By Michael M. McCarthy
In 1942, after Allied forces scored an important victory in Egypt, Winston Churchill wrote, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” It may be a very long historical trip from World War II-era North Africa to today’s Latin America, but Churchill’s poetic words illuminate the significance of two recent regional elections: the narrow victory of the center-right Macri government in Argentina, and the congressional landslide won by the Venezuelan political opposition against the 17-year-old chavista government earlier this week.
Framing the current political tides in Latin America as the ‘end of the beginning’ helps captures how center and center-right forces now coming to power may inherit weighty commitments and face major challenges as they move along a newly opened path. Amid the euphoria of these hard-won gains, it is convenient to overlook the entanglements that come with political change. Predictably, in fact, these victories have generated the sense of a ‘new morning,’ but in politics, there’s no such thing as a clean slate.
Latin America’s Left Turns
Over the last 15 years, different left turns reshaped the region’s landscape. Chronologically, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez got the party started for the Latin American left. After taking power in 1999 and outmaneuvering his opponents during a period of heated competition from 2002-2004, Chávez attempted to build a refuge of petro-state socialism but ended up ruining the Venezuelan economy. The subsequent crisis is at the heart of chavismo’s historic loss this week. Some political movement followed the hardline approach of chavismo while governments made softer left turns elsewhere. The lighter, market-oriented social democracy model built by the Socialist Party in Chile and the Worker’s Party in Brazil stand in stark contrast to Chavismo’s anachronistic project.
In Argentina, populist government followed the country’s traumatic financial crisis in 2001-2002. The husband and wife team of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner ruled the country for consecutive terms from 2003-2015. They turned the country’s historic Peronist party into a peculiar mix of welfarism and heavy-handed regulation of the private sector. They leave equally important legacies on social policy along with runaway government corruption and inflation.
Muddled and Negative Mandates after ‘Change’ Elections
Macri won a narrow victory—less than 3 percent and only 700,000 votes—thanks in great part to how his candidacy embodied the powerful, if nebulous, idea of ‘change.’ As politically astute as this positioning was, becoming the symbol of change also placed constraints on his candidacy. When any such campaign predefines change as meaning any imagined or credible alternative to the current administration, this locked-in connotation can make it hard to decipher the true nature of a popular mandate if it succeeds. In essence, change can mean everything and nothing at once.
To be sure, Macri has selected a cabinet that suggests he has a vision of pragmatic governance. He has pledged to maintain popular social policy programs and chose an independent foreign minister who has a strong professional background at the United Nations. In contrast, the Democratic Unity coalition that scored an historic, landslide victory in Venezuela is in a much different situation. Though the coalition won a two-thirds majority that gives it considerable powers to reduce the president’s control over the judiciary or even call for a constituent assembly, Venezuela is not a parliamentary system and the government’s track record on respecting democratically elected leaders is questionable.
In turn, the Venezuelan dilemma is less about how to manage the legacy of institutionalized policy and more about how to articulate a vision for a new model. The idea of change in Venezuela currently conjures a black and white choice, favoring almost anything other than the deeply unpopular president, Nicolas Maduro. That sentiment entails a negative mandate which could produce a political transition that lacks direction. Change without a plan is dangerous for the opposition, and, of course, Venezuela as well.
Geopolitical Change and Stability
Some sectors of the Venezuelan opposition had great hope that a Macri administration would mark a turning point in South American geopolitics. In the final weeks of his campaign, Macri escalated his criticism against the Maduro government’s human rights record. This built to a crescendo, peaking with Macri’s proposal to invoke the democratic clause of the Mercosur Trading Block and revoke Venezuela’s membership.
After the legislative elections transpired in Venezuela without major incident, Macri’s foreign minister indicated that, essentially, Maduro passed the test. The election revealed that enough democracy remained in Venezuela to justify jettisoning the previous proposal. The backtracking actually places Macri in line with the rest of the region, particularly and most importantly with Brazil as well as potentially even the United States. The latter may decide, definitively, that it wants to provide diplomatic guidance so that the country stays on an electoral path.
What Macri may have discovered, or simply admitted, is his position on this new dichotomy. Being in ‘the end of the beginning’ phase means dealing with the past and cobbling together its legacies to build something new. Unlike Argentina, where democracy is firmly established, Venezuela is suffering a tripartite crisis that threatens regime stability. So now, that opposition faces a completely different institutional context. Nevertheless, the opposition may be well served by interpreting Macri’s flip-flop on Venezuela as a sign of the fact that talk is cheap and concrete accomplishments require massive amounts of coalition building.
After scoring important victories against incumbents whose best days had long since passed, the Latin American right wing is making a comeback at long last. Once they complete the ‘end of the beginning’ phase, we will have to reassess the possibilities for what the future may entail.