November 3, 2016
This election season in the U.S. has sparked a sense of déjà vu in Latin America. An outsider emerges promising to fight the political establishment and corrupt elites. He alone can understand, defend and save the common people against a conspiracy of predatory powers hidden behind a biased media. Through his benevolence, he will “give back power to the people.” He attracts a devoted and angry crowd drawn from marginalized groups. He relies on slogans against facts and policies. And he plays the macho role.
Donald Trump appears to belong to a long line of populist Latin American leaders dating back to the 19th century. They include from Mexico’s Porfírio Díaz, Argentina’s Juan Perón and Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas to Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Some of them are leftists, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Some are rightists, like Peru’s Alberto Fujimori or Argentina’s Alberto Menem. And at least in Latin America, they tend to leave behind a destructive legacy that sometimes lasts for decades. As the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has summarized, “Populism is the sacrifice of the future for an ephemeral present.”
The irony is that Trump has appeared on the U.S. political scene while populism is in steady decline across Latin America. Over the past year, the Kirchner era came to an end in Argentina and a Fujimori lost the presidential election in Peru. Even in Venezuela, where Chavista President Maduro is still holding on to power, discontent has become widespread and a political transition is on the horizon. But despite the remarkable rise of Donald Trump, his opponent Hillary Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to win next Tuesday. So our lead story this week analyzes how she’ll approach Latin America in view of these risks and opportunities.
Interestingly, Brazil is a separate case. Dilma Rousseff was the least charismatic president since the return of democracy and some argue that Michel Temer is trying to surpass her. However, results of the nation-wide local elections that ended on Sunday also indicate that anti-establishment feelings are on the rise in Brazil. Brazilian voters are favoring outsiders and this behavior will likely last until the 2018 presidential elections. Against this background, the PSDB came out of the local elections as the biggest winner and the PSDB governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, is getting ahead of his rivals inside the party to become the presidential candidate in two years.
Beyond electoral disputes, Brazil is under a heavy cloud of political uncertainty. We have been paying close attention to the plea bargain negotiations between prosecutors and Odebrecht, one of the constructions companies at the heart of the Petrobras scandal. It appears that up to 80 Odebrecht senior executives are about to start collaborating with authorities – and they will implicate leaders from all major parties and at least part of Temer’s inner circle.