Latin America’s neoliberal bashing loses its lustre

 
Neoliberalism has degenerated into a catch-all Latin pejorative for anything deemed reactionary
 
Mauricio Macri, opposition presidential candidate and mayor of Buenos Aires, speaks during a debate with ruling party candidate Daniel Scioli in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, leads Scioli 49 percent to 42 percent ahead of the November 22 runoff election, according to poll results published by Giacobbe & Asociados. Photographer: Diego Levy/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Mauricio Macri©Bloomberg
Mauricio Macri, Argentina's 'neoliberal' president
 
 
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.
 
Neoliberal is a loaded term. Coined in the 1930s to describe an obscure middle way between liberalism and socialism, it only won global currency in the 1980s to describe the free market policies of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator.

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 neoliberal, like many pejoratives, has been devalued by misuse — perhaps because of its resurgence elsewhere. Between 2008 and 2015, gauging from a Factiva news search, its use in the English-language press has tripled. Typically, users include supporters of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

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.
 
It is worth asking why the word has such resonance — especially as painful, or neoliberal, adjustment will probably be a South American theme this year as the commodity boom ebbs, economies slow, and deficits widen.

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.
 
Times, though, have changed. The political right is more aware of social concerns. Many South Americans also recognise that the China-driven commodity price bonanza is over. They may not wish for economic adjustment; they do recognise its need.

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.
 
That is South America’s real lesson for angry voters and radicals elsewhere. It is also closer to the western political mood: popular fury whenever an economy becomes or seems rigged by elites and corrupt insiders, of whatever political stripe they may be.

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