Ortega doesn't dress like this anymore.

CHRISTOPHER VAIL/AFP/Getty Images

Latin America's New Politics Aren't Left or Right

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Donald Trump was not the only churlish septuagenarian with some eccentric notions about world affairs to score big in the Americas this month. On Nov. 6, Nicaraguan guerrilla-turned-strongman Daniel Ortega won his third consecutive presidential mandate.

To hear Ortega's boosters tell it, his re-election was a much needed affirmation for the Latin American leftist leaders who are now faltering or being pushed from power by a revanchist right-wing uprising. Yet something more complicated is going on than the familiar trope of left-right politics.

True, the Cold War era's reductive binary vocabulary still echoes. During the mid-1990s and early 2000s, as political challengers across the Americas pushed back against the free-market, pro-globalization gospel of the Washington Consensus, the so-called pink tide hit its high-water mark in Venezuela, with Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian revolution. Now, we are to believe, that tide is going out, with conservatives taking office in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru, some with a soft spot for old fashioned authoritarianism.

Yet facile left-right labeling calls for scrutiny. Start with Nicaragua, where after returning to power in 2006, the former Marxist insurgent Ortega dropped the comrade act to court investors, encourage trade, contain inflation and slash debt, even as he reduced poverty. Those market-friendly policies won him commendations from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- no matter that the spoils went largely to handpicked businesses, including several run by Ortega's family.

To consolidate his rule, the aging autocrat went on to capture the country's courts, rig the electoral system, smother dissent, and call it a victory of popular democracy. Ortega's shamelessly lopsided 72 percent winning margin earned him comparisons to Anastasio Somoza, the bloody military dictator his Sandinista insurgents chased out of power 37 years ago. Nicaragua is no military dictatorship, but neither is Ortega a revolutionary progressive any more than Donald Trump is a Reagan conservative.

That's an extreme version of a familiar tale: A popular leader rises, promising social redemption and to tame neoliberal capitalism, only to become the new political establishment, and a leftist in name only.

Other heralds of the pink tide haven't been so fortunate. The commodities boom helped maintain appearances, giving leftist leaders from Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela the cash to fuel social programs and cherry pick companies to promote in the private sector. But the end of the boom gutted economic growth and public accounts, cutting deeply into headline social programs -- and, soon enough, hurting government approval ratings, as well.

Thus, what laid Dilma Rousseff low in Brazil wasn't an aggressive right wing so much as a compendium of homemade errors. Even as Brazil fell into recession, her government kept spending, nearly tripling the budget deficit since 2014. "The left performs well in times of economic abundance, but not in times of scarcity," said political scientist Fernando Schuler, who teaches at the Sao Paulo university, Insper.

Bad behavior compounded bad management, scrambling the tidy political taxonomy. How to classify the soi-disant leftist Brazil's Workers Party when a giant corruption investigation revealed its leaders were in bed with the nation's most powerful moguls, one of the oldest games in Latin America?

Much the same goes for Venezuela, where even as Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro preached "21st century socialism," they pandered to the boligarchy, kept their bondholders happy, and maintained oil shipments to the U.S. "Shortly after getting elected, Chavez rang the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange," recalls Raul Gallegos in "Crude Nation," his fine book about Venezuela's oil curse. Nor can the country's multi-denominational opposition be dismissed as a conservative much less united front.

If the pink tide turned into the new political establishment, their replacements signal a correction, not a reactionary Thermidor. Brazilian President Michel Temer is a calloused pragmatist with no discernible ideological flag. The political support he has garnered behind a bold government spending cap suggests he knows that Brazil must change or crash, but also that plenty of his compatriots agree: "Austerity reaps votes," Sao Paulo governor and Temer ally Geraldo Alckmin recently said.

With 12 million Brazilians out of work and the economy flat, that may be wishful thinking, but it’s a sign that circumstances more than ideological cabals can shape political consensus. Yes, there is some disenchantment with Latin democracy, as pollster Latinobarometro recently found, and a few loudmouthed discontents have seized on the funk to stump for a return of the bad old days of hardline authority. But this is no bugle call to the generalissimos, or the latest zig in an established pattern of ideological divisions. Latin America's guard has changed because corruption compounded by economic incompetence prompted millions of citizens to respond with voter revolts and vibrantly democratic protests. In this part of the world, at least, that's cause for hope.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net