Over the past two decades, the underprivileged populations of Latin America have been waiting and organizing for representation under electoral democracy, according to Prof. Evelyne Huber, political science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now, at a critical juncture in regional and international politics, that waiting may come to a head.
“Latin America has the distinction of still being the area of the world with the greatest inequality,” Huber said.
But inequality alone is not the reason why Huber expects political discord in Latin America. In fact, inequality has been decreasing for decades, Huber said.
“Starting in the 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s we have seen almost everywhere, to a greater or lesser degree, a decline in [inequality in Latin America],” Huber said.
Much of it corresponds to what economists call the “commodity boom” when demand from emerging economies caused increased prices of key commodities. As a result, poverty decreased from 27 to 12 percent and inequality decreased 11 percent across Latin America.
“It is important to emphasize that the decade of the commodity boom has given most of Latin America a degree of economic independence from the United States and the international financial institutions that was unprecedented,” Huber said.
However, after the boom subsided, this revenue became volatile. Latin America is now facing a dilemma.
Although the commodity boom spurred growth, Latin American leaders spent the revenue inefficiently, Huber said. For example, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “never invested in infrastructure”.
The uneven distribution of revenue by Latin American governments, coupled with the rise of right-wing populists to high-level positions, has made income distribution an even bigger problem, according to Huber.
When Brazil’s economy contracted, poverty and fear of losing their past economic gains increased. This fear and frustration turned to anger at the government, according to Huber.
Left-wing parties, on the other hand, are more likely to pass “positive” reforms, according to Huber. Carlos Alvarado Quesada, Costa Rica’s president, passed a “badly needed and long-delayed” tax reform to reduce the deficit, something his two predecessors had failed to do.
“Left parties need ties to civil societies to win elections and to govern. They need those connections as a counterweight to the power of business,” Huber said.
Still, leftist parties might not sufficiently represent the will of popular organizations, allowing public anger to grow.
“I think it is safe to say that the decade or decade and a half of successful left rule in the context of favorable economic conditions has established policy legacies that make citizens expect more from their governments,” Huber said.