who bankrolled the rightwing Bolsonaro campaign. High energy prices now have many nations worrying that a deteriorating balance of trade will put downward pressure on their currencies, risking inflation and making dollar debt repayments harder. Hence, nations have historically tried to build up their stock of greenbacks through exports using pegged currency rates. The upshot, Bard College’s Randall Wray suggests, is that governments use austerity to reduce the wages of workers instead of the wealth of rentiers, by depreciating the currency.

Rising domestic prices also widen the gap between rich and poor in the world’s most unequal region. The Argentinian economist Agustín Mario argues that pursuing full employment with a free-floating peso would be a better way to reduce inflation and poverty rates rather than the widespread use of indexing costs to prices that propagate inflationary shocks. The region needs a new model, beginning with debt relief and followed by a push for more equitable, sustainable growth involving state-led industrialisation and regional integration. No longer bound just to the US, Latin American economies should be easier to recast through bargaining among several partners. These are no less self-interested than Washington. Projects backed by China appear to be some of the worst violators of human rights and environmental law.

A new era has seen new compromises. Not all should be embraced. Mr López Obrador in Mexico has paid for popular pro-poor spending through austerity elsewhere. His militarisation of society worries many. A better model may be Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, who co-opted moderate lawmakers to endorse wealth taxes to pay for social programmes. His plans to phase out oil and coal, Colombia’s biggest exports, should be welcomed by a Biden administration looking for climate allies. Replacing a failed war on drugs with a winnable war on global heating will help build Mr Petro’s “better society”. After so many false dawns, claims about the end of the neoliberal era will be taken with a pinch of salt. But the established order is coming apart, and rightly so. The task is to create a superior one.



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