Enter the Millennials: Latin American Politics Will Never Be the Same

  • Casey Cagley

“This Friday, 36-year-old Gabriel Boric will be inaugurated as president of Chile, joined by a historically young and diverse cabinet. His story has been hailed as a generational shift, as millennials win office throughout the region, with the potential to shake up politics in Latin America and the Caribbean…

“But will this generation strengthen democracy – or contribute to declining institutionalism? Will they represent new voices and provide fresh solutions, or will they bring new models of demagoguery, caciquismo and opportunism?

“Most millennial politicians deftly navigate social media in a way that builds a direct constituency independent of political parties. As few have any experience in elected office, they can appeal to voters as outsiders and focus exclusively on issues of most concern to their millennial peers – among them employment and inequality, the environment and gender, racial and LGBTQ equity. Their youth allows these leaders to criticize los de siempre (older leaders and historical parties) for the status quo while avoiding unpopular decisions themselves. Their personal appeal replaces the credibility and brand recognition that political parties once offered. Indeed, that appeal is often curated as anti-party and, by extension, anti-party system.

“Millennials across the Americas grew up in a post-Cold War context characterized more by broad democratic opening and market-based economies than by dictatorships and death squads. Many want little to do with the rhetoric of bearded Cuban revolutionaries, right-wing military juntas, or violent narco-militias like the FARC and Shining Path. Boric’s presidency itself grew out of a mass movement in part fueled by rejection of the Augusto Pinochet-era constitution and ensuing economic model. His cabinet seems to reflect as much; his foreign minister served as head of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and OAS Rapporteur for Nicaragua, where she was a fierce advocate for freedom in that country. His choice for finance minister is well respected in financial circles. Notwithstanding the appointment of Communist MP Camila Vallejo as his administration’s spokesperson, the cabinet is reflective of a less ideological generation.

“First, young leaders could face opposition from their legislatures. Chile’s senate is split roughly 50-50, so Boric will need to compromise to get anything done. Hard-left socialist and communist parties are his most likely allies, yet the Communist Party’s rigorous orthodoxy does not always lend itself to expediency and compromise. Boric’s assessment of Venezuela’s dictatorship as a failure evidenced by a diaspora of more than 5 million has generated negative reactions among leftists in Chile and around the region that back dictatorships in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

“Second, traditional Latin American parties on the left and right are still highly influenced by external actors that complicate the formation of forward-thinking policy. Leaders on the left must navigate a regional infrastructure that, while broadly supportive of progressive candidates and policies, often supports very illiberal methods and policies. These forums, such as the Grupo de Puebla or TeleSUR, help position anti-imperialism, socialism, and unconditional support for Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua on domestic agendas throughout the region – occasionally to the detriment of other progressive causes.

“Third, the progressivism of today’s young leaders clashes with the conservatism of the old guard. Many emerging progressive leaders on the Left do not identify with old-school anti-imperial leftist orthodoxy that blames the United States for everything and is obsessed with economic and natural resource nationalism. They take issue with the Castro regime’s reeducation camps for homosexuals or Evo Morales’ reputation for misogyny, or former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s support for oil extraction in virgin rainforests.

“In Paraguay, the powerful conservative Colorado party, which has dominated all but one presidential election over the last 70 years, is effectively the only vehicle for young right-leaning politicians. Up-and-comers, including those competing in last October’s municipal elections, must associate themselves with current President Mario Abdo Benítez or former president Horacio Cartes if they are to succeed. Another similarity with the left, when it comes to confronting the old guard, is the symbolic pull of the past. Leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro have to some degree resuscitated nostalgia for the military dictatorships of the 1970s. In Peru, Keiko Fujimori leaned heavily on memories of her father’s conquest of hyperinflation and the Shining Path during her several electoral campaigns while in Colombia, former President Uribe was able to cash in on his own legacy to help get Juan Manuel Santos and later Iván Duque elected president.

“But there is another option for political leadership: Build a constituency that crosses old left-right divides by focusing on issues that matter to young voters. This process should start with political parties. Party platforms around the region are in desperate need of an update and young party members can have a leading role. Platforms should reflect strong positions on issues youth care about – employment, but also climate change and the environment, corruption, housing, education and crime.

… “Parties must expand their reach beyond national capitals and cities to incorporate Afro-descended, indigenous, LGBTQ, and female voices, regardless of party or ideology. But this process can’t be top-down. Millennials and Generation Z won’t simply be given congressional seats: They must prepare early to make successful runs. …”

Up ArrowTop