Opinion: Latin America’s populists need to adapt to a return to normalcy

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With former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 United States presidential election, world leaders from across each and every continent have heaved a sigh of relief, calling in congratulations to the president-elect with the hopes that the next few years will spare them the late-night Twitter meltdowns, the vague geopolitical threats, and the blatant insults to their countries and families.

Everyone from Emmanuel Macron to Narendra Modi to even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a statement of support following the US election…with two notable exceptions.

Unfortunately for President-elect Biden, the exceptions are the two other largest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Yes, the presidents of both Brazil and Mexico have been notably quiet since the election in the States. Elected within a month of each other in late 2018 and early 2019 amidst a surge in populism that has destabilized regional integration efforts, their silence is deafening in the context of the current American political crisis.

For Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the decision for silence appears to be one of practicality. López Obrador is continuing a trend that’s been prevalent throughout his presidency thus far, one of appeasement of President Trump.

While he was elected on a message of populism, resistant to bullying by Mexico’s northern neighbor, since taking office President López Obrador (or AMLO, as he’s popularly known) has generally toed the line set by Trump, hoping to insulate Mexico’s fragile economy from the American president’s commercial rage.

However, AMLO’s most recent comments, in which he vowed not to weigh in on the election until all results had been certified to the incumbent’s satisfaction, reveals that, more than just a practical neutral stance, the Mexican president’s stance is likely due to his own personal experiences.

Prior to his victory in 2018, López Obrador ran twice unsuccessfully for president, in 2006 and 2012. Both of his losses resulted in AMLO claiming that the election had been rigged or stolen from him, in 2006 going so far as to hold a rally in which he had himself declared the “Legitimate President of Mexico” by his enthusiastic supporters.

It’s little surprise that this man, a populist with his own base of wide-ranging support who has shown contempt for electoral processes until the moment they work in his favor, would be prone to silence until the transfer of power has been completed. AMLO is simply looking out for his anti-establishment ally in Washington D.C.

Farther south, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is also staking out an ideological position, though this one is much more traditional in nature. Seen since his inauguration as Donald Trump’s biggest ally in the Western Hemisphere, Bolsonaro’s refusal to acknowledge the results of the US election is hardly surprising, given that before the election had even occurred, he and his sons had taken to Twitter to denounce what they claim was evidence of globalist meddling in favor of Biden.

Since Biden’s victory, Bolsonaro has spiraled further and further, issuing homophobic slurs and vague threats as he continues to battle criticism of both his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing fires in the Amazon.

While it may seem like poor foreign policy to make ominous remarks about needing gunpowder more than diplomacy in dealing with the incoming president of the world’s hegemon, it fits into a pattern that Bolsonaro has followed since his inauguration. Per the Brazilian president’s political calculus, foreign policy conflicts – such as the ones he’s picked with Biden and French president Emmanuel Macron, or the ongoing crisis in Brazilian-Chinese relations – are guaranteed to rile up his base.

Trump’s complete ignorance of and disrespect towards Brazil aside, Bolsonaro has long understood that the right-wing conservative movement that powers his party and feeds his legitimacy is dependent on him being seen as protecting the country from global leftist movements.His picking fights with Biden fits simply into this pattern.

However, both López Obrador and Bolsonaro are making a poor calculation here. Joe Biden has won the presidential election, and while the recount and recertification process will likely drag out, per Trump’s insistence, until January, in theory the former Vice President will be taking office on January 20th.

For AMLO, Biden will not forget the Mexican president’s insistence on remaining quiet vis-à-vis the electoral process, especially given his own checkered past with election contesting. Biden has already made a revamp of the immigration process a priority, and his commitment to strengthening relations with the Central American states will likely involve a reassessment of Trump’s policies, which essentially involved Mexico serving as a barrier to migrants.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is due to find himself alone on the global stage once his far-right ally in the United States has been replaced. His energized base will not be enough to compensate for the complete isolation that will come from having bet all of his chips on a Trump re-election. While Biden is sure to try and enlist Brazil into any competition with China, he is sure to not compromise on environmental concerns such as the deforestation of the Amazon.

Essentially, after coming in during a period of record instability in the Western Hemisphere, Latin America’s two most powerful leaders need to take a moment and reconsider their current strategies.

A Biden administration promises a return to normalcy, both at home and abroad. As a result, the populist, illiberal tactics employed by both Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Jair Bolsonaro are likelier to hurt their countries in the long term than anything else.