Over the past five years, left-of-center politicians have won the presidencies in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. Their rise prompted talk of a “pink wave” on the continent. That shorthand, however, is too facile: these leaders do not represent so much a wholesale ideological shift as a wave of anti-incumbency and the rejection of the elite Latin American political class.

The new leaders have different foreign policy and economic priorities than their predecessors. Certainly, they are not adherents of the neoliberal economic policies that gained traction in the region in the 1990s, such as reducing public subsidies; creating clear, predictable rules for investment; and reducing state intervention in the economy. To them and many of their supporters, the West’s public defense of neoliberal paradigms is an ugly holdover of a global regime that embraced an entrenched elite many citizens view as corrupt and exclusionary.

In addition to this schism on policy, Western governments are struggling to constructively engage these new political actors, who almost uniformly are not members of the elite and were not educated abroad. That means diplomats will need to expand beyond their traditional networks to forge new connections. They also will need to be more receptive to these elected officials in order to maintain a foothold in Latin America, particularly in the face of greater engagement by countries such as China and Russia.

NO SILVER SPOONS

Before the most recent spate of elections, many modern Latin American leaders tended to possess elite pedigrees and impressive foreign credentials. Ivan Duque, who served as Colombia’s president from 2018 to 2022, attended Georgetown and American University. Sebastian Piñera, who recently completed a second presidential term in Chile, earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski—who resigned from the Peruvian presidency under an ethical cloud in 2018—graduated from the University of Oxford and Princeton University. The former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, taught at leading universities in France and the United States.

By contrast, the current presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have not studied in rarefied academic halls abroad. Chilean President Gabriel Boric, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Peruvian President Pedro Castillo all attended local grammar schools, high schools, and colleges. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attended his country’s military university. And while Colombian President Gustavo Petro studied at universities in Belgium and Spain, he never completed his degrees.  

This is not to imply that these locally educated political leaders are less qualified than their predecessors. Quite the contrary: a more homegrown educational and cultural formation makes many of these current presidents more representative of their countries and their educational systems. It also means that many of the new leaders rely on networks that are less influenced by the educational and policymaking trends of neoliberalism that swept academia and elite conclaves such as the World Economic Forum in the past 30 years.

The new crop of Latin American presidents has broken with neoliberal orthodoxy.

One obvious exception is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), the former Brazilian president and current presidential candidate. The union leader and founder of the Partido dos Trabalhadores had only a second-grade education and rose through the ranks of workers’ unions, well outside the scope of Brazil’s traditionally elitist politics. His years of international union activism, however, gave the former metalworker contacts among international thinkers and policy advocates; the result was a surprisingly internationally focused administration that mostly maintained Brazil’s market-oriented economy.

SHAKING UP THE STATUS QUO

The new crop of presidents, however, has broken decisively with neoliberal orthodoxy. They are rewriting the rules on taxes and international investment, particularly in the extraction of natural resources. The impetus behind these reforms is not so much ideology but rather a rejection of the legacies of democratic and market reforms that have failed to meaningfully chip away at social inequities across Latin America and roll back regressive tax policies.

In Mexico, for example, López Obrador has brushed aside his predecessor’s efforts to open the national energy sector to outside investment. Although the Mexican congress blocked López Obrador’s bid to restore national control over the sector, his administration has favored local energy companies in the granting of contracts for electricity generation. This nationalistic approach has provoked a trade dispute with the United States and Canada.

Similarly, Petro, Boric, and Castillo have promised to overhaul state policies toward natural resource extraction. Castillo at one time threatened to expropriate mining concessions and Petro has pledged to halt oil and coal investment and exploration in a unilateral bid to address climate change. Boric has more modestly proposed overhauling tax and royalty policies for international mining interests in a move that can be argued reflects his, and Chile’s, moderation. Even this more circumscribed move would constitute a wrenching change for the international investors who have inked deals with a country that possesses huge lithium reserves and is the world’s largest producer of copper.

The new leaders are abandoning past efforts to assume a bigger role on the global stage.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in foreign policy. The new leaders are abandoning past efforts to assume a bigger role on the global stage. For most of the past three decades, Brazil and Mexico, in particular, competed for leadership of the region. Mexico belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which Mexican diplomat Angel Gurría led for 16 years before stepping down in 2021. Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo headed the World Trade Organization from 2013 until 2020; his leadership was part of Brazil’s effort to bend world trade more to the interests of developing economies—its own in particular. For a while, both Brazil and Mexico were competing for a seat on a potentially expanded UN Security Council.

Those global ambitions are now on hold. López Obrador rarely travels outside his country; he gave up the presidential jet in a comically performative act. Now when the folksy president does make a rare trip outside his country, he flies coach on commercial airlines. Bolsonaro’s “Brazil first” policy, meanwhile, has meant the South American giant is nowhere near as internationally prominent as it was during Lula’s reign. When Bolsonaro traveled to Davos in 2019 to introduce himself to the global glitterati, he barely left his room, according to staff and journalists who accompanied him. He has also railed against China, Brazil’s biggest trade partner; publicly insulted French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife over the former’s criticism of Brazil’s environmental policy; and refused to attend the inauguration of Argentinian President Alberto Fernández in ideological protest of the left-leaning Peronist’s election. His snub of Fernández was all the more striking given Argentina is part of Southern Common Market, historically one of Brazil’s key economic and foreign policy projects in the Western Hemisphere.

In Colombia, the foreign policy plans of the recently inaugurated Petro are still unclear. For now, the leftist former mayor of Bogotá has brought in a cabinet of well-known internationalists, including Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez, Minister of Finance José Antonio Ocampo (full disclosure, a friend and former colleague at Columbia University), and Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva. Although the role that Colombia’s new president will play is unclear, his calls for curtailing exploration and export of carbon-based extractives and reevaluating what he has termed the failed war on drugs indicate that he will at least temporarily be out of step with past presidents. Certainly, his early moves to reestablish diplomatic relations with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government are a break from the past three years of Colombian foreign policy. This also bucks U.S. attempts to isolate the Venezuelan regime.

TIME TO COURSE CORRECT

In order to preserve Western influence and steer the region away from China and Russia, Western diplomats must figure out how to engage this new crop of leaders. The public rejection of traditional political elites across the region is not an aberration. This trend will likely continue if not deepen, and that means foreign ministries must rethink their recruitment, networking, and diplomatic policies. Ministries in Canada, the United States, and Europe can adapt in part by making greater efforts at attracting and fast-tracking a more diverse diplomatic corps. Great strides have been made in this effort in the United States and Canada, but most of these new diplomats have yet to cycle up to high-level posts given the slow grind of bureaucratic promotions.  

Western policymakers will also need to make inroads into nontraditional networks, such as unions, youth movements, informal sector workers’ associations, and indigenous groups. This heterogenous base of social discontent has become the new engine of political change within the region, putting forward a new set of leaders. Aside from tapping often neglected networks, Western governments need to show a willingness to rejigger trade agreements to address the concerns of the voters who support the new outsider candidates. One possible first step could be updating the 2012 U.S.-Colombian free trade agreement to address the protection of local community rights and guarantee local set-asides for public procurement contracts. A similar upgrade should occur in other free trade agreements with Chile, Peru, and Central America.

Finally, Western governments should sponsor study tours and scholarships for a more diverse range of citizens from Latin America. This effort should include flows on both sides, bringing a more diverse group of citizens from Latin America to the United States but also facilitating more people-to-people contacts with universities and civil society organizations south of the border. Past efforts to create scholarship and exchange programs—such as U.S. President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas, which aimed to increase international study in Latin America and the Caribbean—have faded for lack of public funding and attention.

The rejection of traditional political elites across the region is not an aberration.

More generally, the foreign ministries of the wealthy Western countries need to develop a strategy for discussing and defending democratic institutions, the rule of law, and human rights in a way that distinguishes those broader values from the international prescriptions and neoliberalism associated with past governments. This reframing will require an honest, objective assessment of the ways that conventional wisdom on policy prescriptions failed to deliver for citizens.

A recent trend, however, is working in the opposite direction. Under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the United States has leveled sanctions against foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses or have been involved in significant corruption by freezing extranational accounts and pulling their visas. Although this approach is popular among Venezuelan and Cuban diaspora in south Florida, the policy wins little favor in Latin America. The United States has more than 300 sanctions leveled against individuals in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela and has—in an almost comical example of do-gooder interventionism—opened a tip line that allows Central American citizens to denounce corrupt officials directly to the U.S. Department of Justice. The United States’ self-righteousness in this naming and shaming campaign can come across as interventionist. It also fails to account for the long-term implications of its bounties. Until now, U.S. sanctions have yet to produce a significant change of behavior or repentance by the intended target by shifting the calculations toward regime change or a self-correction.

MAKE NEW FRIENDS

Some of the new Latin American leaders do represent a threat to the independence of the judiciary, electoral institutions, and human rights. This is the case in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and other countries—with predictable outcomes. Still, Western diplomats would do well to develop ties with this new leadership class. Failing to do so risks missing the changing dynamics in the region. That leads to policy and messaging that simply don’t resonate with people in Latin America. As the developed north lectures this new generation of Latin American leaders to abide by neoliberal, democratic norms and isolating apostates, China and Russia are all too willing to provide an alternative. 

The need to expand diplomatic networks is compounded by the fact that many of the displaced old-school elites maintain ties to diplomats and policymakers in the north. Those connections give them a direct line to shape diplomats’ views of politics in their home countries, an advantage many of the newly elected leaders lack. The result, understandably, is mutual suspicion over interpretations and motives. Foggy Bottom, Ottawa, and Whitehall need to adapt to what is likely to be the political reality in Latin America for the foreseeable future.

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