Does Argentina’s pro-business vote mean the Latin American left is dead?

November 26, 2015

The stereotypical Latin American leader of the past generation has been a firebrand populist who could deliver hours-long impromptu speeches on television, painted the United States as the source of all evil and had probably fought as a guerrilla in some steamy jungle.

That type of leader — think Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (minus the guerrilla experience) — is the opposite of Mauricio Macri, the understated engineer and Buenos Aires mayor who was elected president of Argentina on Sunday.

Macri’s win comes as further evidence that the often-cited “pink tide” of the Latin American left has started to ebb. Across the region, countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela that had joined forces to oppose the United States and “neoliberal” capitalism have seen their influence diminish as they battle economic challenges. The severe slump driven by low oil and commodity prices in the region’s leader and biggest economy, Brazil, has pushed ratings for President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla, into the single digits amid calls for her impeachment.

Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, a socialist ex-Sandinista guerrilla leader, is pro-business and beloved by Washington. Cuba is forging a rapprochement with the United States. A comedian with no political experience was just elected in Guatemala. Former Uruguayan president José Mujica, an ex-guerrilla famed for his ascetic lifestyle and liberal policies such as legalizing marijuana, was replaced by Tabaré Vázquez, a doctor. While support remains strong across the region for generous spending on social programs, the tone of the discourse has softened.

“You’re seeing this wave or tide or whatever you want to call it has run its course. They don’t have the economic sustenance to continue,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “This kind of fiery leftist rhetoric was a function of the economic situation, and that has changed dramatically for many of these countries.”

In Macri’s first step as president-elect, a low-key Monday morning news conference at a table flanked by his aides, he said he would seek to suspend Venezuela from the South American trade bloc Mercosur, citing human rights violations and limits on free speech. That represents a sharp break with Fernández, the outgoing president, who has had close relations with Venezuela.

“To the brothers of Latin America and the whole world, we want to have a good relationship with all the countries,” Macri said in his victory speech. “The Argentine people have much to offer to the world.”

Macri comes across as a calm, fact-favoring engineer more interested in quietly tinkering with economic levers than addressing the masses in soaring palace-
balcony speeches. His aides describe him as a shy, somewhat socially awkward man who took a while to adapt to the crowds on the campaign trail. Macri was no student militant in the Latin American mode; he has said he doesn’t even regularly read newspapers.

His appeal stems in part from his lack of a strong ideology — a sharp contrast to Fernández’s fierce nationalism. Macri, a scion of one of the country’s richest families, headed the soccer team Boca Juniors and is serving his second term as mayor of Buenos Aires, where he is known for sprucing up the capital, bringing in art and music performances, and adding bus lanes.

“He’s the anti-Cristina,” said Diego Guelar, a foreign policy adviser to Macri. “He’s a doer. That would be exactly his ideology.”

Roberto Digon, who served alongside Macri at Boca Juniors before the two fell out over sales of players, said that Macri initially had trouble giving a speech or getting his ideas across but that he improved over time, in part because he wanted “to show his father that he was an important and capable person.”

“He must have undertaken some public speaking and presentation courses, because he was very weak politically and ideologically,” Digon said. “Macri was brilliant when it came to business. He was very capable. He learned about politics little by little.”

Guelar, a former Argentine ambassador to the United States and a potential candidate for foreign minister, said Macri’s first foreign policy priority would be building closer ties with Brazil, a neighbor and trading partner that Macri on Monday called “our most important partner of the future.” The incoming president’s team also wants to pursue a free-trade deal with the European Union. Another goal is to clarify some aspects of the relationship with China, including making public the terms of a Chinese-funded space observatory — to ensure that it won’t have any military use — and reviewing a plan for a Chinese-built nuclear reactor.

As far as the United States is concerned, Macri seeks to settle a creditor dispute over debts from the financial crisis and cultivate a warmer overall relationship including encouraging foreign investment. During Fernández’s tenure, there were some bizarre episodes, such as in 2011 when Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman used a pair of nail clippers to open a case in the airport allegedly containing secret U.S. military codes.

Guelar said there would likely be the “normal conflicts of a normal agenda that you share with a partner and a friend,” such as trade disputes over whether Argentine oranges or meat would be allowed into the United States.

“What’s going to change is the American Embassy is not going to be the embassy of an enemy,” he said.

Macri’s chief strategist and campaign manager, Marcos Peña, added in an interview that “there are no reasons for us to have bad relations with the United States.”

“There can be a mature relationship of friendship, with a joint agenda to exchange and grow together,” he said. “The world is an opportunity, not a threat.”


Does Argentina’s pro-business vote mean the Latin American left is dead?