After five years in which Latin America’s economies have averaged 5% annual growth with generally low inflation, they face a severe test of their new-found resilience in 2009. Subdued consumption in the rich world will squeeze exports and commodity prices, and finance will be harder to find.
Countries with diversified exports and sound policies will be better placed to ride out the storm than those, such as Venezuela and Argentina, that have squandered their commodity windfalls and spurned private enterprise. Politically, tougher times will coincide with, and contribute to, the start of a tentative shift away from the left.
Of the region’s two big economies, Brazil will continue to do better than Mexico, but neither will do well. Softening commodity prices will erode Brazil’s trade surplus (and cause further depreciation of the real), but the diversity of its export markets and the vigour of domestic consumption will keep growth below 3% (down by more than two percentage points from 2008). With a presidential election due in 2010, Brazilian politics will be dominated by preliminary jockeying over candidacies, with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the social-democratic president, seeking to transfer his own popularity to his chosen successor, probably Dilma Rousseff, his chief of staff.
The intertwining of Mexico’s economy with United States’ manufacturing will cut growth to under 1%. That will bring an increase in social tension: tighter border controls mean it has become harder to cross into the United States, and jobs are harder to find there, so the traditional safety valve of emigration will become blocked. The slowdown comes at an awkward moment for Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president. In a mid-term congressional election in July, Mr Calderón’s conservative National Action Party is unlikely to win the majority it desperately needs to sweep away the vestiges of corporatism that still hobble the country’s economy. The centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000, will make gains at the expense of the divided left. Whatever happens in the election, Mr Calderón will hope to make headway against powerful drug gangs.
Argentina’s vigorous recovery from its financial collapse of 2001-02 will peter out in 2009, as commodity prices soften. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the populist president, will pay a political price for her failure—and that of her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner—to persuade investors that Argentina is a safe place to do business. Despite the government’s manipulation of the inflation index, Argentines know they are getting poorer. The Kirchners’ hold over the Congress and the ruling Peronist party will vanish in a legislative election in October. Rather than the divided opposition parties, Peronist barons of the centre-right may be the big winners. Ms Fernández will govern at their pleasure for the rest of her term until 2012—if she lasts that long.
In Venezuela the cost of Hugo Chávez’s rule will become clearer. Hitherto, a high and rising oil price has paid for ballooning imports and public spending, concealing the growing inefficiencies of the state-dominated economy. Unless oil, improbably, rises above $100 per barrel again, economic growth will slow to a crawl. Mr Chávez still has some room for manoeuvre: he has stashed away perhaps $15 billion in various development funds, and the central bank’s reserves stand at some $30 billion. But as oil dollars become less abundant, the government will tighten import controls and a devaluation may be unavoidable. That will mean a downward spiral of inflation, stagnation and poverty.
Facing the unravelling of his regime, Mr Chávez may become more radical: expect him to unearth more fictitious coup plots and to curtail political freedoms.
Divided they fall
The most closely watched Latin American election in 2009 will be in Chile, where the Concertación, the moderate centre-left coalition that has governed the country since the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990, may lose power. For the first time, the Concertación will probably run two candidates. One would be from the Socialist Party—either Ricardo Lagos, a successful former president, or José Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States. The Christian Democrats may run their own candidate, probably Eduardo Frei, another former president. That division would help Sebastián Piñera, a moderate conservative and successful businessman. He is likely to win the presidency narrowly in a run-off ballot.
Four smaller countries will also choose a new president in 2009. In Uruguay, the ruling centre-left Broad Front will win a second term, provided it unites around the candidacy of Danilo Astori, a moderate former finance minister. Similarly, in Panama the ruling centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution should retain power. In El Salvador, the left-wing FMLN’s attempts to dislodge the conservative Arena party may founder. In both El Salvador and Honduras the elections may be dominated by attempts by Venezuela's Mr Chávez to influence the result with money and offers of aid.
In Bolivia Evo Morales, the left-wing president, is likely to win a referendum to ratify a new constitution that “refounds” the country as an Amerindian socialist republic. But he will face continuing unrest in the more capitalist eastern provinces. Another of Latin America’s radical socialists, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, will organise and win a fresh presidential election under a new constitution. In Colombia, the era of Álvaro Uribe will draw towards a close—assuming that he opts not to change the constitution to allow him to stand for a third consecutive term in 2010. The fastest growing of the larger economies in Latin America will once again be Peru, not least because its government will keep faith in free trade, rather than the socialism fashionable elsewhere.