Latin America’s unpopular leaders

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 24, 2013


As a continent that has enjoyed rapid economic growth for over a decade, Latin America is experiencing a wave of popular dissatisfaction.


Street protests and manifestations have sporadically arisen in different countries in recent months. Discontent is also being voiced in low presidential approval. As people perceive that their countries are doing well but progress is not trickling down, they punish their nations’ presidents.


Notwithstanding the world crisis of 2008-2009, Latin America has experienced a prolonged period of economic development. Since the commodity boom began more than a decade ago —driven by the apparently insatiable demand from Asia — Latin American countries have seen their currencies appreciate, their trade deficits turn into trade surpluses and their past endemic foreign debt problem disappear.


Most Latin American countries are now net creditors. Export-driven economic growth has provided governments with additional revenues to fund social programmes that have lifted millions out of poverty. Because economic growth has fostered employment, the number of those in need has diminished even more. Dozens of millions of Latin Americans have reached middle-class status. After a sharp decline in world trade in 2008-2009, the commodity boom returned with renewed strength. Latin America recovered from the crisis faster than most other regions in the world.


In spite of the good economic run and the undeniable progress made in reducing poverty and promoting social inclusion, Latin Americans seem dissatisfied. From Chile, where student protests rocked the country in 2011, to Brazil, where protesters flooded cities against lavish public spending in preparations for the World Cup and Olympic Games, people have taken their discontent to the streets. The growth of online social networks might have facilitated the organizing of those dissatisfied, but the reasons for dissatisfaction are real. There has been progress, but people perceive that wealth is not evenly distributed. Millions resent that they have barely benefited from the progress their countries have experienced.


In Chile, outgoing president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) has struggled with very low presidential approval. Despite presiding over a four-year period of economic growth and almost full employment, less than 30 percent of Chileans approve of his performance. His rightwing coalition is on course for its worst electoral performance in 20 years. Though the economy grew and millions of Chileans are better off than four years ago, people believe Piñera has governed for the wealthy, not for the worse-off.


In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2014) has seen his popularity slide to a low of 21 percent in his third year in office. Many observers believe Santos’s re-election chances are doomed. Though significant progress has been made in housing, education and other social programmes, Colombians disapprove of their president’s handling of the negotiations with FARC rebels and the way the government has handled the maritime border dispute with Nicaragua.


Peruvian President Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) is also going through a difficult period. Though Peruvians have been historically harsh on their presidents — with former presidents Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) and Alan García (2006-2011) falling to the low teens in their approval — Humala enjoyed higher than 50 percent approval for almost two years, before falling to the low 30s in recent months. Though a few scandals have hurt his popularity, Humala has been recently criticized for failing to produce more social inclusion and for his inability to properly respond to social discontent caused by the high levels of inequality and mining projects that negatively affect the poor. Whereas Peru has enjoyed an average of above 5 percent growth in the last 10 years, almost one in three Peruvians continue to live in poverty.


Most notoriously, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2015) saw her approval fall in July from the low 60s to the low 30s when street protests channelled the discontent and dissatisfaction of the urban poor who reject the high spending on preparing the country for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Protesters want the government to focus spending on the poor so that the economic growth experienced in recent years can reach to those traditionally excluded.


Other Latin American presidents, including Bolivian Evo Morales — the longest-serving democratically elected president in the region — and Ecuadorean Rafael Correa — in office since 2006 —, have also seen their popularity fall in recent months. President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) of Mexico and President Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) of Argentina have also seen their approval ratings go down. Even Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014), the president of the otherwise tranquil Costa Rica, has struggled with her approval.


Though domestic politics explain why different presidents are struggling with their popularity, there are also some common trends in the region. People are showing signs of dissatisfaction and anxiety. As they see the economy in their countries making progress, they also feel being left out of the benefits of economic growth.


Because they have won elections on platforms that promise social inclusion, redistribution and reductions in inequality, presidents are becoming the depositories of discontent and the targets of dissatisfaction. People in Latin America see the economic progress but rightly perceive that they are not benefiting from the good economic times.