Will Obama Make the Mistake of Latin American Leaders?

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Marcelo Ballvé,

Editor’s Note: Will Barack Obama go the way of Latin American leaders who came to power on a platform of change and failed to deliver? Obama would do well to learn from their mistakes so he doesn’t repeat them.

Barack Obama’s historic victory is reminiscent of recent precedent-setting Latin American elections, in which indigenous and mixed-race candidates triumphed over centuries of entrenched discrimination to achieve election wins. Those leaders took office borne on similar waves of cathartic celebration. But President-elect Obama would be well-advised to learn from his Latin American counterparts’ subsequent disappointing trajectories in office if he is to avoid repeating their mistakes.

Initial elation gave way to bitter disappointment and polarization, as Latin America’s new leaders failed to deliver on their promises and instead contributed to divide their societies further.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, proud of his multiracial background that includes African, indigenous and European ancestry, won a landslide election victory in 1998. In that election, broad sectors of Venezuelan society, including a large part of the middle class, believed the renegade military officer’s promises of reform after decades of corrupt two-party rule.

In 2001 in Peru, voters swept into office the “cholo from Harvard,” Alejandro Toledo (“cholo” being slang for Peruvians of indigenous descent). The Ivy League-educated former shoeshine boy was momentarily a hero for millions of indigenous and Mestizo Peruvians eking out livelihoods in urban slums and impoverished mountain towns.

Finally, in late 2005, Bolivians elected an Aymara Indian, Evo Morales, to the presidency with 54 percent of the vote– after years in which naysayers had said it would never be allowed to happen.

The parallels with Obama’s meteoric rise are striking: Chávez’s multi-race background and unexpectedly broad constituency, Toledo’s hard-luck story and Ivy League credentials, Morales’ upsetting of a seemingly immovable racial hierarchy.

The similarities were noticed. In the Dominican Republic, where 73 percent of the population is mixed-race, popular online newspaper Diario Digital published a column on Obama’s victory headlined: “The World is Changing.” In it, economist Hecmilio Galván drew a direct link between Obama’s victory and that of Bolivia’s Morales, and captured some of the perhaps overblown optimism that has been circulating globally since Election Day: “This is no longer the world of the twentieth century’s end, when utopias seemed entombed beneath the debris of the Berlin Wall. Now they’ve awoken once more: a black president (which we only envisioned in futuristic movies), as well as a first indigenous president …. “

Latin America’s recent history shows that the first rush of hope can soon give way to abysses of disappointment.

Alejandro Toledo bears perhaps the most superficial resemblances to Obama. He was a moderate, campaigned as a consensus-builder, and represented a light at the end of the tunnel following a widely discredited administration (in Peru’s case, that of President Alberto Fujimori, tied to human rights violations and corruption). Also like Obama, Toledo lacked any significant experience in executive office. He proved indecisive, inexpert in leading his cabinet, and also unable to make progress on resolving the country’s fundamental challenges. Peru’s economy grew under his administration, but poverty levels remained unchanged.

Peruvians had grown weary of Toledo even before a corruption scandal further tarnished his image. The charges that high-ranking members of his government took bribes only cemented the perception that despite high hopes pinned on it, Toledo’s administration had changed nothing. Toledo served out most of his term as Latin America’s most unpopular president, with many clamoring for his resignation, and approval ratings that dipped below 10 percent.

The careers of Chávez and Morales differ starkly from Obama’s in that both South American leaders are self-professed socialists, bent on Marxist policies, and head defiant administrations with authoritarian streaks (Morales to a lesser extent). Despite right-wing radio talk about Obama as a supposed demagogue-in-waiting with hard-left proclivities, there is nothing to indicate the president-elect’s administration will be anything but centrist, moderate, and market-friendly.

However, Obama, like Morales and Chávez before him, finds himself the leader of a new political tide unleashed by his candidacy, and holds a significant mandate for change. The question is whether like Morales and Chávez, Obama will use this political capital to bully enemies and push forward his agenda at the cost of stoking divisiveness, or whether he will manage to meet the considerable challenges he faces — a plummeting economy, festering wars, and a broken health care system — without polarizing U.S. society.

Chávez and Morales are hopeful that Obama will treat them as negotiating partners and not as wacky pariahs, which is what they were considered by President George W. Bush’s administration. If he does sit down with them, or visit their countries, however, Obama should observe their careers and societies as political cautionary tales.

In Venezuela and Bolivia, Morales’ and Chávez’s insistence on steamrolling opponents has transformed them from popular leaders representative of their diverse societies into radical populists who seemingly govern only for their base, while those on the sidelines of their movements seethe and plot on how to remove them from office.

Obama already seems cognizant of the impossibly high expectations his victory has stirred up, and his transition team is already out in force in the media tamping down on voters’ hopes for quick change. That’s wise, but if he looks to South America’s recent history, Obama will discover that however historic a chief executive’s skin color, hell hath no fury like a voter scorned, especially a voter giddy with expectation.

If Obama doesn’t deliver, and deliver early, with some concrete change, it’s likely the change-starved electorate will weary quickly, as it did in Peru. On the other hand, if he’s not careful to build consensus across political and ideological lines, Obama might find himself a destructively contentious figure– and in this way, not so different from his predecessor.

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