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Leftists soar in Latin America as key elections loom

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RIO DE JANEIRO – In the final weeks of 2021, Chile and Honduras voted decisively for left-wing presidents to replace right-wing leaders, extending significant, multi-year change across Latin America.

This year, left-wing politicians are the favorites to win presidential elections in Colombia and Brazil, succeeding right-wing incumbents, which would put the left and center-left in power in the region’s six largest economies, from Tijuana to Tierra. del Fuego.

Economic suffering, widening inequality, fervent anti-president sentiment and mismanagement of Covid-19 have all fueled a pendulum swing away from the center-right and right-wing leaders who dominated a few years ago.

The left has promised a more equitable distribution of wealth, better public services and significantly expanded social safety nets. But the region’s new leaders face serious economic constraints and legislative opposition that could limit their ambitions, and reluctant voters who have been prepared to punish anyone who breaks their promises.

Gains from the left could support China and undermine the United States as it competes for regional influence, analysts say, with a new generation of Latin American leaders desperate for economic development and more open to strategy Beijing’s global plan of providing loans and infrastructure investments. The change could also make it more difficult for the United States to continue to isolate authoritarian leftist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

With rising inflation and stagnant economies, Latin America’s new leaders will struggle to make real change on deep issues, said Pedro Mendes Loureiro, professor of Latin American studies at the University of Cambridge. To some extent, he said, voters “elect the left just because it’s the opposition right now.”

Poverty is at its highest level in 20 years in a region where a short-lived commodity boom had brought millions of people into the middle class after the turn of the century. Several countries are now facing double-digit unemployment, and more than 50 percent workers in the region are employed in the informal sector.

Corruption scandals, dilapidated infrastructure and chronically underfunded health and education systems have eroded trust in public leaders and institutions.

Unlike in the early 2000s, when leftists won critical presidencies in Latin America, the new leaders are grappling with debts, meager budgets, limited access to credit, and, in many cases, fierce opposition.

Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, said the left’s winning streak was born out of widespread outrage.

“These are really lower middle class and working class sectors saying, ‘Thirty years in democracy, and we still have to take a decrepit bus for two hours to get to a bad health clinic.’ , said Hershberg. He cited frustration, anger and “a widespread feeling that the elites have become rich, have been corrupted, have not acted in the public interest”.

The Covid ravaged Latin America and devastated already precarious economies, but the region’s political tilt began before the pandemic.

The first milestone was the election in Mexico of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who won the presidency by a landslide in July 2018. He said in his election night address: “The state will cease to act. to be a committee in the service of a minority and it represents all Mexicans, poor and rich.

The following year, voters in Panama and Guatemala elected center-left governments, and Argentina’s Peronist movement made a comeback despite the legacy of corruption and economic mismanagement by its leaders. President Alberto Fernández, a university professor, celebrated his triumph over an outgoing conservative president by promising to “build the Argentina we deserve”.

In 2020, Luis Arce beat his conservative rivals to become president of Bolivia. He has vowed to build on the legacy of former leader Evo Morales, a socialist whose ouster the previous year had briefly left the nation in the hands of a right-wing president.

Last April, Pedro Castillo, a provincial schoolteacher, shocked the Peruvian political establishment by narrowly beating right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori for the presidency. Mr Castillo, a newcomer to politics, spoke out against the elites and presented his life story – an educator who worked in a rural school with no running water or sewage system – as an embodiment of their chess.

In Honduras, Xiomara Castro, a socialist who proposed a universal basic income system for poor families, handily defeated a conservative rival in November to become president-elect.

The most recent victory for the left came last month in Chile, where Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist, defeated a far-right rival by promising to raise taxes for the rich in order to offer more generous pensions and extension of social services.

The trend has not been universal. Over the past three years, voters in El Salvador, Uruguay and Ecuador have shifted their governments to the right. And in Mexico and Argentina last year, center-left parties lost ground in parliamentary elections, undermining their presidents.

But overall, Evan Ellis, professor of Latin American studies at the US Army War College, said that in his memory there had never been Latin America “so dominated by a combination of leftists and anti-American populist leaders ”.

“Across the region, left-wing governments will be particularly willing to work with the Chinese on government-to-government contracts,” he said, and perhaps “with regard to security collaboration as well. than technological collaboration “.

Jennifer Pribble, a political science professor at the University of Richmond who studies Latin America, said the brutal toll of the pandemic in the region had rendered left-wing initiatives such as cash transfers and healthcare increasingly popular universal.

“Latin American voters now have a clearer idea of ​​what the state can do and the importance of state engagement in an effort to redistribute and deliver public services,” he said. she declared. “It shapes these elections, and it’s clear the left can talk about it more directly than the right.”

In Colombia, where a presidential election is slated for May, Gustavo Petro, a former leftist mayor of Bogotá who once belonged to an urban guerrilla group, has consistently led the polls.

Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy firm, said Mr. Petro’s presidential aspirations became viable after most fighters of the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group, laid down their arms in the framework of ‘a peace agreement reached in 2016. The conflict long dominated Colombian politics, but no more.

“The problem now is the frustration, the class system, the stratification, the haves and have-nots,” he said.

Just before Christmas, Sonia Sierra, 50, stood in front of the small cafe she runs in Bogotá’s main urban park. Her income had plummeted, she said, first amid the pandemic and then when a community displaced by violence took hold in the park.

Ms Sierra said she was deeply in debt after her husband was hospitalized with Covid. Finances are so tight that she recently fired her only employee, a young Venezuelan woman who only earned $ 7.50 a day.

“So much work and nothing to show for it,” she said, singing a line from a popular Christmas song in Colombia. “I’m not crying, but yeah, it hurts.”

In neighboring Brazil, growing poverty, inflation and a botched response to the pandemic have made President Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right incumbent president, an outsider in the vote slated for October.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist torch who ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2010 in an era of remarkable prosperity, built a 30 percentage points advantage over Mr Bolsonaro in a one-on-one clash, according to a recent poll.

Maurício Pimenta da Silva, 31, deputy manager of an agricultural supply store in the São Lourenço region of Rio de Janeiro state, said he regretted voting for Mr Bolsonaro in 2018 and that he intended to support Mr. da Silva.

“I thought Bolsonaro would improve our lives in some ways, but he didn’t,” said da Silva, a father of four who has no ties to the former president. “Everything is so expensive in supermarkets, especially meat,” he added, prompting him to take a second job.

With voters facing so much upheaval, moderate candidates are gaining little ground, lamented Simone Tebet, a center-right senator in Brazil who plans to run for president.

“If you look at Brazil and Latin America, we are living in a relatively frightening cycle of extremes,” she said. “Radicalism and populism have taken over. “

Ernesto Londoño and Flávia Milhorance reported from Rio de Janeiro. Julie Turkewitz reported from Bogotá.