A few years ago, left-wing publications such as this one published moderately hopeful articles about the rising “pink tide” in Latin America. Today, however, any fair assessment of the current Left governments in Latin America can only come to one conclusion: they are failing.
Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno previously served as vice president for the leftist reformer Rafael Correa. In 2017, Moreno campaigned as Correa’s natural successor, one who would carry forward the progressive reforms of Correa’s Alianza País.
Moreno won a narrow run-off victory in the presidential election, but then quickly plummeted in approval ratings, now anchored at slightly below 20%. His determination to pursue the always disastrous recommendations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for tough structural adjustment policies and strict austerity measures have been widely seen by the Ecuadorian Left as a betrayal of basic principles.
In October 2019, following IMF recommendations, Moreno attempted to end gasoline subsidies, triggering the largest protest movements the nation has ever seen. As the government teetered on the edge of collapse, Moreno moved the national capital to get away from the protesters. In the end, the outcry was so fierce that Moreno caved.
Moreno has been forced to try to deal with a series of crises. Until recently, oil was Ecuador’s main export (around 40% by value), but international prices have tumbled, dropping from around $60 USD per barrel last year to around $40 a barrel now. This April, both of the nation’s main oil pipelines broke open in the Amazon, stopping the flow of oil exports.
Ecuador’s economy has also relied heavily on foreign remittances from workers abroad, especially those in Spain, who sent home around $3 billion USD per year. This source of earnings has dried up as Ecuadorians, unemployed in locked-down Spain, flew home, bringing the virus with them.
As COVID-19 swept the globe, Ecuador was one of the earliest and most severely impacted of all Latin American nations. One key problem was that Moreno had already cashiered over 4,000 public healthcare workers last year, a cost-cutting measure urged by the IMF.
Ecuador’s failings in dealing with the coronavirus have been more public and ghoulish than nearly anywhere else. In Ecuador’s largest city, the port of Guayaquil, mortuaries overflowed, forcing city residents to drag the corpses of their loved ones out onto the sidewalks. Sometimes they put the bodies in boxes or covered them in plastic, other times not. There they remained for days in the boiling sun, waiting for someone to come by and pick them up.
Lockdown measures brought severe economic distress, but Moreno is nonetheless determined to continue paying Ecuador’s foreign debt-servicing obligations, apparently prizing the approval of the IMF more than that of his own people. His many critics argue that payments to banks must be put on pause and the funds redirected to providing urgently needed economic relief for those already in poverty and most impacted by shutdowns in the wake of COVID-19. As it stands, Moreno’s social support program for those families living in poverty has been a stingy $60 USD per month.
Moreno seems mostly preoccupied these days in quarreling with erstwhile friend Correa. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s courts have found Correa guilty of accepting bribes, blocking him, at least for now, from competing in the election. He was thinking of running for vice president. By law, Moreno cannot stand for reelection. It doesn’t matter: even if he could run, he’d surely lose.
Beyond Ecuador, Cuba, and Mexico (covered by Democratic Left recently), the Left governs in Nicaragua and Venezuela, and the center-left in Argentina.
In Nicaragua, former guerrilla fighter turned politician Daniel Ortega plans to seek reelection as president. There is little for the Left to boast of regarding Ortega’s tenure in office. His second presidency, this time since 2007 (he previously held power after the 1979 revolution until 1990), has been marked by corrupt election deals, determined repression of the political opposition and street protests, and a serious and credible allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor. Ortega, along with his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by holding “love rallies” to drive off the infection.
In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro has held office since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013. Venezuela is a country in disaster, one made much worse by the imposition of a U.S. economic blockade. But it is painful indeed to watch the intellectual contortions of those who try to build a case for Maduro. If what the global Left is calling for is more governments like those of Ortega or Maduro, then they can expect to lose elections everywhere.
IS THERE ANY GOOD NEWS FOR THE LATIN AMERICAN LEFT?
Perhaps one positive note for the Left in Latin America is the recent election of the center-left government of President Alberto Fernández in Argentina (2019-present). But don’t expect much from Fernández. He is passionately moderate, a sort of Bill Clinton-lite.
More promise lies in Bolivia. There, a November 2019 post-election coup (or, to some, a quasi-coup) removed the progressive leader Evo Morales (2006-2019), who had just won reelection in October. Following threats from the Bolivian military, Morales fled into exile.
The Bolivian right-wing opposition claimed fraud in the October election, supported by the conservative and highly partisan secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro. The claim of election fraud was false, at least according to a statistical study reported out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After Morales’s ouster, the “interim” government led by conservative Jeanine Áñez launched a violent campaign of repression against those protesting. At least eleven people died. Áñez’s interim government has postponed elections twice, but is now saying that Bolivians might vote in the fall.
Among the Áñez government’s first actions was the expulsion of the Cuban doctors who had until then been the only medical professionals providing care in most chronically underserved neighborhoods. Áñez followed this by slashing funds for healthcare, leaving many Bolivian medical professionals unpaid. With the ground thus prepared, COVID-19 began to arrive in March. By July, Áñez and several in her cabinet had tested positive for the virus.
As Áñez fumbles Bolivia’s response to the COVID-19, she has slipped into third place in the polling in the presidential election, whenever that might be. Luis Acre, the standard bearer for Morales’s left-wing political party, the Movimiento a Socalismo (MAS, Movement Toward Socialism) seems likely to win the election, unless Áñez makes good on her threat to find a way to keep him off the ballot. So, the good news is that if fair elections are held in Bolivia, the MAS will likely return to power.
But what this really means for the Latin America Left is that the only bright spot for the entire region is a possible future government by Arce and the MAS in Bolivia, a nation that makes up less than 2% of Latin America’s total population.
Bolivia’s situation resembles the dilemmas for the Left in the United States. If democracy holds, the Left or center-left will govern.
Two questions now haunt the Left.
For the Latin American Left, how is it possible to win elections win when its current leaders have done so poorly in office?
And for the Left everywhere, how is it possible to defeat democratically those who do not believe in democracy? That’s the trouble. The Right does not believe in democracy. It doesn’t even pretend to anymore.
Dark days lie ahead.