Latin America’s Pendulum

Latin America's Pendulum

Latin America’s Pendulum by María Isabel Puerta Riera 

María is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida. Interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics. 

Latin America’s Pendulum

Over the past decade Latin America has faced significant challenges to governance from critical episodes that have led to the impeachment of Brazil’s president to the incarceration of a former Brazilian president (and current candidate for president). Most notably Lava Jato, the anti-corruption probe originating in Brazil, involved many countries including Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela as it unveiled a worldwide scandal. The fallout resulted in Peru’s former president Alan Garcia’s suicide, while another former Peruvian president, Alejandro Toledo, awaits extradition in the United States.

Of course, corruption has always been part of the political scenario in Latin America. Still, the Lava Jato scandal was a dangerous operation that destabilized the region and delivered a severe blow to democracy. It’s yet another sign of how democracy’s weaknesses have fostered a fluctuation between the left and right, not so much as support for different ideological programs, but as an expression of punishment. The political pendulum in Latin America swings back and forth without any real satisfaction from either side.

Recent Electoral Outcomes Tell Us…

Electoral results in BrazilArgentinaPeruEcuadorChile, and, more recently, Colombia are tied to the pendulum’s oscillation. Of course, the region’s growing inequities that led to widespread social unrest after the covid pandemic in 2020 also play an important role. Moreover, dissatisfaction has influenced the electorate to choose more extreme options, like in Brazil with Bolsonaro or Bukele in El Salvador. Nonetheless, we should not take for granted the genuine fear of political extremism and even radicalism in the electoral results in Chile and Colombia even as many sincerely desired change. Perhaps this helps explain why Boric and Petro have experienced setbacks. Indeed, the rejection of a new constitution in Chile and protests against tax reforms in Colombia challenged the prevailing narratives after their electoral victories. However, these recent events remind us why we should not take citizens’ electoral decisions as support for political revolutions

A Crisis of Representation

Brazil’s first round of presidential election results shows that the country is not only deeply divided but fearful of extreme options. The problem is that the lack of a moderate competitive political center, as in other Latin American countries, is being filled by the extremes. The electorate has no choice but to decide which is the lesser evil. The results in Chile and Colombia were partially in response to the extremism of the other options. In the run-off in Brazil, we should expect an outcome that reflects its polarization. Unfortunately, the flawed polling in the first round might have scrambled expectations.

This electoral map is yet another indicator that the political forces in Latin America are less influenced by ideology and more reinforced by an illiberal drive. The threat of socialism pulls from one side, while the loss of social advancement does the same from the other. In the absence of political movements capable of reconciling both expectations of safety and protection, people in these countries are left with terrible choices that are unlikely to reflect their political aspirations. Some misinterpret this trend as political disaffection. But we are shortsighted if we fail to recognize it for what it is: a crisis of representation in Latin America. The electorate is making poor choices because that is the hand they are dealt.

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