No person of the year in Latin America

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 31, 2013


As 2013 comes to an end, it is difficult to identify a Latin American political leader that stood above the rest as a regional voice that advanced and represented regional interests in the world arena. While some of the obvious candidates had a bad year in their own countries, no emerging leader rose up to occupy the position that in previous years was disputed by Brazilian president Lula and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.


The natural candidate to have emerged as the regional leader was Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Her third year in office was marked by street protests and popular discontent with her economic policies and with the preparations for the 2014 World Cup. During the second half of the year, Rousseff was forced to focus her efforts in rebuilding her image at home. In addition, Brazil’s lackluster economic development in the past three years weakens any possible claim she could have to be a regional leader.

Since the death of Hugo Chávez, left leaning presidents in Latin America have failed to find a new leader. Argentine President Cristina Fernández is struggling at home. Though her coalition came ahead in the midterm election, the results were not a resounding victory. Ecuadorian and Bolivian Presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales have also faced difficulties. While Correa has been criticized by environmentalists for his decision to open sensitive areas, inhabited by indigenous groups, for oil production, Evo Morales reversed a previous campaign promise by announcing that he will run for a third term in 2014. A controversial interpretation by the Constitutional Tribunal — that ruled that the two-term limit will not apply in 2014 since the constitution was approved after his first election in 2005 — has put Morales at the same level as former presidents Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Carlos Menem in Argentina, who used the same trick to seek a constitutionally banned third term in office.


Other leftwing figures have also failed to emerge as leaders. Uruguayan president José Mujica, who continued to make news for his personable style and distaste for presidential protocol, also captured the attention of the world as he pushed for legalization of marijuana in Uruguay. But given the small size of his country and its relatively high level of economic development, Uruguay’s move will probably have limited repercussions elsewhere. Moreover, Mujica and the Uruguayan political elite made their move against the apparent will of the people. Polls report that a majority of Uruguayans oppose the legalization of marijuana. In the country that has the most successful experience with plebiscites and direct democracy in Latin America, Mujica missed an invaluable opportunity to show the world a successful experience of participatory democracy. Instead, the Uruguayan president made the bold move of legalizing marijuana without consulting the Uruguayan people.


Right-of-centre leaders, like President Sebastián Pińera — who has led a period of rapid economic expansion in Chile — and Juan Manuel Santos — who has kept Colombia on the path of sustained economic development first achieved under former president Álvaro Uribe — have also been preoccupied with domestic concerns. In Chile, the unpopular Pińera led rightwing parties to their worst electoral defeat since democracy was restored in 1989. In Colombia, Santos’ reelection chances hinge upon the progress of the peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Though Santos is leading in polls, any significant reversal in the peace process could threaten his re-election in mid-2014. Peruvian president Ollanta Humala has been hit by corruption scandals. Just like his two predecessors, Humala will continue to lead over a country that experiences solid economic growth, but his approval ratings will struggle. Not being popular at home disqualifies any president from trying to exercise regional leadership.


Mexican president Enrique Peńa Nieto comes closest to occupying the position of the most accomplished regional leader in 2013. He has been able to push complicated and contentious reforms through Congress. However, the jury is still out on whether those reforms will give the Mexican economy the much needed jumpstart to put the country back on the path of rapid economic growth, poverty reduction and social inclusion. Moreover, since joining NAFTA in 1993, Mexico’s influence in Latin America has greatly diminished.


It is true that the new pope, Francis, is from Argentina. However, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the leader of the Catholic Church, not a representative of his native country or a leader that advances the interests of Latin America. Thus, even though he was understandably named Person of the Year by Time Magazine, it would be unfair to label him as a regional leader.


The year is ending without a leader that can stand up for the interests of the region. No Latin American leader is actively engaged in world debates on how to promote economic growth and best meet the challenges the world faces. Since the end of Lula’s eight-year period as President of Brazil and, for better or worse, since the passing of Hugo Chávez, the Latin American seat at the table of world leaders has remained empty.