While in Colombia Gustavo Petro and his supporters celebrated the electoral victory of this center-left economist promoted there by the explosive inequality in the country, in Chile, the other brand new and scarce social democratic experience in the region, received its first posters of traitor against Gabriel Boric in the copper workers’ strike.
At the same time, a multitude of indigenous people took over the routes of Ecuador in protest against the increase in fuel prices. A rebellion that worries beyond those borders and that threatens the permanence of Guillermo Lasso in government, a right-wing banker who was turning to the center pressured by the dire environment that he had to manage.
This week, with these contradictory events, has been especially educational about the tightrope that Latin America is slipping through.
The chronic skidding of this region, which links a heterogeneous universe of nations, was portrayed unmitigated in an extensive report in the magazine The Economist that seeks to alert the world about the decline of democracies with the Latin American example.
The report is rigorous but lacks some essential nuances. The region is stagnant indeed, and its outlook is not encouraging. The research is correct in pointing out that, like the 1980s, 2010 has been a “lost decade during which the average growth in the area was only 2.2% per year.”
Since that number circulated just above the rate of population increase, the standard of living stagnated. It was well below the world average of 3.1%.
“Far from converging with the richest countries, Latin America regressed even further. The slowdown coincided with the end of the commodity boom of the 2000s, which had helped South American oil, mineral and food producers,” he says.
“Now,” he adds, “only a new boom in raw materials, intensified by Russia’s war against Ukraine, stands between the region and a return to growth rates of 2% or less.
The Economist reinforces the view with a 2021 report from the UN Development Program that highlights the existence of a toxic combination in Latin America of high inequality and low growth.
That dark landscape is the result “in part of the concentration of economic and political power; partly because of widespread political, criminal, and social violence; and in part by systems of social protection and regulation of the labor market whose very design introduces economic distortions”.
The region is generous in extraordinary contradictions beyond this week. Compared to other spaces in the world, it exhibits an absence of war conflicts, ultranationalist clashes or the interference of religious fundamentalisms.
Gustavo Petro with his vice president, Francia Márquez. Reuters photo
At the same time, it has a notable agricultural and energy wealth that is largely wasted, which should constitute a net platform for development.
But rampant inequality conspires with growth while it ends up promoting demagogic models that increase inequality to guarantee its political survival, thus closing the circle again with the absence of growth.
The classic conservative right in these places is a much closer relative of national populism than is supposed, as the Spaniard Javier Cercas concisely calls the models of supposed progressivism that have grown in the region. In both cases, the road to modernity is closed, which consists precisely in the resolution of social backwardness.
This deficiency becomes particularly important when it puts the survival of the system at risk. In other words, what is exaggeratedly seen as a wave of an unpredictable left, is to a certain extent, if you look behind the nuances, the response of the structure itself to amend its limitations.
There may be good news there. Although we do not know if this outbreak of proto-social democracy that claims fiscal prolixity, investment and development, will be successful or will end up being devoured by the crisis.
What’s coming for Colombia
The Colombian novelty, in this sense, has awakened old prejudices against a non-Marxist politician who had a guerrilla past in his early youth, nothing original in the region: there are emerging right-wingers with similar backgrounds.
What should be noted is that Petro gets into government on his third try because something has happened to make it possible. That has been the inefficiency of the conservative right, particularly the outgoing government of Iván Duque, extremely schematic, to resolve a social abyss, whether they like it or not, ends up determining the policy.
Columbia has almost half of its population in poverty. To a large extent, the history of violence in that country is based on the existence, non-existent for power, of a large part of the non-urban country whose future was canceled since the times of the wars between conservatives and liberals.
These furies between those who can and cannot, are not new. A young Gabriel García Márquez in a legendary article on the Bogotazo, the insurrection that broke out after the April 1948 assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitánrecounts in this way the anguish that poisoned Colombians before that assassination:
“The darkest expression of the mood of the country was experienced one weekend by those attending the bullfight in the Plaza de Bogotá, where the stands threw themselves into the ring outraged by the meekness of the bull and the impotence of the bullfighter to finish to kill him.”
“The angry crowd he butchered the bull alive. Numerous journalists and writers who lived through that horror or heard about it, interpreted it as the most terrifying symptom of the brutal rage that the country was suffering.”
Protests in Colombia last year. A march in Bogbotpa. EFE
The system in general seeks balance from these abysses. Colombia comes from two major rebellions seriously repressed in 2019 and 2021 due precisely to the steepening of the exclusion model and social exhaustion. It is not an exception of that country. Ecuador also experienced it in 2019.
This process of mutations and reactions is generalized in the region and part of the world as a characteristic of this new century marked by an abysmal concentration of income.
From this combustion were born the concepts of anti-systems and outragedwhich were embodied in a variety of emerging, some painful as European xenophobic neo-Nazism or, especially on our beaches, with opportunist populism, emulating the old Latin American conservative personalist caudillismo.
Petro appears as an outlet within the system to that circumstance, a channel to direct the protest. Hence, the Colombian president-elect has just received andl Legislative support of the Liberal Party which is not the same today as it was in times of Gaitán, precisely. And also, multiple winks from the US.
The Chilean president also came to power on the crest of a national backlash against inequality. In both cases, it is proposed a moderate increase in taxes to gather resources to resolve the social debt that hinders development. This is what Felipe González did to link Spain with the European Union and guarantee its growth and modernity.
In the case of Chile, Boric represents change, but he is also restrained by the moderation imposed by the situation. So he has had to adapt to the prudence that was dissolving the intensity of the claims of 2019.
The new Constitution, in relief of the reformed Pinochet, which emerged as the banner of the protests that year, also entered that channel of caution. The handling that the proposed text has suffered, in addition to some articles in controversial extremes, including the disappearance of the Senate, is likely to anticipate your failure when Chileans must vote in the defining plebiscite in September.
Scenes of violence in the demonstrations that shook Chile in 2019. Reuters Photo
The polls anticipate wide slices of mistrust. The current confusing conflict with the workers of the state-owned Codelco over the closure of a polluting plant, which they openly object to Boric, is another reality check, in addition to the one that the violent rejection of Mapuche sectors to his naive proposal for dialogue.
This conflict in Chile is a warning, also for Petro, due to the difficulties it exposes for satisfy accumulated expectations. It is the most difficult hill to conquer for these leaders and the one with the greatest risk because poverty and frustration trigger extremism to one side or the other.
You don’t have to look very far to learn. The ruinous economic, social and political failure of the PT in the government of Dilma Rousseff has had an inevitable relationship with what happened later in that country. There is also an alert there because many times the Latin American status quo bets on these defeats, which maintains a strange, primitive gaze, celebrating the absent modernization.
© Copyright Clarin 2019