Conceived as celebrations of bold and reforming governments, the mega-summits hosted in Latin America over the past year have instead looked more like witches’ curses. In April, the Summit of Americas convened in Lima to consider the problem of corruption, just weeks after the Peruvian president was forced to resign for allegedly bribing parliamentary deputies. Six months later, Argentine President Mauricio Macri was hoping the impending G20 summit in Buenos Aires would bless his drive to reopen the national economy, only to see the spirits of global credit turn sour, the peso plummet and the International Monetary Fund step in to prop up the budget.
Macri and his diplomats are now compelled to temper their aspirations of the G20. Their immediate tasks are to ensure a painless encounter between the heads of the world’s largest economies – above all the United States and China – and to generate a succinct declaration of good intent to dangle before the media at the close of shop. Latin America’s subordinate position in the world economic order as a commodity exporter and a “rule taker” will not improve. No-one expects a miracle cure for the continent’s direst economic ills in Venezuela. But even if the results are paltry, and even if the Argentine capital remains preternaturally quiet, the forthcoming summit will mark a watershed for Latin America.
The reason is mainly the timing. At the G20 – little more than a presidential conclave to talk business and finance – Macri will represent his country alongside Brazil’s Michel Temer and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto. But by the event’s second day, Peña Nieto will be no more: his left-leaning successor Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be sworn in for a six-year term on December 1, pledging “republican austerity,” a new leniency toward drug use and zero tolerance for graft. A month later, López Obrador’s ideological antithesis, the far right populist Jair Bolsonaro, will take power in Brazil at the head of a movement whipped up by WhatsApp and rooted in what critics scorn as the “Bible, bullets and beef” belt.
Macri has another year left on his term, though it remains possible that he will also be replaced by a leader with limited affinity for economic orthodoxy, political prudence or the international stage. The pending farewell to at least two, and possibly three, leaders in Latin America’s largest economies is no small matter. In large part it reflects the extreme dislike that Latin Americans feel for their ruling elites, with only 17 percent of Mexicans and 24 percent of Brazilians having at least some trust in government, according to a 2017 Pew survey.
All three leaders came to power as avatars of a professed moderate, managerial elite that said it would clean up the economic detritus left by previous administrations – and, in the Argentine and Brazilian cases, clear away the legacies of a once ascendant left. Peña Nieto’s campaign pledge was: “I promise it, I sign it, I do it.” Temer and his ministers boasted that since they would not be seeking re-election, they could happily slip beneath the waves having righted the listing Brazilian economy by throwing its social welfare ballast overboard.
Not one of the three met his promises. Corruption scandals, economic doldrums and ever worsening insecurity – close to 90,000 people were murdered in Brazil and Mexico last year alone – have pushed voters to embrace more radical recipes. Not all these political shifts are bad. Mexico needs López Obrador’s new thinking on security and corruption, though it could come at the risk he concentrates ever more power in his own hands as he seeks to remodel the state.
Yet the region at large will likely bear the main costs of Latin America’s new political era. Nations will be scattered across the ideological spectrum as never before – from hard-left authoritarians in Venezuela and Nicaragua to a hard-right authoritarian in Brazil, with a rainbow of political shades in between. The two largest nations, Mexico and Brazil, for now appear set to peer resolutely inward at their own affairs. Mexico’s new foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, is reportedly under instructions to undertake no major international obligations and to find a diplomatic elixir that can sedate the Donald Trump administration. His new Brazilian peer, Ernesto Araújo, is an enigma: Trumpian in his beliefs, he has suggested in his previous writings that he would like to see stouter defence of Western civilization, oil guzzling and meat eating.
The principal consequence of these shifts will be to exacerbate the already marked decline in the strength of regional institutions. Votes to condemn Venezuela and Nicaragua have split the membership of Organisation of American States without ameliorating the repressive crackdown in either country. More recent regional confections, such as UNASUR, lie even more divided and dormant, with half the 12 members suspending their participation earlier this year. Few even noticed when a new UNASUR parliament was inaugurated in Bolivia at the cost of US$60 million. Among other possibilities, President Evo Morales has mooted that its building could be used to host weddings.
It is appropriate, then, that Argentina’s hosting of the G20 summit – the main contemporary setting for ad hoc great power politics – will mark the moment when Latin America embarks on its own era of transactional diplomacy, with few effective shared rules to govern each state’s affairs. For a region facing the humanitarian spillover from Venezuela´s unresolved political tensions and economic cataclysm, including the departure of three million migrants and refugees – not to mention turmoil in Central America and the uncertain advance of Colombia’s peace process – this disunity bodes ill for sustained regional commitments to regional peace and security.
Of course, it is possible that a few powerful men cobble together some form of arrangement on Venezuela’s crisis, for example, in a Buenos Aires salon or a suite close to López Obrador’s inauguration – an event that both US Vice-President Pence and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are due to attend. Such a backroom deal might even circumvent the painstaking diplomatic work regional bureaucracies have invested in ending the Venezuelan crisis. But such a deal remains unlikely; nor is it clear that it would sustainably resolve that crisis. Overall, the holes in Latin America’s safety net of regional cooperation are widening.