New year, new elections in Latin America and the Caribbean. Will the left roll on in 2022?
In 2021, leftists won presidencies in every Latin American election but one, including Peru and Chile. In 2022, they could take Brazil and Colombia too. Why?
If 2021 taught us anything about Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s that politics there are wide open at the moment.
In Ecuador last year, a conservative banker was elected president, while next door in Peru a socialist schoolteacher won the presidency. In 2022, the region's electoral landscape, from Barbados to Brazil, looks to be just as dramatic.
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WLRN’s Christine DiMattei spoke with Americas Editor Tim Padgett about the votes coming up this year.
Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for length and clarity:
DIMATTEI: Tim, why was politics in Latin America so unpredictable last year?
PADGETT: In a word, COVID. The pandemic exposed a lot of government failings in Latin America, especially in countries like Ecuador and Peru. Ecuador had been ruled from the left for 14 years, but it was terribly hard hit by COVID, in large part because the government was so unprepared for it. So the conservative Guillermo Lasso got elected president.
In Peru, the country was ruled by conservatives for the past five years, but then it suffers the world's highest per capita COVID death rate — and now the far left-wing Pedro Castillo is president.
So what's the first election we'll be looking at in Latin America and the Caribbean this year?
Barbados. You'll recall the Caribbean island just became the latest British Commonwealth country to remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and make itself a republic. In the process, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley has become something of a spokesperson for the Caribbean, especially on issues like climate change.
Motley has now called a snap parliamentary election in Barbados for Jan. 19 to sort of reset the government. If she and her center-left Labour Party win big, it will be one more indication that she is the leader to watch in the Caribbean now.
The pandemic has exposed a lot of government failings in Latin America — and that's opened the door in 2022 to leftists like Petro in Colombia and Lula in Brazil.
When it comes to races in the bigger countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, what should we be watching out for?
I would say whether or not the left adds to the big gains it made in 2021. Consider that aside from Peru, just before Christmas, a 35-year-old socialist, Gabriel Boric, was elected president in Chile. Now in 2022, consider that in Colombia's presidential election, set for May 29, a leftist former guerrilla — Sen. Gustavo Petro — is well ahead in the polls.
And in Latin America's largest country, Brazil, another leftist — former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — leads incumbent right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in polls for the country's Oct. 2 election.
'HOMICIDAL' IN BRAZIL?
Let's talk about Colombia's May presidential election first. You say this one looks like the left's to lose — and that's a pretty controversial prospect among Colombian expats here.
Big time. Most Colombian expats here hate Colombia's former Marxist guerrillas, because a lot of them were victims of guerrilla violence during the country's civil war.
But what they too often don't consider is that many Colombians feel their current conservative president, Iván Duque, badly mishandled COVID-19 and its economic effects — especially how it hit the poor. Colombia's gap between rich and poor was already one of the world's worst before the pandemic, and most Colombians feel it's even worse now. And that's a big reason the left-wing Petro is leading the race.
Brazil's election is almost a year away, but why is current President Bolsonaro trailing former President Lula?
Because so many voters feel Bolsonaro's pandemic denialism has made Brazil one of the world's worst COVID disaster sites. Only the U.S. has reported a larger number of COVID deaths. Brazil's largest newspaper has called Bolsonaro's actions, like his aggressive anti-mask campaign, “homicidal.” A Brazilian Senate panel recently called for charging him with crimes against humanity, but that's unlikely to happen.
Critics say Bolsonaro has also encouraged destruction of the Amazon rainforest and that he's undermined democracy in Brazil. All that has reopened the door for Lula, despite Lula's own troubling record of corruption — and that of his Workers Party — when he was president more than a decade ago.
And I’m curious, Tim: four years ago, Brazilian expats here in South Florida voted for Bolsonaro by an almost 4-to-1 margin. Are they as enthusiastic about him this time around?
My sense when I talk with Brazilian expats here is: No. But most of them would never vote for Lula now, either. I think, like most Brazilians, they’re hoping a third alternative will emerge.
What other important presidential elections will we see this year? And is there any chance we'll finally see the one that's overdue in Haiti?
Costa Rica will hold its presidential election next month, on Feb. 6.
As for Haiti, elections can't be held there until some modicum of public security is restored. And with violent street gangs controlling much of the country right now, that seems a long way off — probably beyond 2022, anyway.