Easier said than done – regional cooperation in Latin America’s new populist wave

By Sergio Guzman December 19, 2018

By Sergio Guzmán and Patricio Provitina

The newly elected presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador will likely become the main protagonists of Latin America’s ongoing political transformation. Their tenure is likely to feature regional political, social, and economic disarray. Meanwhile the region, in dire need of political leadership, finds its new presidents more focused on cleaning shop at home rather than addressing problems that require collaboration and joint leadership. As the presidents are bound to find, this column written jointly by Sergio Guzmán and Patricio Provitina argues that governing is harder than coming up with catchy campaign slogans.  

In a similar fashion to the early 2000s, Latin America is experiencing a political transformation that parallels the global trends of citizens electing populist and authoritarian candidates as Presidents. However, instead of the “pink tide” response to the neoliberal socio-economic policies of the 1990s, Latin American citizens are casting ballots to express frustration with transnational and domestic corruption problems. These widespread corruption scandals exposed a complicit political leadership from the left and the right, a disconnected economic elite that amassed vast amounts of wealth, and democratic institutions that were unresponsive to the will and the needs of its citizens. As more countries entrust complex problems to the whims of Presidential candidates selling over-simplistic and scapegoating solutions, Latin America’s democracies will also need to find institutional ways to check against the return of populist strongmen amassing power for personal gains.

The new presidents of Brazil and Mexico are likely to increasingly focus on domestic issues, such as political reforms and anti-corruption initiatives. Meanwhile there are urgent regional crises such as the Central American migration crisis, transnational crime, and the issue of Venezuela – not to mention the growing erosion of democratic values in the region – that require attention and more collaborative action. The region is in dire need of leaders that unite and find common cause with one another. However, sharp differences in style, ideology and world vision are likely to define regional relationships during this new stage of political transformation.

Bolsonaro in Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro is perhaps the most controversial of the newly elected presidents. Bolsonaro’s rise to power is very much the result of a pendular movement of the electorate that rejected the Partido Dos Trabalhadores (PT) which has been beleaguered by accusations of rampant corruption. Bolsonaro considers that voters have given him a mandate to eradicate crime and criminals – whatever it takes. Bolsonaro’s strong-man positions on rule of law – in particular heavy handed tactics against common crime – are likely to undermine human rights in the country. Bolsonaro has also pledged to banish political opponents and suggested carrying out an unprecedented ‘clean up’ of the left. Furthermore, these policies are likely to turn Brazilian diplomats from their traditional role as global human rights champions and harbingers of collective action, to staunch defenders of the President and proponents of global isolationism. Bolsonaro’s emphasis on corruption is also easier said than done. Although the appointment of Sérgio Moro to head the Department of Justice in Brazil signals the government’s emphasis on putting corrupt politicians behind bars–something we can all get behind–it does not do away with due process under law. This is likely to frustrate Bolsonaro and the public who would prefer that the judicial system operate more like a blunt instrument than a scalpel.

On regional issues Bolsonaro will likely wake up to the reality that campaign rhetoric is not simply enforced transnationally. His aggressive stance on Venezuela is likely to be welcome by some in the region, but his ability to prompt non-violent regime change in the andean country is limited. Bolsonaro will likely become impatient with the diplomatic bickering of the Lima Group and the inability of the OAS to reach a consensus on what to do in Venezuela. He will discover again that regional action in Venezuela will be met with obstruction and caution by other countries with which Brazil will have to collaborate. Brazil’s stronger stance against crime will be an opportunity for collaboration with regional neighbors such as Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay. However, without structural solutions to poverty, unemployment and rural development, illicit economies on drugs, illegal mining and contraband are likely to continue unabated. Bolsonaro is likely to further agitate the region’s ideological divide and further isolate Brazil from its regional peers.

AMLO in Mexico

In México, citizens elected Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) an anti-establishment outsider who won the Presidency with a record-breaking 53 percent of the popular vote. For the historic election, the President’s new political party (MORENA) also won down ballot taking control of over two-thirds Congress giving AMLO much leeway to carry out his policies. The landslide elections reflect a Mexican citizenry frustrated with the two traditional political parties that controlled the Presidency but failed to resolve Mexico’s serious problems with insecurity, violence tied to organized crime, systemic corruption, and impunity for law breakers.

As the non-traditional candidate, AMLO clearly understood this public sentiment designing populist campaign messages that directly tapped into the general public’s frustration. Among the most popular campaign themes was ending “the mafia of power” or the collusion between economic and political elites which, according to AMLO, was to blame for systemic corruption, socio-economic inequality, and insecurity problems in Mexico. During the six-month transition period, AMLO appointed qualified technical team to lead the executive branch, yet he simultaneously continued selling silver bullet government programs to solve Mexico’s complex problems. At his inauguration, AMLO explained that the new government’s fiscal austerity measures, combined with ending corrupt government contracting, would save enough money to invest in targeted socio-economic development programs for vulnerable communities throughout Mexico. While new progressive social policies may alleviate some of the root cases that link youth poverty and insecurity, these one-size fits all government solutions do not seem to strengthen state institutions with the technical capacity to address Mexico’s serious problems.      

AMLO is likely to be a much more consequential president on regional issues than his predecessors. His announcement last week to invest more than USD $30 billion over the next five years on Central American development suggests a completely different policy for Mexico, a country more used to looking north than south in terms of its development. However transformative his announcement, AMLO is not likely to make significant headway into resolving some of the region’s most divisive challenges. The inauguration of AMLO threw a diplomatic lifeline to embattled Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, suggesting that Mexico will not cast deciding votes on excluding Venezuela from regional organizations, much less willingly participate on diplomatic or military actions to ease a democratic transition. AMLO’s engagement in Central American issues signal greater involvement in hemispheric affairs but there he is likely to clash with other regional power brokers.  

Playing nice

As newcomers to the gathering of Latin American presidential olympus, AMLO and Bolsonaro have a stronger mandate to address issues at home than to positively engage with their regional counterparts.  Their priorities will undoubtedly change as regional crises will demand their attention and require their collaboration in a myriad of issues affecting the region as a whole. As both presidents settle in their jobs, they will soon learn that governing their countries and steering the region through the complex times ahead will require more compromise than what they promised to give during the campaign trail. There is no shortage of drama in the geopolitical chessboard that is Latin America, it is unlikely that either AMLO or Bolsonaro will be able to fill the growing leadership vacuum.

This opinion column is intended as a space to discuss some of the most pressing issues faced by Colombia and the region in these uncertain times. All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of The Bogotá Post.

About the authors:

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @serguzes and @ColombiaRisk

Patricio Provitina is global affairs and Latin America expert who provides unique insight into political, social, and economic developments throughout the world. Follow him on twitter @PProvitina