Real Clear Politics

Latin America Makes a Right Turn

Until recently, the political climate in Latin America seemed to be shifting to the left, with the election of left-wing presidents, including some radical populists in Bolivia (2005), Ecuador (2006), Nicaragua (2006), Paraguay (2008) and El Salvador (March 2009). Since mid-2009, however, the region has been moving to the right. Four presidential elections in four very different countries - Panama, Honduras, Chile and Costa Rica - suggest that voters are turning against the message espoused by Hugo Chávez, and that free market economic policies remain politically viable despite the global financial crisis.

On Feb. 7, Costa Rican voters elected Laura Chinchilla to replace Oscar Arias as president. Chinchilla is a member of Arias's ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), which is nominally a center-left, social-democratic party, but also tends to support conservative economic policies. Chinchilla is a vocal defender of free markets and trade liberalization. Back in 2005, then as a Costa Rican legislator, she lobbied intensely for the U.S. Congress to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

She won election with nearly 47 percent of the popular vote, the first woman to attain the Costa Rican presidency. Her main left-wing challenger, CAFTA opponent and Chávez favorite Ottón Solís, received only 25 percent of the vote. Overall, roughly two-thirds of Costa Rican voters cast their ballots for either Chinchilla or center-right Libertarian Movement candidate Otto Guevara, both of whom, as the Christian Science Monitor noted, advocated "open markets, lower taxes, and more streamlined government."

Chinchilla's victory came just a few weeks after Chilean voters elected their first center-right president since 1990, when General Augusto Pinochet relinquished power and democracy was reestablished. Billionaire conservative candidate Sebastián Piñera won a runoff election against center-left candidate Eduardo Frei, who was representing the incumbent Concertación alliance (which has held the Chilean presidency for 20 years).

Piñera's win followed the Nov. 29 victory of center-right National Party candidate Porfirio Lobo in Honduras, a country that had been rocked by political turmoil after the June 28 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, a pro-Chávez radical. Lobo was elected with over 56 percent of the vote. Several months earlier, on May 3, Panamanians overwhelmingly voted for conservative Ricardo Martinelli over Balbina Herrera, who had close ties to former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and a history of involvement in radical left-wing politics. It was a landslide: Martinelli won the presidency with 60 percent of the vote.

How should we interpret this string of conservative victories? In each country, domestic factors played a significant role in driving support for the center-right candidate. Costa Ricans seemed satisfied with their country's direction under Arias, and they were afraid of taking a chance on Solís, who in the past had reportedly received campaign funds from Chávez. In Chile, voters were ready for new leadership after 20 years of Concertación rule. Hondurans became more sympathetic to the conservative National Party after seeing Zelaya embrace Chávez and attempt an authoritarian power grab. In Panama, voters were upset about rising crime, an economic slowdown, and the relative lack of poverty reduction under the center-left government of Martín Torrijos. All four victorious conservative leaning candidates-Chinchilla, Piñera, Lobo, and Martinelli-pledged to maintain important anti-poverty programs. (Such programs remain highly popular throughout Latin America, especially in very poor countries such as Honduras.) None of them attacked the idea of a strong social safety net.

In addition to the domestic factors that influenced these election outcomes, we must also consider the Chávez factor. All four elections occurred against the backdrop of Venezuela's descent into authoritarian government and economic misery. Over the past year, the South American country has experienced rising inflation, surging crime, energy and water rationing, and massive anti-Chávez demonstrations. It has the highest inflation rate in Latin America; this problem is sure to get worse after Chávez's recent devaluation of the bolívar (Venezuela's national currency).

Venezuela has become a cautionary tale: It shows what can happen to a country when radical leftists gain power and then proceed to eviscerate democratic institutions and "Cubanize" the economy. In that sense, Chávez's assault on democracy and free markets has become a drag on left-wing political candidates throughout the region. Indeed, both Solís (in Costa Rica) and Herrera (in Panama) were hurt by the accurate perception that Chávez wanted them to win.

Latin American voters are not blind. They can see what has occurred in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. A few years ago, radical populism seemed to be gaining strength across the hemisphere. But in the last ten months, we have seen a conservative resurgence. Voters want their governments to fund social programs and reduce poverty, but they do not want their leaders to launch wholesale attacks on private enterprise. Moreover, Latin Americans take pride in their countries' democratic achievements. They do not wish to see those achievements eroded by populist demagogues.

All of this helps explain why, much to Chávez's dismay, regional politics is shifting to the right.