BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The black-market money changers and their cries of “cambio, cambio” resound along Buenos Aires’ famed Florida Street. Four years ago, President Mauricio Macri did away with the foreign currency controls imposed by his populist predecessor, only to reinstate them in what would turn out to be the final weeks of his presidency.
The return of the cepo, the monthly limit of now just $200 that locals can legally buy with their inflationary pesos, is just one of the signs that Latin American politics from Mexico to Argentina are in a state of flux and governments of all stripes are on the defensive against popular discontent.
Mr. Macri’s 2015 election was supposed to be part of the ebbing of the region’s “pink tide,” but now he will step aside for elected leaders including longtime leftist standard-bearer Cristina Fernandez.
Still, left-leaning governments in Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Mexico are facing challenges, making it almost impossible to predict where the political winds will blow.
In Ecuador, leftist protesters all but expelled President Lenin Moreno from the capital, Quito, last month over fuel price hikes. In Chile, long seen as a bastion of stability in South America, violent clashes ostensibly sparked by a subway fare hike have forced conservative Sebastian Pinera, like Mr. Macri a successful businessman, to fire his Cabinet and vow to reform the constitution. In Brazil, iconic former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last week walked free after 18 months in prison.
Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, said the equal opportunity protesting in such a diverse region is rooted in economics.
“There is one common denominator to all of this, which is that these economies are just not growing,” he said in a recent discussion on the Americas Society and Council of the Americas website. “Latin America, on average, will grow just 0.2% in 2019. That’s pitiful.
“What we’re really seeing, I think, here at the end of 2019 is that this macro situation has trickled down into the micro level — basically into people’s pockets,” he said
Mr. Winter and Moises Naim, writing recently in Foreign Affairs magazine, said the “malaise” is worse this time because of the good times sparked by a global commodities export boom in the 2000s, followed by a series of public corruption scandals and slowing economies that angered the region’s rising middle class.
“Economic hardship has focused protesters’ anger onto related issues such as inequality and corruption,” they wrote. “Latin America has long been one of the world’s most unequal regions, but the limits of what people consider tolerable are shifting.”
The result: “In a world aflame with protest, Latin America stands out as a raging ten-alarm fire.”
Ecuador and Chile: Far revolutions
The depth of the discontent can perhaps be seen most clearly in Ecuador and Chile, where apparently modest boosts in daily living expenses have rocked the public.
Mr. Moreno’s decision to eliminate fuel subsidies generated such violence that the Ecuadorian leader was forced to leave the capital and relocate the government to the port city of Guayaquil until order could be restored.
In Chile, meanwhile, outrage over a proposed fare hike for the Santiago subway — roughly equal to 4 cents per ride — escalated so rapidly that Mr. Pinera was forced to declare a state of emergency, impose a curfew and deploy troops to restore public order.
“It’s not by chance that … these seemingly small economic measures [drive] people to the streets,” said Monica de Bolle of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “What all of these measures have in common is that they hit people in their pocketbooks immediately.”
In Chile — where Mr. Pinera and his center-left predecessor and alter ego, Michelle Bachelet, have been dividing the presidency between them for the past 13 years — voters are increasingly losing faith in democratic government as a whole, said Michael Penfold, who, like Ms. de Bolle, spoke at a recent survey of the region’s upheavals at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
“There’s a sense that the system is not responding,” said Mr. Penfold, of Venezuela’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Administration. “Look at the ex-presidents: They come and go; there’s no sense of alternation, no sense of renovation.”
Argentina: Back to the future
If Mr. Macri’s surprise victory four years ago was widely seen as a reaction to the “pink tide,” Argentines’ refusal to reelect him on Oct. 27 was doubly symbolic. He will be replaced by Alberto Fernandez, a bland stand-in picked by the unrelated Cristina Fernandez, Mr. Macri’s populist predecessor.
Ms. Fernandez and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, had dominated Argentina’s political landscape from the early 2000s, but systemic corruption and a take-no-prisoners style made their brand toxic by 2015.
But Mr. Macri’s failure to revive an economy marked by recession and near hyperinflation since taking office led voters to yearn for the years when Mr. Kirchner and Ms. Fernandez, flush with funds from booming commodity markets in China and elsewhere, kept utility prices low, subsidized red meat and baby cradles, and paid millions of dollars to show soccer on broadcast TV.
“Not even the corruption cases were enough to keep populism from returning to power,” said Gustavo Cardozo of the Argentine Center of International Studies. “A fed-up society today again votes for the center-left forces as a solution to its economic problems.”
Brazil: ‘Oligarchs’ vs. ‘bandits’
Mr. Fernandez and other populist leaders counter that the unrest across the continent is directed not at the political class as a whole but at what they say are the entrenched, “oligarchical” interests championed by their center-right opponents.
The Argentine president-elect last week followed up a visit with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by hosting a Buenos Aires “summit” of leftist leaders, including former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached and removed from office in 2016.
“Four years ago, we were all very overwhelmed fearing that the conservatism had come to stay in Latin America, suffering this democracy these quote-unquote republicans offer us,” the Argentine president-elect said at the event.
A personal friend of Mr. da Silva’s, Mr. Fernandez has feuded openly with new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a conservative populist whom Mr. da Silva has called a “racist and misogynist.” Mr. Bolsonaro, in turn, brands his future counterpart as a “leftist bandit” and says he has no intention of attending his inauguration.
Mr. Fernandez thus basked in a Brazilian judge’s decision Friday to release Mr. da Silva, who was serving an eight-year sentence for corruption but will now attend the Dec. 10 ceremonial power transfer. Mr. Bolsonaro called his predecessor a “scoundrel.”
Beyond their personal animosity, both men seem to relish the ideological battle brewing between South America’s two largest economies, and their feud may end up putting the Mercosur trade bloc in danger, Ms. de Bolle said.
“Fernandez putting up a [‘Free Lula’] sign on the day of the elections and then Bolsonaro saying that he’s not going to phone Fernandez the next day — this sounds very childish,” she said. “But we know that these things do have diplomatic repercussions.”
Colombia: ‘More protests’
As if the political trench warfare, the waves of violent popular protests and now a possible power vacuum in Bolivia were not enough, the enduring meltdown in Venezuela could soon bring the region even more volatility, analysts fear.
Speculation has been ripe that socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has had a hand in stoking unrest. Outgoing Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie has warned of a “Bolivarian breeze,” and many claim Caracas was backing anarchist and socialist groups in Chile.
Beyond such meddling, the millions of Venezuelans who have fled their country’s economic implosion and humanitarian crisis are bound to destabilize Colombia and other countries in the region. Mr. Penfold predicted: By 2021, more people will have left Venezuela than have fled Syria’s brutal civil war, and its neighbors are in no position to deal with that influx.
“Social pressures in Colombia, by the end of next year, are going to be huge,” he said. “There are going to be more protests in [Colombian cities] Cucuta and Barranquilla than in Caracas.”
While leftist and populist forces across the continent have used increasing uncertainty to upend the region’s political equilibrium, how they plan to govern with often depleted government coffers is unknown.
Unlike a decade ago, there is no commodities boom to finance big subsidies and government welfare, Argentina’s Mr. Cardozo noted.
“Consequently, they will have to find a way to pay for those same recipes the people are expecting,” he said. “That will be their big challenge.”
Mr. Naim and Mr. Winter noted that a similar dynamic of stagnating economies, rising populism and declining faith in democratic government “propelled much of Latin America into repressive military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.”
“The same gears,” they said, “may churn [today] toward mayhem and division, sown from within Latin American countries and without.”
Despite their triumphs at the ballot box, for the Fernandezes of the world, having captured many “votes of repudiation” is akin to an electorate upping the ante, Ms. de Bolle said.
“[They] have limited political capital and also, importantly, very little patience from the population at large,” she said. “So they don’t get a lot of time to actually do the things they promised to do.”