At the first Latin American Briefing Series talk of the 2011-2012 academic year "In Search of Democracy: Post-Populism and Pragmatic Leftism in the Andes," Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue discussed two trends found in the Andean region: a political agenda that focuses on social inclusion and a distancing of the region from the U.S.
Using Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, Shifter underscored that political platforms based on social change-ranging from far left to moderate conservative,- have created a populist picture of mixed governance beneficial to the region.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, elected in 2005 and then re-elected in 2006, won as the first indigenous president of South America with the popular support of indigenous communities. Recent elections in Colombia in 2010 and Peru in 2011, have seen a change in the guard ushered in by promises of moderate social reforms that focus on social inequalities, corruption and criminality.
But although the current political and economic picture of South America is framed by optimism, populist governments in the Andean region could face significant challenges in the coming years.
In Colombia, security challenges posed by drug-trafficking, paramilitaries and corruption continue to affect policy-making in the region. In Bolivia, Morales' support declined after he lifted several government food subsidies and considered building a highway through an Amazonian ecological reserve. Both Venezuela and Peru classified as "partly free" in a 2011 Freedom House survey for their crackdown on journalists and political opposition. Venezuela also faces issues of high crime and internal instability.
While South America weathered the 2008 recession, growth predictions for the region as a whole are expected to take a dip in 2012. A decrease in growth will likely affect the poorest of South Americans despite efforts to address deep social inequalities.
As the region continues to define itself economic and diplomatic ties with the U.S. will continue in different forms. With the U.S. historically crafting detrimental security and trade policy, the assertion of countries like Brazil in foreign policy, the strengthening trans-regional ties and economic partnerships with China could further distance the region from the U.S.
Moreover, China's impact as an exporter of raw materials has played a fundamental role in allowing governments to expand their social and economic programs, and to distance themselves from the U.S.
While these achievements have led to confidence and economic growth in the region, addressing social inequalities, sustaining economic growth, and security threats will be key to solidifying this regional transformation.
Written by Alex McAnarney.