Morales' exit stymies comeback for Latin America's left

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FILE - In this Oct. 9, 2019, file photo, anti-government demonstrators commandeer an armored vehicle during a nationwide strike against President Lenin Moreno and his economic policies in Quito, Ecuador. From Honduras to Chile, popular frustration with anemic economic growth, entrenched corruption and gaping inequality is driving the regions middle classes to rebel against incumbents of all ideological bents in what has been dubbed by some the Latin American Spring. (AP Photo/Carlos Noriega, File)

The sudden resignation of Bolivia's Evo Morales sent shockwaves throughout Latin America, where the indigenous leader had been the last survivor among a wave of leftist leaders swept to power two decades ago as commodity prices soared.

But the upheaval that has recently rocked the region, threatening Trump allies and anti-imperialist governments alike, defies easy categorization. From Honduras to Chile, popular frustration with anemic economic growth, entrenched corruption and gaping inequality is driving the region's middle classes to rebel against incumbents of all ideological bents in what has been dubbed the Latin American Spring.

"Latin America has been the frog in the boiling pot for a long time," said Marie Arana, the Peruvian-American author of a new book, "Silver, Sword & Stone," exploring five centuries of abuse and economic exploitation of the region's masses. "It's gotten to the point where it's less about ideology and more about practical matters as people for themselves see the rampant physical evidence that things are going wrong."

The angst is greatest among the region's newly empowered middle class and the traditionally disenfranchised groups that made great strides when the left came to power at the end of the 1990s with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. Around 90 million people entered the middle class in Latin America between 2000 and 2012, according to the United Nations, a feat that tracked with a boom in prices for the region's copper, soy and oil exports.

But as commodity prices have fallen, and leftist leaders once lionized for crusading against corruption are engulfed in scandals themselves, families earning enough for the first time in generations to pay taxes and send their kids to college are demanding higher-quality public services.

"The left had a very long stretch but it's unlikely to be repeated," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "Going forward, political cycles will be shorter, because governing is so much harder and expectations greater than ever."

Prior to Morales' resignation, the left had been hoping for a comeback following the 2017 election last year of far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

In the past month alone, it has been re-energized by an uprising against fuel hikes in Ecuador, mass protests against right-wing leaders in Honduras and Chile, the release from prison of Lula in Brazil, a first-round win of the governing leftist coalition in Uruguay, and the resurgence of the Peronist party in October elections in Argentina following the spectacular failure of free market reforms there. Even embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro has managed to outmaneuver his rivals to stay in power amid crippling U.S. sanctions and a cratering economy.