Latin America needs a regional leader

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 17, 2017


At a time when the world is undergoing rapid transformations and the post-Cold War order is being tested by the Donald Trump administration, Latin American countries find themselves without a leader, one who can make the region a relevant player in shaping the new world order. Without a strong voice to defend the interests of the region, Latin America risks being left behind in the new distribution of power that is beginning to take shape in the new protectionist and nationalist phase that the world seems to be entering.


When the third wave of democracy reached Latin America in the mid-1980s, the region seemed to have an abundance of leaders of international stature. In addition to Fidel Castro, whose influence survived the fact that he led an authoritarian government, Latin American countries had a few voices that exerted influence in international debates. The democratically elected presidents of Argentina, Raúl Alfonsín, and Costa Rica, Oscar Arias — who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Central American peace agreement — were leaders whose views were taken into consideration in the world arena.


In the 1990s, as the global influence of Fidel Castro began to decline, Mexico’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose democratic credentials were far from optimal, emerged as a champion of free trade, signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso led two successful four-year terms that radically changed the course of that country’s economy for the better. In Argentina, Carlos Menem also emerged as an advocate of (most of the) Washington Consensus policies and sided with the George H. Bush administration in the first war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  President Patricio Aylwin led a successful transition to democracy in Chile, despite the presence of former dictator Augusto Pinochet as head of the Army.


With the turn of the century, the rise of the left in Latin American made Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez the most outspoken and controversial voice in Latin America. But Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chile’s Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet offered an alternative, softer and more pragmatic version of a democratic left in Latin America. In Mexico, Vicente Fox, the first opposition candidate to win power in more than 70 years also embraced a voice of pragmatism well respected among international leaders, especially those right-of-centre.



Yet, since Fidel Castro stepped down from the presidency in Cuba in 2008 and slowly began to retreat from the international arena, the group of Latin American leaders who aspired to be influential voices in the international arena quickly began to decline.


After Lula stepped down in late 2010, Dilma Rousseff was never able to fill the void left by her charismatic predecessor. Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared war on drug-lords in Mexico but made little progress in curtailing violence, which limited his ability to rise as a world leader. Colombian president Álvaro Uribe’s heavy handed policy against those suspected of being part of the left-wing FARC guerillas tainted his international reputation. Though Chávez continued to lead the pack of left-wing leaders in the region, the economic difficulties faced by his country and his inclination to befriend authoritarian leaders around the world also limited his international influence (though his fat wallet helped many leaders in smaller countries to ignore his less than optimal democratic credentials). Chilean president Sebastián Pińera, elected in 2010 as the first right-wing leader after Pinochet, soon faced huge demonstrations at home that also cut short any effort to position himself as a regional leader and an international advocate of market-friendly policies. Surprisingly, the Uruguayan José “Pepe” Mujica, elected in 2010 when he was 75, did rise to international prominence for being a straight-shooter and advocating the legalisation of marijuana.


Ever since Mujica retired in 2015, the position of popular and highly respected Latin American presidents has remained vacant. Rousseff was never up to meeting the expectations that her predecessors Lula and Fernando H. Cardoso set for democratically elected Brazilian presidents. Mexican President Enrique Peńa Nieto, elected in 2012, has run into corruption scandals. In her second term, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has turned into a huge disappointment. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro is so inept that even his opponents long for the late Hugo Chávez. Colombian Juan Manuel Santos, who spent his first four-year term and most of his second term negotiating a peace agreement with the FARC, seemed to be headed toward becoming the new regional leader, but the Brazilian campaign corruption scandal has now also tainted his reputation. Peruvian Pedro Pablo Kuczynski briefly looked to be ontrack as a potential regional leader, but the rapid fall in his approval ratings and the ramifications of another campaign finance scandal have also hurt him.


In 2017, Latin America lacks a regional leader. None of the presidents leading the largest countries in the region seem to be able to rise to the occasion. Precisely when the most powerful countries seem to be rapidly moving to forging a new world order, Latin America does not seem to have a leader who can credibly claim a seat at the table and speak, while representing the interests of the region.