Peter Quilter on Latin America's new political shift

August 1, 2016
Peter Quilter

The Ash Center sat down with Senior Fellow Peter Quilter to discuss Latin America, the state of the Left in the region, and the future of democratic governance. 

Ash Center: Just a few years ago the Left was ascendant in much of Latin America, from the anti-capitalist rhetoric of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, to the neo-Peronist Cristina Kirchner in Argentina to Evo Morales’s “indigenous socialism” in Bolivia.  Now Argentina has tracked to the center-right under Macri, Chavez’s successor Maduro clings to power using ever-coercive methods of governance, and Evo Morales’s bid to allow himself a fourth term was defeated in a constitutional referendum.  Why has the tide turned so sharply against the region’s left wing stalwarts?

Quilter:  Because it is tapped out. Just like voters anywhere, the citizens of the Americas are looking for solutions.  The social and economic problems are legion, and it has become clear that the “left” that you enumerate in the question is not providing effective solutions.  The timing is not accidental:  The Americas sell commodities and China’s rapacious demand for them is ebbing as the process of urbanizing that country winds down.  Remember that while Venezuela is probably the most notable country in the region feeling the sting of low oil prices, it is certainly not the only one.

The consequence is the unmasking of the false policy answers such as the ones Maduro is selling to his people.   Sky high oil prices let you get away with a lot of mistakes.  Ultimately, this is not really about right vs. left. It’s about throw-the-bums-out – a sentiment catching fire in much of the rest of the world as well.  The Latin American arena throws in the phenomenon of authoritarianism and weak (or co-opted) institutions, such that throwing the bums out because increasingly difficult.          


Ash Center: For years, left wing rulers successfully used the specter of American imperialism to mask their failures to systematically tackle poverty or spur long-term economic growth. In recent years, why has this tactic seemingly failed?

Quilter: I would give much credit here to the Obama administration, which undertook a significant course correction from the Bush years.  Trying to match Chavez’s vituperations (which worked for Chavez politically) with U.S. reaffirmations of righteousness and indignation (which worked for Chavez politically) was a loser.  The Obama State Department undertook a difficult change in its dealing with many countries in the region:  it intentionally held its tongue. 

As it went about the dry business of diplomacy in the region, it bet that eventually the anti-US rhetoric would start to feel empty and disconnected from the political problems it was being blamed for.  I say this was difficult because in doing this, Obama was criticized here and in the region for not doing enough.  But the policy worked.   Additionally, even though it came relatively late in the game, the change toward Cuba policy took out of the discussion the easiest argument levelled at the US by the entire region. 


Ash Center: On a related note, what has been the impact of the historical Cuba-US rapprochement of the last year and how has it served to alter the traditional leftist perception of US policy in Latin America?

Quilter: It is hard to overstate just how important that policy change has been.  The U.S., in one fell swoop, has removed the biggest irritant in its relations with the rest of the hemisphere.  There is literally not a single country in the region which does not consider this a step forward in the U.S.’s relations with the region.  And yes, it takes off the table the easy argument that the U.S. is trying to undermine certain leaders and governments.  In Cuba itself, even the pictures of the Obama visit told a powerful story about inevitability: the young, smiling African American President refusing to let the scowling and spent Raul Castro hold up Obama’s arm in some twisted solidarity wave.  Change is here and it will not be stopped.

Since only Congress can unravel the laws that make up the embargo, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen anytime soon --- though Congress might lift the travel ban, maybe even in 2017.   The fact that the embargo itself remains on the books is not, in my estimation, that important.   The cat is out of the bag.  And President Obama has already largely succeeded in making the changes unchangeable. 

Note, for example, how the Republican platform treats the Cuba issue.  Predictably, it is a restatement of U.S.-Cuba relations during the cold war (oddly—or maybe not--- it is very different from what Donald Trump seems to believe about Cuba policy).  But it is notably silent with regard to the Obama people-to-people changes on travel, on the new rights of Cuban Americans returning to visit and supporting their families, and about the considerable openings for U.S. business such as in the hotel and communications business.   The signal appears to be that those things are here to stay. 

In sum, the changes with respect to Cuba will give the region and the U.S. an opportunity for a policy re-set.  Let us hope all interested parties seize the moment.

Ash Center: To what degree did these left-wing governments fall prey to the endemic corruption which has plagued efforts at good governance in the region for years?

Quilter: Obviously they fell prey.  In dramatic fashion.   I would argue that corruption is a proxy for infirm governance.  We have heard over and over that it’s a good sign that Brazil is uncovering its corruption scandals so publicly and painfully. But I hope the Brazilians see the deeper problem with their multiple corruption scandals with colorful names.   Repeatedly, in Brazil, political synthesis is purchased.  That says a lot about the state of the structures of political intermediation there --- from political parties to the Congress.  They are effectively broken.    

In Argentina, we are only now seeing the extent of corruption in the Kirchner governments.  The sight of a former deputy minister straining to heave a bag containing 9 million dollars in cash over a convent wall is strangely funny (he was going to store it in a crypt – apparently an unoriginal practice for him and his cronies) but it is also painfully sad for Argentines.  Clearly, no government has a monopoly on corruption.  It is more insidious and ingrained than we care to admit, and it will take time and dedicated policies – structural and cultural -- to address. 

And stay tuned for additional corruption scandals from other countries as governments weaken and exit (or fall).

Ash Center: What does the future hold for the Left in Latin America? Are we just seeing a particular ebb in the cycle of power between the Right and Left in the region or do you see a more terminal decline for populist left-wing driven governments there?

Quilter: There are other stories to tell about the immediate future.  Colombia is in the process of securing a peace deal with the guerilla organization FARC.  Peruvian voters just chose a center-right, technocratic President.  The U.S. is significantly scaling up its assistance to Central America.     

Again, I believe the Left-Right analysis is useful only to a point.  The future lies in strengthening the rule of law and undergirding the institutions that protect it.  Historically, neither the left nor the right in Latin America has shown itself to be terribly concerned with that.  In this recent cycle, the populist left has shown that it cares little about political checks and balances, about press and speech freedom, about corruption.  And they are exiting, or being forced to exit, the stage. We used to talk about the 1990s as the decade of democratic consolidation in the Americas.  Apparently, our expectations were dramatically off.  Consolidation takes much more time than we thought, and it is not a linear process.  If the new, emerging political forces also fail to provide answers, they will be forced out as well.  It’s tough to watch and harder to live, but this is as it should be.     


Peter Quilter is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Ash Center.  He has held senior positions in the U.S. Department of State, the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives, and most recently with the Organization of American States. 

See also: Ash Features, 2016