Latin America: in turmoil again?

From Argentina to Peru to Brazil, things are not very quiet

Argentina may — hopefully! — win the World Cup this Sunday, but the situation in Messis’s home country is far from idyllic. The current vice-president, Cristina Kirchner, is facing arrest on corruption charges. I suppose it’s good that the old thief is finally facing justice, but, on the other hand, it doesn’t look good for the political stability of the country. The economy is also doing pretty badly, and the lockdowns didn’t help. I haven’t been to the country in ages, but a friend was there recently and told me that the streets in Buenos Aires are dirtier, there’s more crime and more poverty than just ten years ago.

It’s not just Argentina. While the Brazilian economy recovered slightly over the past year, and the country is not doing as badly in economic terms as its neighbour and main football rival, there is a big political division. The election last October made things worse. The opposition candidate, the leftist Lula, supposedly won, but by less than 1%, and the current rightist president’s supporters are alleging fraud. There have been massive protests and some violence. President Bolsonaro himself has remained largely silent; but he authorized the transition process to go ahead and, fraud or not, seems to be accepting his defeat. His followers, however, are not happy with having again a president who, until not long ago, was in prison on corruption charges. It is likely that protests and instability will continue for years to come.

Peru is in a similar situation as Brazil and Argentina, only worse. The leftist president has been removed from power and arrested, also on corruption charges (corruption is a constant in Latin America), and now the vice-president is in charge. But there have been many protests and episodes of violence by his supporters, and the country is now under martial law.

The strange destiny of Latin America seems to be to constantly alternate populist governments from the left and the right. No Swedish-style boring social democracy here. Usually, a right/neoliberal leader is succeeded by a leftist/revolutionary type, who is again succeeded by a right/neoliberal one. These changes don’t always involve elections; sometimes, they occur by coups or by the arrest of the other candidate.

Argentina is in a particularly sad situation because it was a pretty prosperous country once. In the first decades of the 20th century, it had a lot going for it. Millions of migrants, mostly poor peasants from Italy, moved in for a chance at improving their life, and, in general, they did. Visitors told tales of wonder. This is the description by Ida M. Cappeau, a British visitor to Buenos Aires in 1916:

“Waking very early, we had breakfast served in our sitting room. The sun was shining brightly, so we decided to take a walk down the Florida, that very popular avenue which seemed to begin at our hotel and run directly south to the Avenida de Mayo. The walks on this street were so narrow one was obliged to step into the street when passing. From four until seven p. m. this avenue was closed to all vehicles, and every person walked in the middle of the street.

We passed the Jockey Club, a very handsome building, well known all over the world for the wealth of its members. It controlled the horse racing in Buenos Aires. On this avenue I saw a sign which read ” North American Bar.” The owner of this bar, we were told, had made over two million pesos in a year by serving American mixed drinks and sandwiches.

There were a number of branch houses bearing the names of the most famous couturieres of Paris, and their windows displayed most attractive models. I was told that the very finest and most expensive gowns were sold to and worn by the ladies of Buenos Aires. In the jewelry shops we saw beautiful works of art attractively arranged.”

Then, during both World Wars, the country got even richer, not taking part in the conflict (Brazil sent a few thousand soldiers, but Argentina didn’t) but selling grain and meat to the Allied countries.

Many blame Perón (and Evita) for the disaster that Argentina turned into during the next decades. While he and his demagogic policies certainly deserve a large part of the blame, the truth is that Argentina’s prosperity was always more a mirage than a reality. Sure, Buenos Aires was a sort of Paris of the South (or maybe a Rome, as its population was 40% Italian at one point), but the rest of the country, and in particular the north, was always more indigenous and poor. When it had the chance, the country never properly industrialized or developed; and even today it’s still a mostly agrarian economy. Brazil surpassed it in most economic aspects decades ago.

The worst of Perón was the memory of Perón. Many Argentinians simply don’t want to let go and forget him. And, as a consequence, the peronistas have become a permanent nightmare in the country. Peronism is not so much a political ideology as a grift, using the image of a dead man and woman that were never even good for the country to continue promising free lunches to poor people. Peronists can be right/neoliberal (such as Menem in the 1990s), or left/progressive as the Kirchners; it’s the same. Their ideology wavers according to the fashion of the moment, but their desire for power and cushy government jobs never ends.

Brazil may not have peronismo, but it now has both lulismo and bolsonarismo, with their supporters at each others’ throats. Still, the country seems a bit more stable than others in the region and will probably survive. The big problem in Brazil is really organized crime; like in Mexico, heavily armed cartels control the favelas and impose their will. Since the left tends to be more lenient with crime and drugs, the problem will likely increase under Lula.

One mystery is foreign relations. Will Brazil get closer to Russia and China in the new government? It’s not a given. Lula and his party are many times seen as anti-American, but if they were really so, why would they promote the same things that the U.S. promotes, such as abortion, LGBT issues, “critical race theory”, etc? Lula’s platform is pretty much the same as Biden’s platform.

Is there any hope for Latin America? As the situation gets worse and more unstable even in the U.S. and Europe, it doesn’t look as it will be very rosy down there. But at least, Argentina will — hopefully!!! — take home the World Cup.