Latin America’s Two Left Wings

Latin America’s Two Left WingsJan. 9, 2006 issue – Is Latin America swerving left? Is that the right question? Clearly, the people who are winning elections today are not the ones who won them 5, 10 or 15 years ago; their rhetoric is not the same, and their views of the world are miles apart from those who were elected in the 1980s and 1990s. But are their policies so different?Consider today’s sitting or wanna-be left-wing heads of state: Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Ricardo Lagos and soon Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Lula in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, now Evo Morales in Bolivia, and perhaps Ollanta Humala and Andrés ManuelLópez Obrador in Mexico, maybe even Daniel Ortega again in Nicaragua. Together they are a natural force reacting against the perceived failure of the policies referred to as the Washington Consensus, or neoliberalism.And indeed, except in Chile, these policies—trade liberalization, conservative monetary and fiscal policies, privatization, subsidy cuts, foreign investment—have not delivered. Growth rates in Latin America remain well below those of other areas, and lower than those of Latin America itself between 1940 and 1980. Social indicators have barely improved; there is still plenty of corruption, a decline of law and order, and submission to a U.S. administration seen as indifferent or hostile. After the meager results of the rightward drift of the ’80s and ’90s, the region is responding as it often has—by voting the rascals out.But this broad-brush categorization of the left in Latin America is misleading. In fact, things are more complicated. There are two different lefts in the region. One consists of those leaders and movements that spring from a communist, socialist or Castroist past, and who precisely because of these radical origins have been able to reconstruct themselves. They understand what went wrong in the former Soviet Union and Cuba, what has not worked before in Latin America and the constraints that globalization and poverty impose on policy. The left in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and possibly even Nicaragua can be seen in this light. This left will emphasize social policy—education, anti-poverty programs, health, housing—but within an essentially orthodox macroeconomic framework. It will deepen and broaden democratic institutions, though on occasion it can go astray.It will disagree with the United States frequently. Chile opposed Washington on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council, Brazil rejects U.S. trade policy and Uruguay has renewed diplomatic relations with Havana. But it will rarely take matters to the brink. Chile signed a free-trade agreement with the United States just as President George W. Bush was invading Iraq; Tabaré Vázquez is negotiating an investment protection agreement with the U.S. now, and Lula welcomed George Bush at his home in Brasilia while demonstrators burned Bush in effigy across the street. This left is a good thing for Latin America. Its political landscape is mainly where the region must be governed, and, if Chile is an example, it is the way out of poverty, authoritarian rule and, eventually, inequality.The other left is very different: it traces its roots to that peculiar Latin American contribution to political science and governance: old-fashioned populism. Chávez is not a Castro, he is Perón with oil. Evo Morales is not an indigenous Che, he is a skillful and irresponsible populist. Lopez Obrador in Mexico is neither Lula nor Chávez: he comes straight from the PRI of Luis Echeverría, Mexico’s president from 1970 to 1976, the political base where the former mayor of Mexico City learned his trade as a cash-dispensing, overspending, authoritarian-inclined populist. Kirchner is a true-blue Perónist, and proud of it.For all these leaders, economic performance, democratic values, programmatic achievements and getting along with Washington are not imperatives; they are bothersome constraints that miss the point. The point is to exhibit rhetorical incontinence, to maintain popularity at any cost, to pick as many fights as possible with Washington and to exercise as much control as possible over sources of revenue, including oil, gas and foreign-debt payments. This left is disastrous: its rule will, as in the past, lead to inflation, greater poverty and inequality, confrontation with Washington and the gradual dismantling of the region’s most important achievement of recent years: democratic rule and respect for human rights.Only by distinguishing between these two left-wing currents in Latin America and understanding where they come from will it be possible to ascertain where they are going. More than welcoming or bemoaning the advent of "the" left in Latin America, it might be wiser to separate the wheat from the chaff, the new from the old and, most important, the sensible from the irresponsible.

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