Latin America: Authoritarians going out of style?

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By Susan Purcell August 31, 2008
Authoritarian populism in Latin America may have reached its peak. The recent defeat of the Argentine government‘s attempt to impose draconian taxes on its agricultural sector represents the latest in a series of setbacks for governments in the region — such as Bolivia and Venezuela — that use class or racial conflict to justify depriving their middle and upper classes of political and economic power.
It remains unclear, however, whether these setbacks for the region‘s authoritarian populists will encourage them to adopt a more consensual style of governing, or whether they will proceed with their political and economic power grab and risk making their countries less governable.
What happened in Argentina illustrates some of the limits of authoritarian populism.
The government of PresidentCristina Fernandez de Kirchner claimed high prices for agricultural commodities justified its imposition of a sliding tax on agricultural exports that can reach 40 percent. It further claimed that the money produced by the new tax would be used to help the poor. It chose to decree the tax rather than submit it to Congress for approval. And when the farmers protested against the tax, that they regarded as arbitrary and unfair, the government-supported piqueteros (lower-class street mobs) took to the streets.
This kind of behavior had been tolerated during the administration of President Nestor Kirchner, who took office in 2003.
By the time his wife was elected president, however, the costs of some of Kirchner‘s policies had become apparent.
The cost of energy and raw materials kept escalating, and the government‘s uncontrolled spending had exacerbated its money problems. As a result, Argentines were less willing to accept the authoritarian populist decision-making that they had earlier tolerated.
After the farmers showed they could sustain and attract more supporters to their protest movement than the government-supported piqueteros could attract, President Fernandez de Kirchner submitted the tax reform to Congress. It was defeated because the president‘s Peronista party voted against it.
Similar situations are confronting other authoritarian populist governments in the region. Bolivia‘s president, Evo Morales, is being challenged by a growing movement for provincial autonomy. And despite massive wealth, PresidentHugo Chavez‘s effort to seek indefinite re-election was defeated mainly by two groups: lower-class voters, who feel Venezuela‘s oil wealth is not improving living standards, sufficiently, and students, who feel Chavez‘s policies are ruining their country.
Argentina is in a better position to make a successful transition away from authoritarian populism and toward a more institutionalized and functional political and economic system than Bolivia and Venezuela. Its people are more educated and wealthy.
The problem is weak political institutions, including political parties, and a political culture that seems to make Argentines seek political and economic salvation in strong leaders. In the aftermath of the recent crisis, the Peronist party is clearly divided. Some analysts fear Argentina is heading toward political stalemate or worse.
Hopefully, President Fernandez de Kirchner and Argentines in general will instead take advantage of the new situation to move toward a more open and transparent political system based on negotiation and pragmatic compromise. Only then will Argentina finally be able to live up to its potential.
Susan Kaufman Purcell is Director, Center for Hemispheric Policy,University of Miami. This article was first published in Spanish by AmericaEconomica magazine.
THE OPPENHEIMER REPORT
Latin America‘s populist decade may soon end
Posted on Sun, Aug. 03, 2008
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By ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
aoppenheimer@MiamiHerald.com
Judging from the latest headlines, you might think that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez‘s radical-leftist populism is gaining ground in Latin America, and that it will expand its influence in the region over the next few years. But, actually, the opposite may happen.
Before we get into why we may see a shift away from Chávez‘s narcissist-Leninist political model, let‘s take a quick look at some of the most recent news. It could suggest a clear advance of radical authoritarianism at the expense of democracy and the rule of law.
• In Venezuela, after losing a referendum last year that he hoped would keep him in power forever, Chávez is making a mockery of free elections by prohibiting the best opposition candidates from running in key November elections for governors and mayors.
A pro-Chávez government office has barred 272 politicians from running, including 37-year-old Leopoldo López, a candidate for Caracas mayor and one of the country‘s most popular politicians.
The government claims López and the others can‘t legally run because they are facing lawsuits (which in many cases were conveniently filed ahead of the elections by Chávez‘s cronies). The government‘s argument is a sham because the law says that only candidates who have been sentenced and found guilty can be barred from running for office. That‘s not López‘s case, nor that of many other barred opposition candidates.
• In Bolivia, where Chávez-backed President Evo Morales is preparing to hold a referendum Aug. 10 to consolidate his power, the president openly admitted last week that he doesn‘t believe in the rule of law.
On July 28, Morales said with a foxy smile, ‘When a jurist tells me, `Evo, you are making a legal mistake, what you are doing is illegal,‘ I go ahead even if it‘s illegal. I later tell the lawyers, ‘If it‘s illegal, you make it legal. Otherwise, what have you studied for?‘ ‘‘ Morales called on lawyers to accept that ``politics is above juridical issues.‘‘
• In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa will hold a constitutional referendum Sept. 28 that in effect would allow him to assume near absolute powers.
Correa, following Chávez‘s script, is promising to create ‘‘a new country.‘‘ His proposed constitution would allow him to stay in power until 2017, dissolve Congress and in effect take over the independent Central Bank.
• In Honduras, President Manuel Zelaya announced last week that his country has become a ‘‘full member‘‘ of Chávez‘s Bolivarian People‘s Alternative (ALBA) regional bloc.
• In El Salvador, leftist FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes is leading in the polls for the March 15 elections.
SUFFERING BLOWS
My opinion: The list could go on. (Some would also put Paraguay in Chávez‘s column, although it‘s too early to tell.) But, on the other hand, Chávez‘s leftist authoritarian model is suffering big internal and external blows.
In Venezuela, Chávez‘s popularity has plunged, as growing numbers of Venezuelans are suffering from a 30 percent inflation rate, massive corruption and nepotism (about two dozen Chávez relatives hold senior government jobs). They also resent a president who gives away petro-dollars from the country‘s recent oil bonanza in ego-boosting trips abroad.
In Bolivia and to a lesser extent in Ecuador, opposition forces are displaying growing resistance to these countries leaders‘ efforts to become presidents for life.
In Argentina, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner‘s populist government lost its aura of invincibility when Congress -- led by her own vice president -- overturned a key government bill to further tax soybean exports. Political winds in Argentina are beginning to blow away from pro-Chávez populism and move toward the center.
In Chile, right-of-center candidate Sebastián Piñera is leading in the polls for the next election. Colombia‘s right-of-center President Alvaro Uribe or one of his ministers is likely to win that country‘s next election.
PRAGMATISTS
Meanwhile, and perhaps most importantly, Brazil, Mexico and Peru are becoming increasingly pragmatic and globalized, and might move closer to the United States once highly unpopular President Bush disappears from the political scene.
In sheer numbers, Latin America‘s pragmatic-democratic bloc -- led by Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile -- already accounts for more than 80 percent of the region‘s economy, and more than 90 percent of its foreign investments. I would not be surprised if after a decade of authoritarian populist trends, the pendulum begins to shift back to the center.
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