Nation & World

Latin America’s ‘bad boy’ leaders enjoy high support, survey finds

Being a “bad boy” in Washington’s eyes can have payoffs for Latin American politicians, while being a “star pupil” can have a downside.

A compilation of polls across Latin America released over the weekend found that the four leaders whom Washington considers the “bad boys” of the region remain among its most popular presidents, even wildly so.

The leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela routinely lambaste the United States, concentrate power in their own hands and run roughshod over the news media but retain significant, and even strong, support.

In contrast, the pro-U.S. leaders of Chile, Colombia and Peru – countries with more open democracies – have seen their public support fall in the past six months.

That’s the result of a biannual survey of approval ratings for the leaders of the 19 largest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Compiled by Mexico’s Consulta Mitofsky polling firm, the survey, titled “Approval of Leaders: America and the World,” is based on independent nationwide polls in each country with similar methodologies and margins of error of about 3 percentage points.

The results offer a snapshot of how buoyant the “bad boys” are.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa enjoys sky-high 84 percent support, the survey found, while Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has 66 percent support and Bolivia’s Evo Morales comes up with 59 percent approval.

Even Nicolas Maduro, who’s struggled to hold on to the reins of Venezuela after the death of President Hugo Chavez in March amid rising inflation and sporadic shortages of basic consumer commodities, still has the support of 48 percent of Venezuelans, the survey found.

That’s 4 points better than Barack Obama, according to the survey, citing a September average published by RealClearPolitics.

Several “bad boy” leaders have combined deft populist tactics with skills at economic management, political strengths that can remain hidden behind the headlines of anti-U.S. rhetoric and frontal assaults on democratic institutions.

“They’ve proven to be politically very astute. They have a connection to their base, and they are delivering to the poor,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research center.

Recent World Bank outlooks for Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua hail the economic achievements in those countries.

Under Correa, Ecuador has reduced income inequality, expanded the middle class and reduced poverty from 37 to 27 percent since 2006, the outlook says.

Nicaragua’s Ortega has engineered a “remarkable economic turnaround” and instituted “pioneering strategies to fight poverty,” it says, while Bolivia’s Morales has delivered economic growth averaging 4.8 percent annually over the past seven years while tripling bank deposits and slashing poverty rates from 63 percent to 45 percent of the population.

The Konrad-Adenauer Foundation of Germany last week published its annual Democratic Development Index, in which Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador all marked gains, largely for improving the economic welfare of their citizens.

Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela are all on the outs with Washington, over U.S. global policies and what U.S. diplomats see as a flouting of democratic norms, including limiting press freedoms and controlling the courts.

In those countries, Shifter said, “there are very weak, if any, checks and constraints on executive authority.”

Bolivia and Venezuela have booted out U.S. ambassadors and downgraded relations. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, and Ecuador’s Correa flirted with providing a haven to Edward Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor.

The countries have ridden commodity booms, or, in Nicaragua’s case, oil aid from Venezuela, to steady economic growth. Venezuela is the exception. It’s seen its economy stall amid rising deficits, mismanagement and over-reliance on oil exports.

The popularity of those leaders contrasts with the leaders of a new bloc, the Alliance of the Pacific – comprising Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru – and underscores a paradox: Presiding over economic growth in a democracy with give-and-take between branches of government doesn’t always lead to popularity.

Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos suffers a dismal 25 percent popularity ranking, the second worst in the Americas after Costa Rica’s leader, even with steady 4 percent economic growth and a booming energy sector.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala doesn’t rank much better, at 32 percent, nor does Chile’s Sebastian Pinera, at 36 percent. Only President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico, who’s been in office less than a year, remains popular, with 56 percent support.

In most cases, Shifter said, the Alliance of the Pacific leaders “haven’t been as adept politically and haven’t demonstrated an ability to connect with citizens.”

The economies of the nations in the alliance are expected to grow faster than 4 percent this year, except in Mexico, yet their leaders have proved disappointing to voters.

“Where there’s more openness, that fuels expectations as well,” Shifter said.

Barely three weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden visited Mexico and hailed the Alliance of the Pacific, saying Mexico “is integrating stock markets and customs unions with Peru, Chile and Colombia.”

The alliance, which boasts a combined population of 209 million people that would represent as a unit the world’s eighth largest economy, is taking other steps. The four countries are launching joint tourism campaigns, and they’re combining embassies and trade missions in far-off places such as Ghana and Turkey.

In a co-written column in Madrid’s El Pais newspaper last week, the four leaders said the alliance “aims at modernity, pragmatism and the political will to establish economic integration over the long term.”

But it does so with somewhat disgruntled citizens behind it.