Why Latin America’s Center is Holding

SANTIAGO – The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig allegedly said, “Brazil is the country of the future – and always will be.” Likewise, centrist politics in Latin America has perpetually been on the horizon – until now.

To outsiders, the region is virtually synonymous with political polarization. Fatigue-clad guerrillas, charismatic populists, and reactionary military junta leaders have long cut much larger figures than moderate politicians in boring gray suits.

But Latin America has a long – if not always fruitful – history of centrist liberal reformers. In the nineteenth century, liberals laboriously separated their nascent states’ institutions from those of the Catholic Church. In the 1930s, politicians of the moderate left, responding to the havoc wreaked on the region by the Great Depression, built the rudiments of a modern welfare state. In the 1960s, centrist politicians of different stripes – many of them Christian Democrats – struggled to find an alternative to the threat of armed revolution and the totalitarian politics of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

But there were two problems: centrist politics did not always take root, and it seldom lasted. There is truth in the cliché that middle-class citizens tend to be politically moderate; open societies and reformist politics often go together. In Latin America, however, rigid class divisions and deep income inequalities created fertile ground for populism. And when populist experiments collapsed, as they often did, under the weight of unsustainable debt and high inflation, it was right-wing budget-cutters, allied with conservative businessmen, who took over. The center could not hold.