Political Upheaval in South America

By Eric Hershberg

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Thousands of protesters in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Google Images / Creative Commons

2016 is proving to be this century’s most complicated year to date for South American political systems, and the coming months will be critical to assessing how well the region’s democracies can govern amid declining economic conditions and spiraling corruption scandals.  Brazil and Venezuela – two very different systems with very different problems – are suffering the most visible crises.

  • In Venezuela, where the Bolivarian project has descended into an incompetent Putinism in the tropics, is collapsing under the weight of monumental mismanagement of the economy. Many of the ills of the Venezuelan petrostate predate Chavismo, but during a collapse in oil prices President Maduro has doubled-down on profligate economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, bringing the country to catastrophe made worse by increasingly draconian repression of loyal and disloyal opposition alike.
  • President Dilma Rousseff’s mismanagement of coalitions in a presidential system predicated on coalition-building has opened the way to political and economic implosion in Brazil.  Contrary to the fervent assertions of important segments of the Workers Party (PT), her impeachment does not precisely constitute a coup, but it may indeed amount to an ill-advised bending of institutional mechanisms by cynical legislators and aggressive judges, egged on by rightist sectors whose commitment to democracy is in fact dubious.  Dilma didn’t invent the corruption and footloose budgetary practices that have been her undoing, but her fall does respond to overwhelming popular rejection of her performance.  Interim President Temer’s appointment of an entirely white male cabinet that includes representatives of some of the country’s most retrograde interests suggests abandonment of many of the most laudable achievements of more than a decade under PT rule – and more backlash as well.

Other institutional crises may be on the horizon.  Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa pursued a high-risk strategy of debt-driven expansion of the state, which is not sustainable amid economic contraction.  Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s honeymoon may prove short-lived.  Much-needed economic reforms are likely to provoke even greater inflation and have already stoked resistance from the Peronist opposition.  Macri enjoys some unprecedented assets – for the first time non-Peronists also control the city and province of Buenos Aires– but Argentine public opinion overwhelmingly favors statist economic policies that he aims to dismantle, and no non-Peronist elected president has completed his term in office since the rise of Peronism as a political force.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, wounded by a drop in mineral export revenues and comparatively minor corruption allegations involving her daughter-in-law, reshuffled her cabinet earlier this month but continues to tank in the polls.  Latinobarómetro reports that 70 percent of Chileans believe their political system doesn’t work.

It’s not hard to envision other relatively stable South American democracies facing hard times ahead.  The June 5 presidential runoff in Peru could leave the country deeply polarized, especially if Keiko Fujimori, heiress to the country’s darkest episode in recent history, wins.  It is not a foregone conclusion that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his second term on a long-awaited and much-needed peace accord, will secure its ratification, risking lameduck status for the remainder of his administration.  If the presidents elsewhere appear to be weathering the storm, democratic governance nonetheless faces important challenges.  It would be rash to predict that democracy will fail the test – and that such failure will give rise to a new era of authoritarian rule – but it’s clear that the region will witness widespread instability during the coming years.

May 26, 2016

Brazil: Is Marina Silva the PT’s Nemesis?

By Luciano Melo

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Photo courtesy of the Marina Silva campaign website

No politician in recent years has been able to shake and polarize Brazilian politics as Marina Silva has since becoming the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) presidential candidate after its original nominee, Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash last month. She has an alluring biography: born into an extremely poor family and illiterate until she was 16, she worked as a rubber tapper and rose to become one of the most prominent ecologists and defenders of the Amazon region alongside Chico Mendes, a true Brazilian hero. After earning a degree in history, Silva entered politics in the mid-1980s. Several years later she received the most votes as a state representative for Acre, served twice as a senator, and later became the Minister of Environment in Lula’s administration (a position from which she resigned due to fundamental divergences with the Workers Party and Dilma Rousseff). In 2007 she won the UN’s Champions of the World award, and three years later she ran for President under the Green Party banner, amassing 20 million votes on a platform emphasizing environmental issues and education.

Recent polls find roughly a third of Brazilian voters favoring Silva in the first round of balloting scheduled for October 5, and running even with or slightly ahead of President Rousseff in an anticipated run-off election three weeks later. The Brazilian media suggest that a large part of Silva’s appeal comes from a personal aura of transparency and rectitude – a refreshing change from others competing for Brazil’s top job. She has also demonstrated an old-fashioned ability to compromise in order to form alliances. A committed environmentalist, Silva teamed up with Eduardo Campos, a titan of agribusiness, and now, heading up the PSB ticket, her running mate is Beto Albuquerque, a moderate farmer who can bring a certain level of balance in the economic-environmental equation. On the separation of church and state, however, Marina may face a difficult balancing act. She is an evangelical Christian, winning a large chunk of religious voters in 2010, and she has defended the teaching of creationism in schools, saying that God created even Darwin. She rolled out an agenda for advancing LGBT rights recently, but criticism by Pastor Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s main evangelical leaders, forced her to reverse course and abandon her position 24 hours after having presented it.

Although Brazil is a religious country, laïcité – a French version of secularism – is a serious matter for the upper and middle classes, and Silva’s religiosity may cost her votes. She has exposed her core weak spot, which the other candidates will exploit in the upcoming debates and electoral campaigns. But popular concerns about corruption run much deeper in the eyes of the Brazilian people. The fact that presidents Dilma and Lula and the PT have become synonymous with misconduct in general, and mismanagement regarding Petrobrás in particular – a scandal involving 40 PT members in a multi-million real scheme – weakens their ability to counterattack amidst Silva’s continuous rise. What we will see in the elections in October is therefore a battle between the PT’s Bolsa Família – one of the most successful social programs in the history of Brazil – and a candidate who theoretically embodies honesty and honor. Whatever the outcome, it seems that PT has met its biggest challenge in 12 years.