Latin America’s Two Lefts

Latin America’s Two LeftsA perception has been growing over the last few years – and picking up strength in recent months – that Latin America is swinging back to the left. The unimpressive – and sometimes dismal – results of economic reform seem to have generated a backlash that has elected leftist presidents across the continent, starting with Hugo Chávez’s victory in Venezuela at the end of the 1990’s, and continuing with those of Ricardo Lagos in Chile and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, and more recently that of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay. More left-wing victories seem to be in store in Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. But while the premises underlying this broad trend are clear, Latin America’s voters are electing not one left, but two. To be sure, although 2004 was one of the region’s better years in terms of economic growth, the outcome of two decades of so-called structural reform remains disappointing. Inequality has increased, poverty has been reduced only slightly at best, employment remains stubbornly low, corruption, violence, crime, and political gridlock continue unabated, and foreign investment and free-trade agreements with the US have yet to deliver the goods. In these circumstances, a strong ideological and policy reaction against the pro-market “Washington Consensus,” with its emphasis on liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, is anything but a surprise. At the same time, however, that reaction is much less uniform and clear-cut than many observers believe. To begin with, those parties, leaders, and movements that have truly socialist and progressive roots – such as Lagos and his Socialist Party in Chile, Lula and the Workers’ Party in Brazil, and Vázquez in Uruguay – are following pragmatic, sensible and realistic paths. Their policies are remarkably similar to those of their predecessors; their respect for democracy is full-fledged and sincere. Their old school anti-Americanism has been tempered by years of exile, realism, and resignation. Conversely, leftist leaders who arise from a populist, purely nationalist past, with few ideological underpinnings – Chávez with his military background, Kirchner with his Peronist roots, and Mexico City mayor and presidential frontrunner Lopez Obrador, with his origins in the Institutional Revolutionary Party – has proven much less responsive to modernizing influences. For them, rhetoric is more important than substance and power is more important than how it is exercised. The despair of poor, provincial, and clientelistic constituencies is a tool rather than a problem, and belittling the US by aligning with Fidel Castro trumps promoting their countries’ real interests in the world. Secondly, the left in general – whether of socialist or populist origins – has “spoken loudly” and carried a “small stick,” so to speak. Actual policies, with the passing exception of Argentina’s negotiation with its international creditors – and the IMF, in particular – are remarkably similar to those of their predecessors. Chávez continues to invite foreign oil companies to drill in the Orinoco basin, Lula maintains hefty budget surpluses, Kirchner ultimately accepts IMF conditionality, and Lagos maintains unmatched relations with Chile’s highly conservative private sector. Overall, macroeconomic orthodoxy seems to be taking root. Indeed, it is only on the margins where Latin America’s left is striving to differ – and partly succeeding. The areas where this new and old left can make a difference include improving anti-poverty programs, expanding housing and property rights, effective land reform, developing education, science, and technology, and, perhaps most importantly, strengthening democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in a region where they have been woefully absent for decades. To succeed with this bold and necessary agenda, Latin America’s left must purge its dangerous and destructive nationalist and authoritarian strains. The new left, if it stays the course on modernization and reform, can be a boon to the region.

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