Left or right, Latin Americans find their voice

Below the current shifts in elections lies a deeper shift toward citizen activism that demands clean, effective governance.

Thousands of musicians take part in a concert named "The biggest concert in the world" at Simon Bolivar Park in Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 28.

Five years ago, much of Latin America broke right, electing conservative governments that promised to tackle corruption and rising crime. Now it appears to be swinging the other way. If Brazilians return former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to power on Oct. 2, the region’s six largest economies will be governed by leftists for the first time.

There may be less – and more – to that than it sounds. Popular demands have expanded but they haven’t changed. Eighty-five percent of Latin Americans thought corruption was a big problem before the pandemic, according to Transparency International. COVID-19 deepened that crisis of public trust. So have climate change and inflation. Voters aren’t shifting back and forth between ideologies. They are eagerly searching for greater social equality, more economic opportunity – and, above all, better competency in governance.

Those expectations mark an important shift from a half-century ago when the region seemed stuck in historical grievances. “Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others,” wrote Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano at the time. Now Latin Americans are more apt to recognize their own “silence of complicity, of fear, of hiding” against brutal or dishonest regimes, as Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra put it to The Atlantic through his translator.

Recent protest movements have ushered in new types of leftist governments, reflecting a newfound agency to build a new society rather than simply tear down the old. “A perspective is opening up that undoubtedly has to be taken advantage of,” wrote Andrés Allamand, the Chilean Ibero-American secretary-general in a “message or optimism” this week.

The new leaders of Latin America face stiff headwinds and short leashes. Like Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro, they have come to power promising social justice and green, post-carbon economies. But they have little room to maneuver amid crises of inflation, food insecurity, unpredictable weather, and most of all, voters who are both impatient and weary of government overreach.

That last point was made clear in Chile on Sept. 4 when voters soundly rejected a proposed, broadly leftist constitution. The defeat forced a 6-month-old government to pause in its attempts at sweeping social and environmental change.

“I’m sure all this effort won’t have been in vain, because this is how countries advance best, learning from experience and, when necessary, turning back on their tracks to find a new route forward,” said President Gabriel Boric. “We must listen to the voice of the people and walk alongside the people.” 

In a region where many citizens have found a voice for reform, leaders left and right have indeed had to listen.

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