Image sources: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP/Scanpix

The American presidential election has dominated global news headlines for the past year. Although it mostly falls outside the scope of this blog, on the eve of the election it is helpful to learn more about the role foreign policy has played in it. After all, the US remains the most important country in the world, yet its foreign policy is often ignored in presidential campaigns.

The Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has wide-ranging policy expertise, including as Secretary of State (foreign minister) from 2009 to 2013. She is a fixture of high-level politics, having played an active role in it as First Lady during the 1990s and cultivating close relationships with world leaders through the Clinton Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on international development issues. As such, she has earned the respect and sometimes admiration of politicians (and more) around the world. She is certainly well-versed in international politics; she visited 112 countries during her tenure as Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton advanced the foreign policy views of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. This means a commitment to America’s relationships and a positive image of America as global benefactor and role model (“soft power”), while occasionally resorting to intimidation, threats and force (“hard power”) to cow uncooperative countries into line. They spouted lots of rhetoric about human rights, free markets and political participation while resorting to outright intervention mostly in cases where America’s strategic interests were at stake. This has become more or less the norm in American diplomacy, and while foreigners sometimes grumble about hypocrisy or imperialism, by and large the world admires America’s safeguarding of a durable international order and its role model of a thriving, capitalistic, pluralistic society. She has been particularly interested in development, arguing in her 1996 book It Takes a Village that broad community-level support is important for successful child-raising. She is also involved in women’s issues, meeting with women’s groups in especially sexist countries and calling for more participation of women in public life, reasoning that many global problems are exacerbated (or caused) by too much testosterone and the systematic exclusion of half the population.

During the 2008 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama, differences over foreign policy came into stark focus. Although both criticized George Bush’s adventurism in Iraq and aloof attitudes toward traditional European allies, Clinton turned out to be the more hawkish of the 2. (After all, she had initially supported the invasion of Iraq, as had many Americans.) She scorned Obama’s willingness to meet with leaders of rogue states like Iran or North Korea — the remaining members of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — as naive and indicative of Obama’s inexperience. Then as his secretary of state she ended up carrying out many of the same policies she had critiqued. Taking advantage of a new Russian president, the relatively sympathetic Dmitriy Medvedyev, she tried to “reset” Russo-American relations and cooperate with a country that America had had testy relations with. She also held back in Syria as that country dissolved into sectarian civil war. She still proved to have a somewhat harsh view of foreign policy compared to Obama, though: she imposed sanctions on Iran after initial efforts to come to terms were snubbed, she bombed Libya in support of a rebellion against its dictator, Moamar Gadafi, and she was involved in the covert mission that killed America’s archnemesis, Osama bin Ladan.

Thus Clinton is seen as the “continuity” candidate, adopting a moderate, traditionally American course of action between the usual twin poles of American foreign policy, militant interventionism and so-called “isolationism” (which is really only isolationist in comparison). She accepts the nationalist American ideology of the US as a beacon of hope and opportunity for the world and sees spreading its gospel to new territories like the Arab world and Myanmar as her mission. While she’s not as bold in this regard as Republican predecessors like Bush or Ronald Reagan, her views are hawkish enough to give some people pause. For instance, she is critical of Obama’s policy on Syria and has long argued for a “no-fly zone,” meaning designating an area in Syria as a safe zone and shooting down any planes that enter it, and more aid for Syrian rebels. She has also taken a hard line on Russia (she reportedly was skeptical of the reset), arguing that its dictator, Vladimir Putin, shouldn’t be trusted and pushing for tighter sanctions and more aid for Ukraine, its victim. On the other hand, there’s no sign that she would be interested in outright invading a country without international or local support.

The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, on the other hand, has a radically different foreign policy. His campaign is built on a strongly protectionist agenda. He launched it last year with a vow to cut off immigration from Mexico with a wall along the border. Not only that, but he’s said that Mexico will pay for it. How this will happen is unclear, although he’s said that he will pressure Mexico to do it by cutting off remittances from Mexican-Americans. His animosity against Mexican immigrants stems from the belief that they are taking American jobs, a longstanding Republican gripe. He is also critical of free trade, repeatedly slamming Clinton for her husband’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico and her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious 12-country trade deal covering the Americas, Oceania and East Asia (she has since turned against it as well). He is especially enraged by China, which is sometimes seen as America’s chief economic rival, and vows to slap a punitive 45% tariff on Chinese-made goods. Given how many things in American markets are made in China, this will doubtless hurt consumers a lot.

Trump’s other major campaign promise in 2015, made in response to a mass murder committed by Muslims that year, was to cut off Muslim immigration entirely. It’s unclear how this will be enforced, and he has since walked back his sweeping declaration (“a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”) a little to “extreme vetting” of immigrants from places with a history of terror. In this he represents a hard-line version of Republican orthodoxy, which is to take stern measures against terrorism and Muslims with radical beliefs, although the explicit connection of the Muslim religion with his ban makes many uncomfortable and may not be constitutional. This logic is carried over to apply to America’s campaign against the Islamic State, which he has vowed to “bomb the shit out of,” including their families. He is ready to bring back waterboarding and other methods of torture. He has a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State which he won’t divulge until after the election. After destroying Iraq’s oil infrastructure to strangle the Islamic State, oil companies would then rebuild it and the US will somehow take it for itself. He also pumped up a crowd once during the campaign by telling a (false) story from the Philippine War about an American general mass-executing Muslim guerrillas with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.

In these ways Trump seems to fit in with the usual Republican foreign policy stance, which is to be hard on national security and fiercely protective, to the point of belligerence, of Americans and American interests abroad. But in many ways he is not. Most of his foreign policy views are throwbacks to the pre-World War II isolationist era, when Americans viewed the rest of the world with suspicion and disdain and ignored it as much as possible. He claims to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, and in any case opposes it now, using it as a tool to bludgeon Clinton with. Probably recognizing that most Americans — including his base of support, the rural lower class — don’t really care about foreign politics, he calls for a sweeping withdrawal of American commitments overseas. He wants to pull America out of NATO unless other members pay more for it. He has threatened to do the same with Japan and South Korea, claiming that he doesn’t see the benefits of America’s alliances with them, unless they assume a more equal position. He is willing to let both countries develop their own nuclear weapons rather than promise to protect them from China’s and North Korea’s.

So Trump represents a sharp break from the Republican party on this as well as on domestic policy. Many Republicans have a bombastically nationalist, almost evangelist view of America and are eager to spread American money, influence, and troops around the world. Trump has a nationalist agenda (his motto is to “Make America Great Again,” after all), but he reaches different conclusions: America should mind its own business and focus on restoring the American economy and American jobs. The rest of the world is mostly seen as a threat, either from nasty terrorists, job-stealing immigrants or scheming businessmen. He is a businessman with no political experience, and unsurprisingly he tends to take a transactional view of things, constantly emphasizing “deals,” vowing to be the greatest dealmaker ever and approaching relationships with a cold, mercantile eye, rather than as a friend or enemy. (His best-selling book is called The Art of the Deal.) This has informed his stance on Russia, where he makes the strongest break from general Republican foreign policy opinion. He has openly admired Putin (even claiming him as a friend a few years ago), sought to do business with Russia, and expressed a willingness to work with it over thorny issues like Syria or Ukraine. His strongman style has provoked fears that he may be sympathetic to dictators as guys who get things done. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had business ties in Russia and Ukraine, and he once advised ousted Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich.

There are other candidates, but despite the record-high displeasure with both Clinton and Trump, they have had little impact on the race. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, has taken the most isolationist stance, constantly chiding America for its imperialism and its wasted efforts to control other countries. He’s also struggled with an image of being dopey and uninformed. Evan McMullin, an independent candidate with a strong following in the western state of Utah, embodies the traditional conservative line: high military spending, a strong commitment to foreign alliances, and an emphasis on armed intervention and opposition to dictatorship. The hard left side of the political spectrum is represented by Jill Stein of the Green party, who relentlessly criticizes American imperialism, belligerence, meddling in foreign conflict, and who also wants to cut military spending and pull back from overseas alliances.

Given Trump’s drastic departure from America’s foreign policy trajectory (not to mention his embodiment of pretty much every negative American stereotype), most foreigners loudly and overwhelmingly support Clinton. The exceptions have been Russia and China, who calculate that Trump’s pledges to withdraw from the world stage work in their favor. Although we’ll find out soon enough, polls suggest that most Americans are With Her.


ASEAN leaders

ASEAN’s leaders always have to do this at each summit. For extra nerd points, name the country each one is from! (Here’s a hint for #2.) Image source: Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines

In the name of unity, strength, and expanded markets, countries have been banding together into regional unions since World War II destroyed colonial empires and discredited old-fashioned international relations. The European Union (EU), with its common currency, multi-armed bureaucracy and regional parliament, is the most famous of these, and justly so — it’s the world’s 2nd-largest economy (or #1, depending on whom you ask) and has its own foreign relations. But there are other regional unions, too, with their own distinctive identities and cultures.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN; pronounced asean, not eizien) is probably the 2nd-most important of these, even though only Southeast Asians and foreign policy wonks seem to know about it. But it’s an increasingly relevant and interesting group, so it’s high time for us to check it out.


Image source: ASEAN UP

Southeast Asia, above all else, is characterized by its diversity. Thanks mostly to its geography — with most of its people living on a series of islands scattered around the sea and the long Malay Peninsula being the only land link with the river-based kingdoms on the mainland — Southeast Asians went through most of their history without a sense of common identity or much interest in their neighbors. The Khmer Empire and, later, Siam might have dominated the mainland, and Srivijaya and Majapahit may have dominated the islands, but there was no pan-Southeast Asian identity until recently. Even religiously, the region isn’t on the same page: the mainland is fervently Buddhist while the islands mostly prefer Islam. The Philippines was converted to Christianity by Spain; Vietnam has its own religion strongly influenced by China.

The colonial era gave Southeast Asia a new sense of identity simply because almost everyone was colonized. India, to the west, was dominated by Britain; China, to the north, remained independent. Southeast Asia came under British, Dutch, French, Spanish, American and Portuguese rule. That marked it off from the rest of Asia, but it still didn’t do much to unify it. The real dawn of a sense of “Southeast Asia” came during World War II, when the region was finally unified by Japan. Even then, “Southeast Asia” was a term mostly used by foreigners.

In the postwar period, though, some Southeast Asians began to see common links and interests among them. The big concern then was Communism; Communist insurgencies plagued most of the area’s new countries after the war, and Indonesia had one of the world’s biggest and most active Communist parties. A Communist regime took power in North Vietnam in 1954 and went on to destabilize and interfere with its neighbors. The innately conservative leaders of Southeast Asia were worried about social unrest, economic collapse and an impending Commie takeover. America threw together a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1954 to guard against this, but it only included Thailand and the Philippines (the rest were all foreigners!) and never amounted to much. Besides, after the struggle against colonists and Japan, Southeast Asians were eager to throw off foreign domination.

There were other impetuses behind the group’s formation. Indonesia and Malaysia went to war in 1963 over who would get northern Borneo. Malays in southern Thailand launched an (ongoing) insurgency in the hopes of secession. With the Communist threat looming, Indonesia’s new dictator, Suharto, was annoyed at the thought of petty squabbles like these distracting local leaders. He wanted to focus on the Communist threat and purged his country’s Communist party in 1965. He was the figure behind ASEAN’s creation in 1967.

Beyond the political motivations, ASEAN’s founders also had economic ambitions for their new union. It was meant to promote trade links and eventually create a common market for local goods. The original members — Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — all had close links with the global economy and often their old masters and wanted to promote openness and cultural exchange. Tariffs were gradually reduced and protected sectors opened up until a free trade area was declared in 1992. (Meanwhile, tiny Brunei joined in 1984.) These ambitions ran into some difficulties due to basic economic realities, though: like the rest of the developing world, Southeast Asia is mostly rural, and depends on commodities and raw materials for its foreign exchange. It buys manufactured goods in return. This led it to try tricks like industrial investment projects involving components from different countries in ASEAN; they didn’t turn out very well.

Meanwhile, Communism was indeed held at bay (although the extent to which ASEAN was responsible for this is dubious). North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and Communists took over Laos and Cambodia, but the results were stagnant, and none of the Communist insurgencies elsewhere in the region ever caught on. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Communist countries of Indochina had no leg to stand on. They opened up their economies, privatized many of their state-owned enterprises, and reversed collectivized agriculture. In the late ’90s, ASEAN’s old enemies joined the club, implicitly endorsing its liberal agenda. In a move that surprised many, even Myanmar, a non-Communist but closed, repressive, and impoverished country, joined in 1997. This makes ASEAN almost complete, encompassing all of Southeast Asia except East Timor.

ASEAN regularly holds summits and meetings of its members’ ministers, and occasionally meets with important foreigners (Americans, Indians, Chinese), but its meetings have a reputation for being staid, boilerplate and overall uneventful. But it made headlines recently for finally inaugurating the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015… on the very last day of the year.

The economic community was a long time in coming, although few predicted that it would actually come together in time. It aims to forge ASEAN into a single market and production base, encourage competitiveness and equitable development, and further integrate Southeast Asia into the global economy. And indeed, 70% of trade in the region is tariff-free. There are international rail, road, and energy infrastructure projects. The standards for some skilled positions have been unified, creating a common labor market and giving employers access to a broader base of talent.

To get the community going in time, though, involved a bit (O.K., maybe a lot) of fudging. Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s Minister of Trade & Industry, described ASEAN as “Like the swan, we do not always move forward. We sometimes go in rounds – but always gracefully.”

Non-tariff barriers to economic integration remain, from language tests for those skilled workers to quotas. There are still lots of protected sectors, even ones that are supposed to be open to competition across ASEAN — Indonesia protects its airlines, for example, and Malaysia shields its car industry. Except in Indochina and the Singapore area, few of ASEAN’s international transport links have come to fruition. The ASEAN Power Grid and Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline are only half-complete.

Southeast Asia’s biggest businesses tend to have cozy ties with the state, either via what’s called “crony capitalism” (as in Malaysia) or through state-owned enterprises (as in Vietnam). Industries are still in their infancy and governments feel obliged to protect them. Most of Southeast Asia’s businesses are small or medium-sized and can’t compete on a global scale. For all these reasons, ASEAN leaders only enact trade reforms when they want to. Intra-ASEAN trade still doesn’t make much economic sense, either. Singapore has been the local trading hub ever since it was founded in 1819, so it has been in the forefront of the drive to liberalize trade, but other countries trade more with China, Japan, or the West. Most Southeast Asian economies are part of a manufacturing chain with China, and there’s only so much lowering trade barriers can do.

As a result, ASEAN has developed its own culture of taking it easy and not enforcing the standards it sets. There is no penalty for breaking the rules. Unlike the EU, there is no political requirement — it started as a dictators’ club, and countries like Thailand and Vietnam are still staunch authoritarians. There is virtually no Brussels-style bureaucracy, just a small secretariat in Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia, ASEAN’s giant) with 400 employees and a budget of $17 million. ASEAN values consensus and harmony and avoids criticizing its members. This has led many (perhaps most) foreigners from writing it off as toothless.

Although ASEAN is primarily an economic union, it also has a big political component, which is why such a weird collection of economies has grouped together in the first place. It has been caught in the geopolitical tremors caused by the rise of China. Many of ASEAN’s members (Vietnam and the Philippines, and increasingly Malaysia and Myanmar) are worried about China’s growing assertiveness and its arrogance in diplomacy with the region. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, are embroiled in a dispute with China over the sea and islands between them and have been visibly drawing closer to America in response. But everyone also has close business and diplomatic ties with China and is nervous about too sharp of a break. Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, in particular, are very poor and heavily dependent on China for infrastructure projects and development aid. When Cambodia hosted the ASEAN summit in 2012, Chinese pressure kept the group from issuing its usual joint statement. The same thing happened with a defense summit last November.

Part of the problem is a lack of leadership. France and (especially) Germany are the clear leaders of the EU, but history, geography and the aforementioned culture of consensus mean that the 10 countries of ASEAN rotate the chair each year and have equal power. Indonesia, with 40% of the area’s population and by far its biggest economy, would seem to be in a better position than Germany to dominate, but it lacks a history of imperialism, has a culture of diplomacy and persuasion, and is mostly inward-focused anyway. In fact, it’s been shown up by the small city-state of Singapore, which has a large, professional, English-speaking and culturally savvy diplomatic corps, a vision of economic and cultural integration, and a multiethnic composition that keeps nationalism out of the way. Thailand has been distracted by its political problems; Vietnam is a rising star catching up with the bigger economies, but still mostly focused on internal development and its relations with China and America.

This lack of cohesion, enforcement mechanisms, common culture, and failure to hold itself to strict standards has led foreigners to dismiss ASEAN as only a “talking shop” for heads of state to get together and compare notes with. It’s definitely nowhere near as coherent as the EU and doesn’t present much of an obstacle to Chinese ambition. If ASEAN wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, it will need to unite a little more.

I personally do not share the Western consensus of dismissal of ASEAN. It definitely has its problems, as I’ve pointed out, but sometimes I think the comparison with the EU gives rise to unrealistic expectations.

The EU has a fundamental common heritage and a shared trauma of conflict to pull it together. ASEAN lacks this. Myanmar’s people speak different languages, worship different gods, and have different cultures from, say, Filipinos. If ASEAN had stricter rules and standards, it would not have grown as fast as it did. ASEAN’s leaders welcome the club because they are treated fairly (as they perceive it) and face no overt pressure.

ASEAN’s founding declaration emphasizes things like “collaboration… on matters of common interest” and “assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities.” It’s meant to provide for closer links between its members, which helped prompt a sense of common identity and gradually spread the ideal of open borders and free trade among its members. In this sense it has made great strides since its founding. When ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, it can look back on decades of peace, economic dynamism, and the successful integration of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam — some of Asia’s poorest countries when they joined in the ’90s. No, it doesn’t have a common currency, but how could it? The gap between Myanmar (with $23 billion in trade) and Singapore (with $783 billion in trade) is just way too big.

Europeans also need to keep in mind that Asia has different cultural values. Democracy and public participation is not cherished as highly, especially not among the governing classes. Consensus and community are important. Cracking down on troublemakers and trying to clarify its culture and goals might alienate some members and even drive them out. ASEAN prefers to lead by example. It may lead to cheating and frustratingly slow progress, but I’m not convinced that it’s an ultimately ineffectual style. With the EU now mired in crisis and mutual hostility, ASEAN may even have something to teach the rest of the world.

ASEAN flag

The ASEAN flag. Guess what the bound stalks represent. Image source: World Flag Database



Mauricio Macri celebrates his upset victory. Image source: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

As I’ve mentioned before, the fundamental cleavage in Latin America — which is mostly unified in terms of language, religion and culture and lacks major national rivalries — is class. Deep socioeconomic inequalities left over from the colonial era have bred resentment, popular movements and even violent revolutions. Even with the Cold War over it’s looked like old notions of an oppressed mass of poor laborers getting screwed over by a haughty, greedy, corrupt elite have endured. But recent developments in South America hint that a change might be coming to this archaic dynamic.

A full background of neo-Marxism in Latin America reads like a historical overview of the whole region. The Spanish and Portuguese colonized the area in the 1500s and set themselves up as the elite presiding over a continent and a half full of poor, illiterate natives who toiled away on estates, plantations, and mines. Over time, a native-born elite developed that resented Spanish and Portuguese domination and declared independence from them in the 1810s and ‘20s. But they just replaced them as the overlords, and Latin America’s natives, blacks, and mestizos (the offspring of whites and natives) remained marginalized, poor and discriminated against.

Obviously they didn’t take this quietly forever, and Latino history is peppered with outbreaks of violence and peaceful movements to reclaim the region for the majority of its people. Military leaders called caudillos would gain support and eventually the presidency by appealing to popular demands for land, food and rights. Brazil’s emperor Dom Pedro II freed his country’s slaves. Mexico witnessed a confusing revolution that ended up tearing apart the country’s old social regime and redistributing power and land.

The political climate of the Cold War fueled this clash of class even more. The Soviet Union (and China, to a lesser extent) proved that you could redistribute wealth to the lower classes and still be rich and powerful. When rebels took over Cuba in 1959 and set up a Communist state, that inspired the left even more. Here was a role model, a fellow Latino country that had stood up against its oppressors and threw centuries of quasi-feudalism into the trash. The Cuban regime was proud and confident and did what it could to promote its ideology and export it to other angry Latino countries like Bolivia, Colombia and Nicaragua.

In the background, imperialist machinations swirled. Although America made it clear upon Latino independence that it wouldn’t tolerate any further colonialism in its hemisphere, Britain, the economic superpower of the 1800s, stepped in and offered the new countries its manufactured goods in exchange for their raw materials (copper, gold, silver, coffee, rubber, sugar). In the 1900s America grew more assertive and displaced Britain. While this tied Latin America into the global trading network, it mostly just lined the pockets of the rich while tethering the poor to drudge work. Eduardo Galeano, in his classic screed Open Veins of Latin America, uses the metaphor of Western imperialists tapping Latin America’s vital resources and sucking its blood dry to convey the despair and resentment Latinos feel to the gringo.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union definitely set back Communist ambitions at first — Cuba lost its main patron, long-standing myths about Communist greatness were discredited — the Latino left had a resurgence in the ‘00s led by Venezuela’s controversial president Hugo Chávez. He lavished his supporters, the lower classes, with subsidies, welfare, and spending on big government programs to give them a boost in society and ease their economic burdens. He also bellowed invective about “the Empire,” denouncing its war-mongering and hypocrisy and exhorting other Latinos to spurn it and beware it. He had imitators in Brazil (Lula da Silva, beloved by the masses for his “Bolsa Família” poverty eradication program) and Argentina (Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández, who subsidized child care, energy, grain and transport). And he bound them and other neo-Marxist Latino countries (Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia) together in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

But not all Latino countries — including major ones with historic insurgency problems like Mexico and Colombia — hopped on board the socialism express, and in recent years Chávez’s dreams have seemed more and more naïve.

Let’s start with Argentina. Since 2011 its economy has barely grown, and unemployment is at 7%. Inflation, long an Argentine problem, has continued to harass it, and it’s estimated to be somewhere between 20 and 30%. The Kirchners’ generous public spending has drained government finances, and the country’s fiscal deficit is now over 5% of GDP. These figures are estimates, since the government is widely suspected of manipulating them to shore up its support.

To rescue the economy and treasury, Fernández relied on strict import and capital controls, cutting Argentina off from international finance. Foreign investors have fled in droves, and the government negotiated with them to write off most of its debt… except a handful, the so-called “vulture funds,” have stood firm and demanded their money back. An American court settled the case in their favor, which brought default into view as that would mean paying back every bondholder for a total of around $100 billion.

With the economy stagnant, the country an international outcast and Fernández interfering in the legal process and dubiously enrichening herself, voters in the election of November 2015 were fed up and threw the government out. In its place, they elected Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, the city that dominates Argentina. He has moved swiftly since then to repair the damage Fernández caused by lifting trade barriers, abolishing currency controls, and negotiating with the vulture funds. He fired officials at the central bank who got in his way, along with the head of the Federal Authority for Audiovisual Communication Services — suggesting either that he’s a strong leader with a passion for economic and media freedom or an aggressive boss who can’t deal with his political opponents. In general, foreigners approve of him, and he is doing his best to get on their good side — by visiting the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend, for instance (it’s like the annual conference of capitalism).

Venezuela, meanwhile, has been going through some very hard times lately. Chávez died in 2013, leaving the field to Nicolás Maduro, who’s not nearly as charismatic as he is. The economy has crashed, and is estimated to have shrunk 7% last year. Unemployment is at 8%, and strict currency controls have created hyperinflation, a black market, and dire shortages of food and, most famously, toilet paper. Crime and violence are really bad, even by Latino standards. Maduro has continued the Chávez tradition of blaming everything on foreigners out to get Venezuela and on a privileged elite determined to wipe out the progress of Venezuela’s boom years.

Though not quite to the extent of his comrade Fidel Castro in Cuba, Maduro runs an authoritarian government, and protests against his policies have been dismissed and responded to with violence and arrests. But in an election last month, an opposition alliance (the Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD) triumphed, taking 56% of the seats. The stage is set for a messy showdown between the 2 branches of government — the assembly added 13 judges to the Supreme Court before adjourning, and Maduro tried to overturn some of the election results. The MUD returns the animosity by pledging to seek Maduro’s recall. 2016 looks like it’s going to be another vicious fracas in Caracas.

Venezuela parliament

The chavistas (leftists) show their disdain for the new ruling party by walking out. Image source: RTVE

As for Brazil, South America’s biggest country and the one with the most potential influence and weight, its fate is more uncertain. It already had its election in 2014, so its president, Dilma Rousseff, is probably secure… except that she’s under investigation for her role in a giant corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the state oil firm. She claims no responsibility for it, but it happened while she was on Petrobras’s board, so her opponents aren’t convinced. They are seeking her impeachment this year. Dilma, like Maduro, has proved way less charismatic and exciting than her predecessor, Lula, and her approval rating has slumped to 9%. A year of political paralysis seems imminent.

Even worse than that is Brazil’s economy. Last year its sovereign debt was downgraded to junk by 2 of the 3 big credit agencies, cutting off Brazil from most international bond-buying. The economy is crashing and shrunk by 3% last year. The fiscal deficit is 10% of GDP. Public debt is 70% of GDP. Inflation, which is something Brazil has also struggled with historically, is back, and hit 10.5% last year. It’s usually a bad sign when your presidential approval rating is lower than the inflation rate. With little else to do, Dilma is resorting to the kind of austerity measures people hate everywhere: tax hikes, job cuts, welfare benefit cuts, public spending cuts. Even some of Brazil’s beloved and iconic Carnival celebrations are getting axed.


Brazil’s international press coverage has definitely taken a battering from the glory days of the ’00s.

The common thread in all of these cases is economic collapse. Even though Latin America has grown economically since the Cold War era, it’s still very dependent on “commodities” — oil, soybeans, wood, coffee, livestock, copper and other minerals. In the ‘00s, there was a thriving global market for commodities, driven most of all by China. Now the Chinese economy is slowing, which means less demand for natural resources, which means less money for Latinos. Combined with expectations of a hike in America’s interest rate, it also means Latino currencies are also slipping. One bright spot in the scene is Mexico, which is sustained by its close manufacturing and commercial ties with… the U.S. In general, though, the region is very commodity-dependent, and without that money coming in, generous social programs aren’t sustainable. (Oil makes up 95% of Venezuelan government revenue.)

The real question is: How permanent and fundamental is this shift? A change in presidents in Argentina and an opposition parliamentary victory in Venezuela doesn’t necessarily spell doom for neo-Marxism. There are still millions of disgruntled poor people bereft of opportunities and dependent on farming and hard labor to get by. Distrust of America and other scheming, greedy foreigners runs deep. It’s possible that the recent shift in mood is just a classic case of voters reacting to bad economies and governments getting corrupt after a decade in power. If the new guys aren’t charismatic or inspiring or make blunders, this could all be a flash in the pan.

But there are signs pointing to a permanent shift away from socialism. Latin America’s middle class has doubled since 2002. Countries like Mexico and Chile are more receptive to foreign economic powers and less paranoid about imperialism. Cuba is repairing its horrible relationship with the U.S. and allowing more foreign and private investment. Colombia is in a peace process with its long-raging insurgency, the FARC, presenting a more moderate, forgiving face than the old image of a conservative lapdog of the Yankees fighting a drug war for them. Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa, is unpopular and might get unseated this year. America under Barack Obama seems less belligerent and condescending than it did under George Bush, at least to the more moderate left. Despite its cozy relationship with Venezuela, Dilma’s Brazil is more moderate than other leftist countries and tries to accommodate foreign economic advice. And Galeano, before he died last April, admitted that his book hasn’t aged well.

East Asia’s economic boom, which relied heavily on foreign investment to bring millions of peasants out of poverty, is a possible model for the region. But unless deeply entrenched suspicion of rich foreigners and selfish businessmen is dealt with, it’s hard to imagine the ongoing class struggles of Latin America fading away.