In the final weeks of 2021, Chile and Honduras voted decisively for leftist presidents to replace leaders on the right, extending a significant, multiyear shift across Latin America.
This year, leftist politicians are the favorites to win presidential elections in Colombia and Brazil, taking over from right-wing incumbents, which would put the left and center-left in power in the six largest economies in the region, stretching from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.
Economic suffering, widening inequality, fervent anti-incumbent sentiment and mismanagement of Covid-19 have all fueled a pendulum swing away from the center-right and right-wing leaders who were dominant a few years ago.
In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, a leftist former mayor of Bogotá who once belonged to an urban guerrilla group, has held a consistent lead in polls.
The left has promised more equitable distribution of wealth, better public services and vastly expanded social safety nets. But the region’s new leaders face numerous obstacles, including serious economic constraints and legislative opposition that could restrict their ambitions, and restive voters who have been willing to punish whoever fails to deliver.
The left’s gains could buoy China and undermine the United States as they compete for regional influence, analysts say, with a new crop of Latin American leaders who are desperate for economic development and more open to Beijing’s global strategy of offering loans and infrastructure investment. The change could also make it harder for the United States to continue isolating authoritarian leftist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
With rising inflation and stagnant economies, Latin America’s new leaders will find it hard to deliver real change on profound problems, Pedro Mendes Loureiro, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Cambridge, said earlier this year. To some extent, he said, voters are “electing the left simply because it is the opposition at the moment.”
Poverty is at a 20-year high in a region where a short-lived commodities boom had enabled millions to ascend into the middle class after the turn of the century. Several nations now face double-digit unemployment, and more than 50 percent of workers in the region are employed in the informal sector.
Corruption scandals, dilapidated infrastructure and chronically underfunded health and education systems have eroded faith in leaders and public institutions.