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  • Writer's pictureJamie Clark

Latin American politics: a swing and a miss

River Plate vs Boca Juniors, known as the 'Superclásico,' stands as one of the most significant and historic football rivalries on the Argentine sporting calendar. The match cuts through the city of Buenos Aires, with residents near the River neighbourhood of Núñez supporting one team and those from La Boca supporting the other.


Every Superclásico between these two teams is fierce, heated, and, in many cases, violent.


There are many sporting rivalries worldwide, but most often when the match concludes, and people take a few moments to celebrate or lament the result, life then returns to normal, and they strive to find harmony and balance in their socieities.


However, in Latin America, I have observed that the emotion of a sporting match often mirrors that of their election day, and therefore, trickles down to everday life.


Enter Latin America, the continent where politics is the Superclásico.


Can you spot the difference?


Source second video: global news

 

Over the past century, the contininent has been riddled with economic inequality, corruption and violence. Latin America's response to these problems has been to oscillate between far-left and far-right governments.


While these specific challenges have remained consistent over time, the political culture and public mindset have adopted a pattern of, "well, if socialism hasn't worked, let's try neoliberalism now," and vice versa. And unfortunately with each election, the only available options often present significant pendulum swings between far-right and far-left parties, contributing to heightened polarization across the continent.


Moreover, having a new government every ≈ <4 years with significantly new ideals, vision and policy, makes everyday life challenging. Constituents don't have sufficient time to adapt, to figure out the new system and how they can thrive in it.


Latin American's passion for life is one of their greatest qualities — and perhaps at times, it is also what makes them vulnerable.


According to Graph Thought, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have witnessed one of the sharpest rises in political polarization over the past 20 years.


polarization in latin america

Let us delve into recent examples of political polarization, beginning our journey in Argentina.


Argentina - past 70 years

argentina flag

In the mid-20th century, Argentina experienced a period of far-right governance under Juan Perón. His populist regime, marked by authoritarian policy, shaped the country's political climate for decades. However, following Perón's passing in 1974, Argentina entered a tumultuous era with a series of military dictatorships that leaned towards the far-right. This period, known as the "Dirty War," was filled with severe human rights abuses and political repression. The 1980s saw a reversal of this trend as Argentina transitioned to a democratic system. This ushered in a wave of centre-left governments, including the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín. Nevertheless, economic challenges, including hyperinflation, paved the way for a shift towards free-market policies in the 1990s under Carlos Menem, which was a notable departure from leftist ideals. The early 2000s witnessed a resurgence of left-wing politics with the rise of Nestor Kirchner. His administration focused on social justice and economic equality, challenging the neoliberal policies of the previous decade. This trend continued with the presidency of his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who emphasized social welfare programs and economic nationalism. However, the political pendulum swung once again in 2015 with the election of Mauricio Macri, a businessman who championed free-market reforms. Macri's tenure marked a departure from the left-leaning policies of the Kirchners, emphasizing austerity measures and a more market-oriented approach. In 2019, Argentina reverted back to the left with the election of Alberto Fernández. And now, once more, as of November 2023, right-wing politician Javier Milei is now in the driving seat in Argentina.


.... all that in just 70 years.



Chile - past 50 years

chile flag


In the early 1970s, Chile witnessed a significant shift to the left with the election of Salvador Allende, a socialist, as the country's president. Allende's government implemented progressive policies, nationalising key industries (copper mining and healthcare) and addressing issues of land reform. However, this period was short-lived, as a military coup in 1973 led by Augusto Pinochet brought in a far-right era characterised by authoritarian rule, human rights abuses, and a free-market economic approach. Pinochet's regime held power until the late 1980s, and Chile transitioned back to democracy. The post-Pinochet period saw a series of centre-left governments, including the presidency of Patricio Aylwin, who focused on reconciliation and rebuilding democratic institutions. Despite these efforts, economic challenges persisted, leading to a shift to the right with the election of Sebastián Piñera in 2010. Piñera's government emphasized free market-oriented policies and economic growth. The pendulum swung left again in 2014 with the election of Michelle Bachelet, which was a return to more progressive ideals. Bachelet focused on social reforms, including education and healthcare, aimed to address long-standing grievances. However, economic pressures and public discontent led to a reversal in 2017 with the return of Piñera to the presidency. And, the ongoing protests in 2019 underscored public demands for systemic change, prompting a constitutional referendum that opened the door for a new constitution. And now in 2023, Chile's far right Republic party led by Jose Antonio Kast will select a committee that will rewrite its dictatorship-era consitution.


It is almost unbelievable.



Brazil - past 20 years

brazil flag


In the early 2000s, Brazil experienced a leftward shift with the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), a former union leader, as president. Lula's Workers' Party (PT) implemented social welfare programs and poverty reduction initiatives, symbolizing a departure from neoliberal policies. However, by the end of Lula's second term, allegations of corruption emerged, casting a shadow over the PT and setting the stage for a rightward shift. In 2010, Dilma Rousseff, also from the PT, succeeded Lula but faced economic challenges and political unrest. By 2016, Rousseff was impeached, and Michel Temer, a more centre-right politician, assumed the presidency. The subsequent years saw a series of corruption scandals that further eroded public trust in traditional political parties. In 2018, Brazil swung decisively to the far-right with the election of Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro's presidency has been characterised by conservative policies, a pro-business agenda, and a tough-on-crime stance. Now, in 2023, Lula has regained the leadership of Brazil, returning to the left.


In just two decades..


Venezuela - past 50 years

venezuela flag


In the 20th century, Venezuela experienced a series of governments leaning towards the centre-right, characterized by oil-driven economic prosperity. However, the late 20th century witnessed a leftward shift with the rise of Hugo Chávez. Elected in 1998, Chávez, a charismatic leader, implemented socialist policies, nationalized key industries, and championed social programs. Chávez's presidency marked a prolonged period of left-wing rule, continuing under his successor Nicolás Maduro. However, economic mismanagement, corruption allegations, and a reliance on oil revenues left the country vulnerable to external shocks. The Venezuelan economy deteriorated, leading to a severe humanitarian crisis scarred by hyperinflation, scarcity of basic goods, and mass emigration. As the economic and political situation worsened, discontent grew, and political opposition emerged. In response, Venezuela witnessed a rightward momentum shift with the rise in popularity of opposition leader Juan Guaidó in 2019. Backed by a coalition of international supporters, Guaidó challenged Maduro's legitimacy, evoking a political standoff that continues to this day.


There is expected to be an election in 2024. It's credibility remains to be seen.


 

The US effect 🇺🇸


The historical presence of the U.S. in Latin America has influenced the region's political landscape and, at times, affected the development of stable democracies.


While the U.S. has played a significant role in supporting democratic movements, it has also been involved in interventions that have sometimes undermined democratic governance in the region.


During the Cold War (1947-1991), the U.S. was often engaged in supporting anti-communist regimes, sometimes at the expense of democratic principles. This led to alliances with authoritarian leaders and military juntas in countries like Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.


In some instances, these alliances resulted in the suppression of democratic institutions and the violation of human rights, contributing to a legacy of political instability. One notable case is the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, leading to the establishment of Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship.


The U.S. support for regimes with questionable democratic credentials during this era has had a lasting impact on the region's political trajectory. The perception of U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs has sometimes fueled anti-American sentiments, creating challenges for local governments seeking to establish and maintain stable democracies.


che guevara
You often can see street art of Che Guevara in Latin America, a symbol of anti-capitalism and being anti-US

 

What's next and where to start? In short.


Trust needs to be rebuilt in public institutions. This is crucial.


How?


Five things I would do:


  1. Focus on building strong and independent institutions that can withstand political pressures. Make them bulletproof.

  2. Enhance the rule of law to ensure equal justice and protection of citizens' rights. Elect judges democratically and fairly.

  3. Combat corruption through transparent and accountable governance.

  4. Engage and empower the youth through political decision-making.

  5. Allow the media to work freely and operate independently.

Latin America is one of the vibrant, exciting, and beautiful continents on planet earth. I've had the great privilege of spending significant time there, and its people are some of the kindest, warmest people I've ever met.


Latin America deserves better institutions.


And so, hopefully, one day when we talk about el Superclásico, we only think about Argentina's local football match, and not the politics of an entire region.



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