Leftist politicians had their heyday in South America in the 2000s. Now, their election promises have gone down the drain along with global commodity prices.
Brazil's former President Dilma Rousseff is now the latest of many successful socialist leaders in South America to fall from power.
The deceptive charm of socialism that had South America in its hold in the 2000s is not just vanishing in Brazil. At the turn of this century, leftist parties throughout the continent achieved majorities in parliamentary and presidential elections: Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina.
They had much in common right from the beginning: the promise of socially just policies through redistribution, the mutual triple enemy of capitalism-USA-oligarchy, a dose of nationalism and the cultivation of personality cults in familiar South American caudillo fashion.
The most extreme example is the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela against the so-called imperialism of the North. In 1998, Hugo Chavez was first of a series of leaders who saw himself as a movement. He referred to it as the socialism of the 21th century and with his charismatic personality, he proceeded to become an icon.
Chavez used undiplomatic slogans to attack the USA and vexed the West through alliances to Iran and Cuba. He expropriated domestic and foreign corporations, subsidized consumerism and had social housing built. In summary, he ruthlessly did what his electorate expected of him. In Venezuela, he gained enough support to win three elections and survive a coup attempt.
On the rest of the continent, the belief spread that the US imperialists and their capitalism were to blame for widespread poverty in South America. People were gripped by the idea that socialism would eradicate the source of their woes and bring prosperity to all.
Low income needs
Socialists and social democrats ruled more and more countries, especially in South America. And indeed, years of economic growth ensued from which poor people also benefitted.
The US political scientist Kenneth M. Roberts found in a study that the revenue gap in South American countries had narrowed between 2000 and 2010. The finding also applies to countries led by conservative leaders, although the figures are much more pronounced in states led by left-leaning politicians. Roberts concludes that the political pressure the leftist parties exerted on conservative governments led to a greater response to the needs of low income groups.
As of 2014, only Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Horacio Cartes of Paraguay did not belong to the left
More specifically, this meant a massive redistribution via social programs, high statutory minimum wages and subsidized consumer goods - like in Venezuela. The success was so obvious for years that even liberal economists commended the fact that purchasing power had widened the consumer base to the advantage of the overall economy.
When Hugo Chavez died on March 5, 2013, all twelve South American states - with the exception of Colombia and Paraguay - were ruled by socialists or social democrats. Now, three and half years later, after 18 years of socialism, the country is ruined. Child hunger has reached its highest level since the early 1980s and the political climate is marked by threats, spying and violence against dissidents.
Venezuela is an extreme example. At the same time, the mood in other South American countries has darkened as purchasing power is diminishing and people are looking for the culprit of the downturn. What peopled overlooked in euphoric times was the fact that many economies were based on the export of raw materials. In return, Latinos imported branded goods from the USA and cheap manufactured products from China. Finances dried up when the price of commodities fell and unfavorable exchange rates had the price of imported goods soaring.
Since the crash, leftist parties in South America have only managed to achieve narrow majorities at best. Of course many leaders try to brush off the blame for the crisis. But South Americans do not only blame the crisis on the promises made by leftist politicians. People are also disappointed because the champions of the average person are no less corrupt than the old elites.
The same holds true for Brazil's Workers' Party, PT. Their decline began before the crisis was tangible in people's wallets. In the Menselao scandal, high-ranking party members were tried and sentenced to years of imprisonment for buying votes in parliament; the revelations irrevocably shook the people's faith in the ruling party. Dilma Rousseff herself had nothing to do with it, yet as a supervisory board member of Petrobras, she obviously had turned a blind eye to the mass filling of key positions by PT officials. Now, the partially state-held oil company has become the hub of the next historic corruption scandal in Brazil.
The fact that Rousseff has been ousted from office on obviously unproven allegations of having tinkered with the stated budget to achieve her reelection shows how strong her political opponents have become. The fact that the majority of now highly politicized Brazilians supports – or at least, tolerates – the impeachment shows that they have awakened from the socialist dream of a just world.