Jorge G. Castañeda
A Blessedly Boring Year
Jan. 22, 2007 issue - In the last year or so, 11 Latin American countries held presidential elections. Citizens in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Haiti, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela all went to the polls. The confluence of so many elections was unusual. What was downright astounding was that, except in Mexico, the results were generally accepted. That's no mean feat in a region where losers have too often fought decisions that didn't go their way.
The big question now is: just how permanent was this shift? Were the elections a fluke, or a sign of things to come?
So far, the evidence looks promising. In the last 20 years most of Latin America has gone democratic, and those gains seem to have been consolidated. Consider the signs: no military stepped in because it didn't like a result, and losing candidates (except in Mexico) accepted their defeat, even when the margins were razor thin. The costs of cheating, moreover, seem to have become too high: even Hugo Chávez in Venezuela allowed in international observers.
Latin America's Year of Democracy reveals several other lessons. The first is that the much-maligned neoliberal economic model—which features trade liberalization and the privatization of public industries—remains a potent force. In Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and elsewhere, advocates of the model held on to office. Many Latin American voters—in some cases a majority—support such policies, or at least are terrified of the alternative.
Last year's votes also proved that politicians must now pay attention to the excluded and the dispossessed. Candidates such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua or Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who came from the masses—or at least looked like them—did better than those from the elites.
A related point is that social programs matter. Parties that had implemented effective aid projects aimed at the poor tended to triumph. This strategy worked for both the left and the right. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was re-elected in Brazil largely thanks to his antipoverty projects, but the right-of-center Felipe Calderón in Mexico was also elected, thanks to his predecessor's social programs.
That said, the strength of one's party and the power of incumbency both proved important, especially for Lula in Brazil, Chávez in Venezuela and Alvaro Uribe in Colombia. This is because, in part, the region is experiencing its best economic growth in decades, although poverty and inequality remain high. But the return of so many incumbents may also have a darker side. Latin American officeholders have traditionally abused their advantages, which is why re-election was banned practically everywhere. Recently, however, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, and other states, have relaxed their restrictions, with worrisome results.
Consider one more ominous tiding. Left-wing parties did well everywhere. Some of their candidates—as in Chile, Brazil and Uruguay—belong to the modern, democratic, globalized left. The problem is the others—like those in Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela—who subscribe to a different left: an old-fashioned, populist and authoritarian movement addicted to state-controlled economic models. Concerned outsiders should not waste time fighting the Latin American left per se. They should encourage the passing of its anachronistic segment, while helping reformers.
Whether left or right, Latin America's new leaders have their work cut out for them. In economic, political, even social terms, the region is doing better than ever. Yet, paradoxically, it has never been less important in the world. Its share of trade, manufacturing and commodity production is at a historic low, and the region lags far behind Asia's rising powers. What could be Latin America's greatest export, its extraordinary cultural heritage, seems also to be diminishing. Shakira may sell huge numbers of CDs, and Mexican, Brazilian and Colombian movie directors have won international acclaim. But the region has not won a Nobel Prize in literature since 1990. If democracy has truly arrived to stay, as now seems possible, all this may be set to change. What Latin America needs most is normalcy: a mood in which everyone (or at least most people) prospers but no one gets too excited about it. It may sound boring. But this is a region where boring is long overdue.