Latin American Voters Move to the Right — When Given the Chance

Voters in Ecuador opt overwhelmingly for tough anti-crime measures, such as those in El Salvador.

AP/Fernando Vergara
Anti-government demonstrators at Bogota, Colombia, April 21, 2024. AP/Fernando Vergara

In the latest sign of a rightward swing of the pendulum in Latin America, voters in Ecuador opted overwhelmingly  for tough anti-crime measures, including joint army and police patrols against cocaine gangs. Traditionally a peaceful place,  Ecuador last year saw homicides almost double last year, to 7,994. In Sunday’s law and order vote, Ecuadorians looked for inspiration not to neighboring Colombia, but 1,300 miles up the Pacific Coast, to El Salvador. 

There tough tactics against drug gangs helped Nayib Bukele to easily win re-election in February and “super majority” control of  the legislature. By jailing 79,000 gang members, Mr. Bukele cut El Salvador’s homicide rate by 70 percent. By his calculation, El Salvador is the safest country in the Americas, after Canada.

While Ecuadorians were voting to the right on Sunday, city streets in  Colombia filled with people protesting the nation’s first leftwing president, Gustavo Petro. After only 20 months in office, Mr. Petro is seeing talks break down with the nation’s two guerrilla groups and disenchantment spread through the middle class. Chanting “Fuera Petro” — or “Petro Out” — tens of thousands marched at Bogotá, the capital, and at the largest cities — Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla.

Similar disenchantment with leftwing rule was also seen Sunday on the other side of the continent, on Copacabana beach at Rio de Janeiro. There, as many as 100,000 Brazilians demonstrated in support of  a former president, Jair Bolsonaro. Barred from running again until 2030, Mr. Bolsonaro was ordered in February to surrender his passport and to cooperate with an investigation into charges that he sought to bar his successor, Luiz  Inácio Lula da Silva, from taking office in January 2023. 

After barely a year in office, Mr. da Silva has seen his popularity dwindle. Last month, a survey by DataFolha found that Mr. da Silva’s approval rate fell to 35 percent, while his disapproval rose to 33 percent. This is about where Mr. Bolsonaro was at the same time in his term.

Even more abysmal are the approval ratings of another leftist, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Trained in Cuba, Mr. Maduro  learned how to cling to power. After 11 years in office, he is running for another 6-year term in an “election” where the most popular candidates have been ruled ineligible. 

The frontrunner was Maria Corina Machado, who won over 90 percent of the vote in an opposition primary last October. Instead, the lone opposition candidate on the ballot will be a little known 74-year-old retired diplomat, Edmundo González. In a Meganalisis poll released last week, 72 percent of respondents said they would vote for Ms. Machado and only 13 percent said they would vote for Maduro.

Responding to American criticism of the “election,” Venezuela’s president told his faithful: “We are not a gringo colony. Venezuela is going to continue its economic march.” In reality, the march is to the exits.

In the Menganalis poll, only 16 percent of respondents said that if Mr. Maduro wins another term, they would not consider leaving the country. Of the rest, 40 percent said they would consider emigrating, and 45 percent said they did not know. Forty percent would mean 10 million migrants looking for a new home in the Americas. 

After 25 years of socialism, Venezuela’s oil production has dwindled to 20 percent of 1988 levels. About 8 million people, or one-third of the nation’s  1998 population — have emigrated. In December, Venezuelans surpassed Mexicans to become the top nationality crossing the Rio Grande to enter the United State without visas. The total number of Venezuelans in the United States is now more than 545,000.

In foreign affairs, the world’s larger fault lines also cleave Latin America. In Venezuela last week, Defense Minister Vladímir Padrino López showed off at one navy base his new Nasir anti-ship cruise missiles, recently imported from Iran. 

At another navy base, he made a show of inspecting his new Iranian-made fast attack craft. Venezuela has imported seven of these Peykaap III-class missile boats. The implied target seems to be ExxonMobil oil rigs and supply boats in the oil-rich offshore waters of the Essequibo section of neighboring Guyana.

With Venezuela’s presidential election only three months away, Mr. Maduro is ratcheting up claims on the Essequibo, two thirds of Guyana. Two weeks ago, Mr. Maduro signed a law regulating Venezuela’s “administration” of its neighbor’s land. Last week, a Venezuelan Air Force C-130B Hercules inaugurated a newly paved  air strip on the jungle border with Guyana’s Essequibo.

At South America’s southern tip, geopolitical winds blow in the opposite direction.

Two weeks ago, Argentina’s  highest criminal court blamed Iran for the 1994 attack against the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association community center at Buenos Aires. Declaring it a “crime against humanity,” the judges ruled that the bombing of the community center —  the deadliest terror event in the nation’s history — was carried out by Hezbollah militants responding to “a political and strategic design” by Iran. The downtown bombing killed 85 people and wounded hundreds.

No doubt remembering this attack, Argentina’s new libertarian president, Javier Milei, responded to Iran’s April 13 missile attack on Israel by saying Argentina “strongly supports the State of Israel in the defense of its sovereignty, in particular against regimes that promote terror and seek the destruction of western civilization.” 

Since October 7, Brazil and Colombia came close to breaking ties with Israel over Israel’s crackdown on Hamas. In contrast, Mr. Milei enraged Hamas by visiting Israel in February and announcing that Argentina will move its embassy to Jerusalem.

In the other global conflict of the era, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Brazil’s government is looking for a legal loophole that would allow President Putin to attend the G20 meeting in Rio this November, according to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. Last September, the Russian leader was unable to attend the G20 in India due to an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The warrant is based on war crimes charges related to the abduction of Ukrainian children.

Argentina’s president, by contrast, publicly embraced President Zelensky in December, when the Ukrainian attended the inauguration at Buenos Aires. A few days ago, the Argentinian leader said he is considering sending military aid to Ukraine. And last Thursday at Brussels, Argentina formally applied to join NATO as a global partner.

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