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As Latin America shifts left, leaders face a short honeymoon


A neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia, on May 15, 2020. A new president, who promised an economy that works for everyone, will soon take office in Colombia.

By Julie Turkewitz, Mitra Taj and John Bartlett


In Chile, a tattooed former student activist won the presidency with a pledge to oversee the most profound transformation of Chilean society in decades, widening the social safety net and shifting the tax burden to the wealthy.


In Peru, the son of poor farmers was propelled to victory on a vow to prioritize struggling families, feed the hungry and correct long-standing disparities in access to health care and education.


In Colombia, a former rebel and longtime legislator was elected the country’s first leftist president, promising to champion the rights of Indigenous, Black and poor Colombians, while building an economy that works for everyone.


“A new story for Colombia, for Latin America, for the world,” he said in his victory speech, to thunderous applause.


After years of tilting rightward, Latin America is hurtling to the left, a watershed moment that began in 2018 with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and could culminate with a victory later this year by a leftist candidate in Brazil, leaving the region’s six largest economies run by leaders elected on leftist platforms.


A combination of forces has thrust this new group into power, including an anti-incumbent fervor driven by anger over chronic poverty and inequality, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and have deepened frustration among voters who have taken out their indignation on establishment candidates.


But just as new leaders settle into office, their campaign pledges have collided with a bleak reality, including a European war that has sent the cost of everyday goods, from fuel to food, soaring, making life more painful for already suffering constituents and evaporating much of the good will presidents once enjoyed.


Chile’s Gabriel Boric, Peru’s Pedro Castillo and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro are among the leaders who rode to victory promising to help the poor and disenfranchised, but who find themselves facing enormous challenges in trying to meet the high expectations of voters.


Unlike today, the last significant leftist shift in Latin America, in the first decade of the millennium, was propelled by a commodities boom that allowed leaders to expand social programs and move an extraordinary number of people into the middle class, raising expectations for millions of families.


Now that middle class is sliding backward, and instead of a boom, governments face pandemic-battered budgets, galloping inflation fed by the war in Ukraine, rising migration and increasingly dire economic and social consequences of climate change.


In Argentina, where the leftist Alberto Fernández took the reins from a right-wing president in late 2019, protesters have taken to the streets amid rising prices. Even larger protests erupted recently in Ecuador, threatening the government of one of the region’s few newly elected right-wing presidents, Guillermo Lasso.


“I don’t want to be apocalyptic about it,” said Cynthia Arnson, a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But there are times when you look at this that it feels like the perfect storm, the number of things hitting the region at once.”


The rise of social media, with the potential to supercharge discontent and drive major protest movements, including in Chile and Colombia, have shown people the power of the streets.


Beginning in August, when Petro takes over from his conservative predecessor, five of the six largest economies in the region will be run by leaders who campaigned from the left.


The sixth, Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, could swing that way in a national election in October. Polls show that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a fiery leftist, has a wide lead on the right-wing incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro.


New leaders in Colombia and Chile are far more socially progressive than leftists in the past, calling for a shift away from fossil fuels and advocating for abortion rights at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is moving America in the opposite direction.


But taken together, this group is extremely mixed, differing on everything from economic policy to their commitment to democratic principles.


Petro and Boric have vowed to vastly expand social programs for the poor, for example, while López Obrador, who is focused on austerity, is reducing spending.


What does link these leaders, however, are promises for sweeping change that in many instances are running headlong into difficult and growing challenges.


In Chile late last year, Boric beat José Antonio Kast, a right-wing establishment politician associated with Chile’s former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, by pledging to jettison the neoliberal economic policies of the past.


But just months into his term, with an inexperienced Cabinet, divided Congress, rising consumer prices and unrest in the country’s south, Boric’s approval ratings have plummeted.


Ninety percent of poll respondents told the polling firm Cadem this month that they believed the country’s economy was stuck or going backward.


Like many neighbors in the region, Chile’s yearly inflation rate is the highest it’s been in more than a generation, at 11.5%, spurring a cost-of-living crisis.


In southern Chile, a land struggle between the Mapuche, the country’s largest Indigenous group, and the state has entered its deadliest phase in 20 years, leading Boric to reverse course on one of his campaign pledges and redeploy troops in the area.


In September, Chileans will vote on a remarkably progressive constitution that enshrines gender equality, environmental protections and Indigenous rights and is meant to replace a Pinochet-era document.


The president has bound his success to the referendum, putting himself in a precarious position should the draft be rejected, which polls show is for now the more likely outcome.


In neighboring Peru, Castillo rose last year from virtual anonymity to beat Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing politician whose father, former President Alberto Fujimori, governed with an iron fist and introduced neoliberal policies similar to those rejected by Chile’s voters.


While some Peruvians supported Castillo solely as a rejection of Fujimori, he also represented real hopes for many, especially poor and rural voters.


As a candidate, Castillo promised to empower farmers with more subsidies, access to credit and technical assistance.


But today, he is barely managing to survive politically. He has governed erratically, pulled between his far-left party and the far-right opposition, reflecting the fractious politics that helped him win the presidency.


Castillo — whose approval rating has sunk to 19%, according to the Institute of Peruvian Studies — is now subject to five criminal probes, has already faced two impeachment attempts and cycled through seven interior ministers.


The agrarian reform he pledged has yet to translate into any concrete policies. Instead, price spikes for food, fuel and fertilizer are hitting his base the hardest.


In Colombia, Petro will take office facing many of the same headwinds.


Poverty has risen — 40% of households now live on less than $100 a month, less than half of the monthly minimum wage — while inflation has hit nearly 10%.


Still, despite widespread financial anxiety, Petro’s actions as he prepares to assume office seem to have earned him some support.


But given how quickly the honeymoon period ended for others, Petro will have precious little time to deliver relief.


“Petro must come through for his voters,” said Hernan Morantes, 30, a Petro supporter and environmental activist. “Social movements must be ready, so that when the government does not come through, or does not want to come through, we’re ready.”


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