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Unpopular Populism

BOGOTÁ – In 2005, during the fourth Summit of the Americas, the host, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, scuppered US President George W. Bush’s hopes for a free-trade area in the Americas. Though a free-trade area is no longer on the agenda when Latin America’s current heads of state meet again in Panama on October 17-18, the mood will undoubtedly be less hostile. But regional understanding will still be hard to achieve.

Latin America in the first decade of this century was fertile ground for left-wing populism, especially in the eight member states of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). ALBA leaders were typically authoritarians who raged against foreign imperialists, suppressed opposition at home, controlled or intimidated the media, overspent, and generally distrusted free markets and free trade.

Today, with both Kirchner and Chávez out of the picture, that period of leftist populism is drawing to a close. Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, lacks experience and influence in foreign affairs. Kirchner’s successor, his widow Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is struggling. She recently suffered a heavy defeat in her Peronist party’s recent primaries, weakening its chances in the upcoming mid-term Congressional elections and undermining her authority during her remaining two years in office. In addition, she is now facing a legislative election in poor health, following surgery to remove a subdural hematoma in her brain.

None of Latin America’s other leftist leaders – including Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – has the charisma or international influence to fill the void.