South American transition

Editorial & Opinion

Source: Washington Post


FOR MOST of the past decade, two leftist populists dominated South America's largest countries. One, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, was of the stripe that so often has held back a potentially prosperous region: quasi-authoritarian and economically inept. The other, Brazil's Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, created a new mix of free-market orthodoxy, anti-poverty efforts and international activism. Now, within a week, both have been supplanted. Mr. Kirchner's death Oct. 27 of a heart attack left his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner - Argentina's current president - unmoored. Mr. da Silva's chosen successor, Dilma Roussef, won a presidential election runoff Oct. 31. Those two women will now lead their neighboring G-20 countries in potentially difficult transitions.

Brazil gets most of the attention, and with good reason. Under Mr. da Silva, the country has come to be grouped with China and India as an emerging global power. It is growing faster than any other nation in the hemisphere and is preparing to exploit deep-sea oil discoveries that may make it a major energy producer. Having started adulthood in an armed leftist group, Ms. Roussef, now 62, proved to be an able technocrat in Mr. da Silva's government. But she may find it difficult to match her predecessor's skillful balancing of economic conservatism and populist activism - especially as she inherits a swollen state payroll, an overvalued currency and a big backlog of infrastructure bottlenecks. The clearest sign so far of her direction is a vow to expand the state's role in the exploitation of the new oil fields, which could make some of those problems worse. If Ms. Roussef also retreats from responsible fiscal policies, Brazil could suffer another one of the stalls that in the past have stopped its spurts toward greatness. Though Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner is a formidable politician in her own right, her husband had appeared to be the leader of a tandem that has controlled Argentina's government since 2002. His death, though tragic for his wife, provides an opportunity to move away from his polarizing style, which has included attempts to silence critical media and concentrate power. With a presidential election due next year, the country will have the chance to choose something like the more workable course of Mr. da Silva.

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