About four years ago, during the heady and hopeful days of the Arab Spring, journalists in Latin America wrote spirited articles asking: When will the Latin American Spring begin?
But now that the first buds of seasonal change are appearing on the branch in Venezuela and Argentina, nobody is calling it “spring.” And that’s a good thing, because as the events in the Middle East and North Africa showed us, spring can quickly turn to winter.
Nothing that dramatic is happening in Latin America. Instead, it’s more like a needle drop to 990 millibars on an aneroid barometer.
That might not be a helpful way of understanding the situation, but neither are most media tropes.
Unfortunately, early signs of political change often prompt pundits to reach for old cliches to make the moment seem simpler or more important than it is: a pendular swing, a changing of the guard, a tidal shift, or (cue electric guitar and mournful whistling) the winds of change. (Readers of a certain age will now have a particularly awful Scorpions song stuck in their heads for the rest of the day, and I apologize for that.)
In Latin America, all those chestnuts are being used in an attempt to make sense of the left’s recent electoral defeats in Argentina and Venezuela, or lend greater significance to the short-lived impeachment attempt against Brazil’s socialist president. Some analysts are even trying to include Guatemala’s‘ recent ouster of its right-wing president (and subsequent election of another) as further evidence that “el pueblo” is finally stirring from its slumber to demand greater accountability and good governance across Latin America.
But the sum of those parts doesn’t necessarily represent the start of something bigger. At least not yet. If anything, Latin America is just going up on the blocks to get her tires rotated. It’s a regular, 100,000 mile tune-up, not an overhaul.
Quaint are those who want to interpret what’s happening solely through an ideological prism. While there is clearly some political realignment going on in Argentina and Venezuela, for the most part it’s motivated by economic pragmatism, not the triumph of one theory over another. The left’s loss in those countries is unlikely to domino across the region.
Outside of university classrooms, appeals to political ideology resonate the loudest during periods of robust economic expansion or serious deprivation. Normal times call for normal measures. And for much of Latin America, 2016 should be par for the course—it’s not the best or worst of times.
There are big exceptions. Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil—the three pillars of Latin America’s left— are all in serious economic tailspins. All three face pretty uncertain futures next year. The oil and commodities booms that led to the spread of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, socialism in Brazil, and the subsequent “pink tide” expansion across Latin America are over. The waters of leftist populism are receding.
But it’s not giving way to a new advance of right-wing ideology. There’s no great neoliberal revival in the making. Argentina might be an exception, but President Mauricio Macri hasn’t even been in office for a full month, so it’s a tad premature to make any sweeping statements about his government.
In general terms (always a dangerous way to start a sentence about Latin America), pragmatism, not ideology, will define regional politics in 2016. It will be a year of reform, not revolution.
Some leaders already get it. Cuba’s Raul Castro is making nice with the yanqui imperialists as a survival strategy following the implosion of Venezuela’s oil economy. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has proven to be a shrewd capitalist dressed in socialist garb. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa understand the importance of balancing leftist rhetoric with sound macro-economic policies.
All those guys would happily play the role of socialist firebrands if the economy would bear it. But it doesn’t; so they’re dialing it back and playing it smart.
Other politicians are slower on the uptake. Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez couldn’t be cool, and now her party is out of power. And poor, nattering Nicolas Maduro, who has no off switch and still thinks he looks smart in a tracksuit, continues to drive his government towards ruin.
But Latin America is not undergoing a tectonic shift from left to right. Big things aren’t happening. Some countries are just in reset mode, while others are taking a slide step towards center.
And that’s fine. Modest change can be a good thing, even in a region with big problems. History has shown that radical reforms rarely lead to lasting change in Latin America. So maybe it’s time to slow things down and allow for incremental change to happen in way that’s natural and sustainable—like the frost of winter gradually ceding to the first bloom of…er, that season before summer.