The National Catholic Review

It is tempting to view the string of election results in Latin America over the past year as proof that the world’s most unequal region has moved to the left. Media accounts highlight the repudiation of free market-oriented policies, those widely referred to as neoliberal reforms and delineated in the Washington consensus of the early 1990’s. Such reports also focus on the growing clamor for governments to be more committed to redressing social injustice and empowering the poor, who in most countries constitute at least half the population. Observers who see a sharp, radical turn describe a red tide, whereas others refer to a more diluted version or a pink tide.

A Radical, Red Tide?

Such characterizations were especially popular in early 2006, when Evo Morales was sworn in as the president of Bolivia. Morales was elected with a surprisingly strong mandate, boosted by his support from Bolivia’s coca growers and, as an Aymara, the country’s majority indigenous population. The traditional political establishment had failed to deliver tangible results for the poor and was discredited. Morales favored nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas industry, the second largest in Latin America after Venezuela’s, a new constitution emphasizing indigenous rights, a redistribution of land and a drug policy that allows traditional uses of coca but not the processed and pernicious cocaine. Talk of a leftist resurgence was reinforced by Morales’s unabashedly close alliance with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Latin America’s revolutionary icon. Morales also has a very public and friendly relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who, since becoming president in February 1999, has made uplifting the poor and defying the United States the driving forces behind his Bolivarian Revolution.

Further evidence of a red tide and an expanding anti-United States bloc in Latin America came with the November 2006 election and remarkable comeback of Daniel Ortega, who led Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980’s. On the region’s political scorecard, Ortega joined Castro, Chávez and Morales in the radical column. But for most analysts, the red tide coexisted with a pink wave. The leftist surge also encompassed a competing, more moderate, pragmatic brand of social democratic politics that has been gaining ground. The tendency is best exemplified by Michele Bachelet, Chile’s Socialist president who assumed office in March 2006, and Luiz Inácio da Silva, known as Lula, the president of Brazil’s Workers Party, who was overwhelmingly elected to a second four-year term in October 2006. Other new leaders who fall in this category are Uruguay’s Tabare Vásquez, the first leftist president in the country’s history, and Alan García of Peru’s APRA party, who was considerd a leftist in his first term, from 1985 to 1990.

Beyond Labels

Yet if one probes a bit deeper, beyond the labels, a far more complicated picture can be discerned. True, political parties and figures associated with the traditional cold war left and with concern for greater social equality are now heading a number of Latin American governments. But what does that mean for the region in terms of actual policy content? Why are electorates voting for these parties, and which policies are such governments pursuing? The complex realities of the region will shape the answers. The ideological orientations that defined these parties during the days of the cold war have now faded, rendering a term like left an artificial construct.

The Socialist-led government of Bachelet, for example, and the successful administration of Ricardo Lagos before it have fully embraced the market as an engine for economic and social development and pursued friendly relations with the United States, including a free trade agreement in December 2003. Through a more competent state government pursuing an effective set of social policies in education and health, successive Chilean governments have managed to reduce the poverty level from 42 percent in 1992 to roughly 14 percent in 2005. Chile has had sound economic management and been rewarded with impressive economic performance. Much of this success can be attributed to the adoption of the economic reforms associated with the widely criticized Washington consensus.

Lula da Silva, too, has presided over a Workers Party government in Brazil that demonstrates noteworthy fiscal discipline. Though his re-election was largely a result of income-transfer social programs (bolsa familiar) for the poor and Lula’s own personal charisma, his government has undoubtedly been friendly to the market. The prospect of another four-year term was welcomed by Washington and financial markets, including Wall Street. One wonders why Lula is regarded as a leftist political leader, while his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was considered a center-right president. Lula has essentially continued and built on the key measures implemented during Cardoso’s two terms in office. In the realm of economic and social policies at least, it is hard to identify dramatic differences. Still, Lula is seen as leftist and Cardoso as center-right. This stems largely from the history of Lula’s Workers Party and his own remarkable personal story, rising up from poverty to become a hugely popular union and political leader.

Economic Continuity

Similarly, the policy priorities of Uruguay’s first leftist government, under Tabare Vásquez, are hard to distinguish from those of the center-right administrations that preceded it. Economic policies have been very prudent, social spending has been held in check, and the fiscal deficit is under control. In addition, Vasquez, unlike his predecessors, is currently exploring a free trade deal with the United States. The government may appear leftist at a superficial level, but invoking that term is somewhat misleading. The finance ministers in place today in such countries as Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and even Argentina, which is sometimes seen as more radical because of its defiance of the international financial system, are as orthodox as those in centrist or rightist governments.

In the same way, it is difficult to argue that the change from Alejandro Toledo to Alan García in Peru reflects a shift to the left. García’s economic team, after all, is as conservative as was Toledo’s. García has lavished praise on the wonders of free markets and globalization. He and his party enthusiastically embrace the free trade deal with the United States (already approved by the Peruvian Congress, but not the U.S. Congress). Most Peruvians do not care whether García’s government is left, center or right, as long as it is competent and produces results (which would be a welcome contrast with his first, disastrous term).

A Different Daniel Ortega

One can even argue that the governments that form part of the red streak are not altogether left, in the traditional sense of the term. Nicaragua’s Ortega, for example, is no longer the wild-eyed revolutionary of the 1980’s, intent on confiscating private property. Instead, he has become a cynical, corrupt party boss, willing to make deals with anyone, even former enemies, provided they increase his own power. True, he is loyal to Castro and Chávez, but it seems almost certain that when faced with limited options for forging a viable government, Ortega will be a pragmatist.

Thus far even Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has been inconsistent in defining the main policy thrusts of his government. Some of his moves, like the nationalization and military takeover of the natural gas fields on May 1, 2006, have been quite radical. But a variety of circumstances, including pressure from Brazil and other countries with a stake in Bolivia, have forced Morales to govern in more pragmatic fashionwitness his decision not to go ahead with nationalization of the mining sector. Chávez’s influence in Bolivia may eventually diminish, as the Morales government explores its options and charts its own course. Bolivia, like other Latin American governments, is likely to resist unquestioned loyalty to any single ideological bloc. Rather, over time it will try to become independent, making alliances only when self-interest dictates.

Measuring Chávez as a Leader

Latin America’s perceived move to the left has been closely tied to the potential influence of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, which has been fueled by record oil prices. Chávez is indeed Latin America’s most influential leader today, not because his agenda is embraced and endorsed by other regional leaders, but because he has managed to set the terms of debate. To his credit, Chávez has put his finger on a fundamental grievance felt in Venezuela and throughout much of Latin America. It is no accident that Chávez emerged in Venezuela, the South American country that suffered two lost decades, with its national income dropping by over 40 percent in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Not surprisingly, Chávez’s relentless attacks on the increasingly corrupt, unresponsive and insulated traditional political order had great appeal and continue to account for part of his support today.

Still, despite an oil bonanza and weak political opposition, Chávez has not been able to devise effective solutions to Venezuela’s economic problems. A charismatic communicator who thrives on conflict and confrontation, Chávez does not excel in governingthe quality Venezuelans most need and want. The social programs, or misiones, put in place under Chávezfor literacy training, medical services, subsidized food and the likehave helped poor Venezuelans. But the government has not put in place solutions to the problem of poverty that will be sustainable in the long term. Unemployment levels are unchanged; and common crime, which disproportionately affects the poorest in the population, has increased. Moreover, the government has exhibited autocratic, authoritarian tendencies, reflected in an unprecedented concentration of power with virtually no checks and balances. For a region that favors democracy and is striving to make it work better, the model Chávez has constructed has little appeal.

It is even a stretch to characterize what Chávez has accomplishedor failed to accomplishas an example of leftist government. Ironically, notwithstanding his belligerent assaults on the Bush administration and his indictment of globalization and free trade pacts, Chávez has extensive commercial relations with the United States, which is the market for well over half his oil exports. (Peruvians and Colombians often quip that their friendly relations with Washington do not get them the full access to U.S. markets that politically hostile Venezuela enjoys because of its oil.) Chávez’s experimentan eclectic blend of authoritarianism, populism and militarism, sustained by high oil pricesis hardly captured by the term left.

Chávez’s now infamous speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2006, calling President Bush the devil, is also not a feature of the new breed of leaders in Latin America. Such language offends Latin American sensibilities and causes discomfort among other, supposedly friendly governments. It is instructive to contrast Chávez’s speech with those made by Lula, Bachelet, Kirchner and even Morales at the United Nations. The language of these leaders was much more moderate and conciliatory. Still, many in Washington fail to grasp that all Latin American governmentsregardless of political orientationwant more elbow room and distance from the United States, because their options for economic relationships have multiplied with globalization. It is less helpful to characterize this tendency as part of a shift to the left than as a product of global changes that challenge traditional notions of Latin America as the strategic preserve or backyard of the United States.

A Fundamental Social Agenda

Another fundamental orientation that has emerged from the current round of elections in Latin America is the growing importance of the social agenda in each country’s politics. Even where more conservative candidates won, like Felipe Calderón of the PAN party in Mexico, the results were clearly an expression of widespread discontent and frustration. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who rejected the neoliberal model of free markets and globalization and appealed to the frustration of the poor, especially in the south, nearly won the election. The results in Peru can be read in a similar way. Although García won, Ollanta Humala, the radical outsider candidate who attacked the political order and neoliberal economic model, received 48 percent of the vote, concentrated in the poorer, southern part of the country.

The electoral results in Mexico, Peru and other countries revealed tremendous popular anger and social polarization in Latin America. They should be wake-up calls for the newly elected political leadership. So far, no single model or alternative has taken hold in the region. Above all, Latin Americans want governments that combine economic growth with greater attention to the social agenda, governments that are both honest and effective. It is doubtful that using labels like left, red or pink will yield any clues as to how to heed such a popular and legitimate demand.

Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.