BOGOTA — In Chilia tattooed-arm politician and former student activist won the presidency by promising to oversee the deeper transformation that has been raised in Chilean society for decades, expanding the social safety net and transferring the tax burden to the rich.
In Peruthe son of a poor peasant was propelled to victory by promising to put troubled families first, feed the hungry, and right the wrongs. old disparities in access to health care and education.
In Colombiaa veteran senator and former guerrilla fighter was elected as the country’s first left-wing president, promising to defend the rights of indigenous, black, and poor Colombians, while building an economy that works for all.
Gustavo Petro, left, and his running mate Francia Márquez after winning a runoff at the election night venue in Bogotá, Colombia, Sunday, June 19, 2022. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara.
“A new story for Colombia, for Latin America, for the world,” he said in his victory speech, amid thunderous plause.
After years of leaning to the right, Latin America is hurtling to the left, a watershed moment that began in 2018 with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico and could culminate in the victory, later this year, of a leftist candidate in Brazilwith which the six largest economies in the region would be run by political leaders elected by their left-wing platforms.
A combination of forces has brought this new group to power; one such factor is the animosity against traditional politicians that has been fueled by outrage over the chronic poverty and inequality, conditions that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and have deepened frustration among voters who have projected their outrage against establishment political candidates.
But just as the new leaders gain a foothold in office, their campaign promises have run into a grim reality, marked by a European war that has skyrocketed the cost of everyday goods — from fuel to food — worsening the living conditions of already suffering constituents and diminishing much of the goodwill that presidents used to enjoy.
The Chilean President, Gabriel Boric; the Peruvian president, peter castle Y Gustavo Petropresident-elect of Colombia, are some of those leaders who achieved victory with the promise of helping the poor and marginalized, but face enormous challenges in trying to fulfill the high expectations of the voters.
Unlike today, the last significant wave of the left in Latin America, during the first decade of the millennium, was fueled by a commodity boom that allowed leaders to expand social programs and move extraordinary numbers of people to the middle class, raising the expectations of millions of families.
Now the middle class is receding, And instead of a boom, governments must deal with budget strains from the pandemic, runaway inflation fueled by the war in Ukraine, rising migration, and the increasingly dire economic and social consequences of climate change.
In Argentinawhere the leftist Alberto Fernandez came to power in late 2019 under a right-wing president, protesters have taken to the streets amid rising prices.
Even more massive protests recently erupted in Ecuadorthreatening the government of William Lasso, one of the few right-wing presidents to have been elected in the region.
“I don’t want to be ocalyptic about it,” said Cynthia Arnson, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“But, when you look at this, sometimes it feels like a Perfect storm because of the number of things that impact the region at the same time.”
The rise of social media, which has the potential to fuel discontent and generate large protest movements, including in Chile and Colombia, has shown people the power of the streets.
Starting in August, when Petro replaces its conservative predecessor, five of the region’s six largest economies will be run by leaders who campaigned from the left.
The sixth, Brazil, could also swing to the left in the national elections in October.
Polls show that the former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silvaa fierce leftist, has a wide lead over the current right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro.
The new leaders in Colombia and Chile are much more socially progressive than the leftists of the past, calling for a change in the use of fossil fuels and advocate for the right to abortion at a time when the United States Supreme Court is moving that country in the opposite direction.
But as a whole, this group is extremely heterogeneous, differing in everything from economic policies to their commitments to democratic principles.
For example, Petro and Boric promised to expand social programs for the poor, while López Obrador, focused on austerity, is cutting public spending.
What binds these leaders, however, are promises of radical change while, in many cases, they will face difficult and mounting challenges.
In Chile, at the end of last year, Boric beat Jose Antonio Kasta right-wing politician associated with the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochetby promising to get rid of the neoliberal economic policies of the past.
But just a few months after his victory, with an inexperienced Cabinet, a divided Congress, rising consumer prices and unrest in the South, Boric’s proval ratings They collsed.
This month, 90 percent of those polled told Cadem, a polling firm, that they believed the country was stagnant or regressing.
Like many countries in the region, Chile’s annual inflation rate is the highest in more than a generation, at 11.5 percent, creating a cost-of-living crisis.
In the south of Chile, the scene of a struggle for land between the State and the muchesthe country’s largest indigenous group, the conflict has entered its deadliest phase in 20 years, prompting Boric to reverse one of his campaign promises and order the troop redeployment in that area.
Catalina Becerra, 37, a human resources manager from Antofagasta, in northern Chile, said that “like many people of my generation” she voted for Boric because Kast did not “represent her in the slightest.”
“But I wasn’t convinced of what I could do for the country,” Becerra added.
“He has not achieved what he said he would do.”
In September, Chileans will vote for a Constitution remarkably progressive that enshrines gender equality, environmental protection and indigenous rights and is intended to replace the Pinochet-era Magna Carta.
The president has tied his success to that referendum, putting him in a precarious position should that proposal be rejected, a possibility that polls show is the most likely outcome for now.
In neighboring Peru, Castillo emerged from virtual anonymity last year to beat Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing politician whose father, former president Alberto Fujimori, he ruled with an iron fist and introduced neoliberal policies similar to those rejected by Chilean voters.
While some Peruvians supported Castillo as a way of expressing their rejection of Fujimori, the now president also represented high hopes for many people, especially poor and rural voters.
As a candidate, Castillo promised to empower farmers with more subsidies, access to credit and technical assistance.
But today, it barely manages to survive politically.
He has governed erratically, divided between his far-left party and the far-right opposition, reflecting the contentious politics that helped him win the presidency.
Castillo, whose proval rating has fallen to 19 percent, according to the Institute of Peruvian Studies, is now subject to five tax investigationshas already faced two impeachment attempts and has pointed seven interior ministers.
The agrarian reform that he promised has not yet been translated into concrete policies.
Instead, increases in food, fuel, and fertilizer prices are hitting his voter base harder.
Farmers are struggling with one of the worst crises in decades, facing the biggest annual planting season without widespread access to synthetic fertilizers, most of which are usually sourced from Russia but are hard to come by due to disruptions in the war-related world supply.
Eduardo Zegarra, a researcher at GRADE, a research institute, described the situation as “without precedents”.
“I see that this is going to unfold dramatically this year, and probably lead to enormous instability,” he said.
In a poor neighborhood on a hill in Lima, the cital, many parents skip meals so their children have more to eat.
“We voted for Castillo because we thought his government was going to be different,” said Ruth Canchari, 29, a housewife and mother of three.
“But he’s not taking action.”
In Colombia, Petro will assume power facing many of the same difficulties.
The poverty has increased —40 percent of households now live on less than $100 a month, less than half the monthly minimum wage—while inflation has reached nearly 10 percent.
Nonetheless, despite widespread financial anxiety, Petro’s actions as he prepares to take office pear to have earned him some support.
He made repeated calls for national consensus, met with his greatest political enemy, former right-wing president Alvaro Uribeand pointed a well-respected, relatively conservative finance minister and educated at Yale.
The measures may allow Petro to govern more successfully than, say, Boric, said Daniel García-Peña, a political scientist, and have calmed some fears about how it will revive the country’s economy.
But, considering the brief honeymoon that other leaders have had, Petro will have very little time to start improving living conditions.
“Petro must deliver to its constituents,” said Hernán Morantes, a 30-year-old Petro supporter and environmental activist.
“Social movements must be very active so that when the government does not comply, or does not want to comply, we are active.”
Julie Turkewitz reported from Bogotá, Colombia, Mitra Taj from Lima, Peru, and John Bartlett from Santiago, Chile. Genevieve Glatsky contributed to this report from Bogotá.
Julie Turkewitz is chief of the Andes bureau, which covers Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Guyana. Before moving to South America, she was a national affairs correspondent and covered the western United States. @julieturkewitz Julie Turkewitz reported from Bogotá, Colombia, Mitra Taj from Lima, Peru, and John Bartlett from Santiago, Chile. Genevieve Glatsky contributed to this report from Bogotá.
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