Latin America’s neoliberal bashing loses its lustre
Last week was a turning point in the “neoliberal” battle supposedly being waged for South America’s soul. It may also prove to be an alert for self-professed radicals elsewhere who misconstrue the region’s long use of that baleful word.
Since then, it has degenerated into a catch-all Latin pejorative for anything popularly deemed reactionary, unpleasant or cruel. That might include International Monetary Fund programmes in Latin America, Washington neocons, Spanish austerity, or simply kicking a dog.
Take Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s “neoliberal” president. Last week, he sought to gain the advantage in his country’s long battle with holdout creditors, the latest move in supposedly unpopular reforms, including a devaluation and energy price rises, that have won him surprisingly high ratings.
By contrast, Brazil’s ruling Workers’ party met on Wednesday to discuss how to rescue their country from economic crisis without “resorting to neoliberalism”. The pointed reference implied eschewing socially unpopular reforms — although so far that has only worsened a severe recession and corruption scandal that rank Dilma Rousseff as Brazil’s most unpopular president.
In Latin America, though, railing against neoliberalism has become a political convenience, a knee-jerk slur. Nowhere is that clearer than in Venezuela. There, last week, the ruling socialist party went on a social media blitz to remind citizens that February 16 marked the 27th anniversary of an unpopular “neoliberal” adjustment programme called the “Paquetazo”.
The tacit warning was that Venezuela today is in crisis, on the brink of default, suffering from near hyperinflation and endemic corruption. But were it not for socialist president Nicolás Maduro and his latest meek reform effort, the situation would be worse still. The IMF could lend Venezuela the money it needs.
One reason lies in the painful adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s. These laid the foundation for the 2000s economic boom. But their traumatic social cost also shaped subsequent political discourse — including the neoliberal hate word.
Moreover, after the social gains of the past decade, they have a greater stake in the system.
Naturally, they want that system well-managed. Politicians too long in power who preside over corruption-riddled administrations and cannot provide “gerencia”, or good management, are shown the door.
Bolivia’s referendum on whether President Evo Morales can run for a fourth term — early results suggest Bolivians voted No — may be a bellwether for the regional mood. Mr Morales has made anti-neoliberalism a central tenet of his electoral appeal. But he is also embroiled in a corruption scandal after an ex-girlfriend, now a top executive in a Chinese company, became a major government contractor.
Neoliberalism has become a straw man. Rather, the real war for South America’s soul lies in fighting corruption and legal impunity. In Miami, it is members of Venezuela’s exiled bourgeoisie who seem to be barely earning a living driving Uber cabs, while enriched government insiders coast around in limousines.