On Politics: The Left in Latin America

Posted on October 4th, by Kyra Choucroun in Features. 2 comments


Kyra Choucroun is one of the founders of The Gopher Illustrated and a political fiend (try and stop her, we dare you!)  Her interests range from International Political Economy to Development and Conflict resolution. Fresh out of a Masters from the London School of Economics, K-fresh is hard at work at an internship in the UK. A native of Venezuela and a dweller of everywhere else, Kyra has spent most of her life explaining away the intricacies and misunderstandings of international politics to… well… everyone. This article is no different – it is, however, her take on things with all the implications a personal perspective carries. We welcome and encourage a healthy dialogue on the matter, for which we invite you to use the comments below. To any and all who will question K in the future, look forward to a link with a formal response – while she is a very busy woman, K is no slouch.

Latin America is turning to the left – this much is widely known. It is, however, a phenomenon that carries with it rather complex qualities, primarily the chasm between two very differing modes of leftist politics. One “left,” championed primarily by Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay, is akin to a moderate, social-democratic kind. Its positive characteristics lie in its ability to reconstruct itself via the recognition of the mistakes created by its ideological models, primarily the former Soviet Union and Cuba.

The other, less orthodox type of “left” is populist. Ruled on the forefront today by Venezuela’s Chavez, and followed very strongly by Morales in Bolivia and Kirchner in Argentina, it is trapped in ideological admiration for its forefathers.

A Different Shade of Red?

The reconstructed left is best exemplified in Chile. A respect for democratic institutions, in fusion with social policies is a formula for success. A region plagued by corruption and authoritarian tendencies has as its model a country which managed to trump ideology with historical legacy.

Michelle Bachelet, along with her profitable coalition of Old Socialist Party and the Christian Democrats, has been able to generate high economic growth and improve on several social issues.

A model to its Latin American counterparts, Chile’s history of dictatorships and intransigent economic policies did not prevent its rise as a successful and growing nation: the country managed to surpass the traumatic political legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship whilst significantly reducing poverty and achieving remarkable improvements in both infrastructure and education.

In Brazil, correspondingly, there exists the same successful coalescence of old socialist tendencies with new, innovative macroeconomic policies. President Lula’s ability strictly to follow IMF requirements has been of paramount importance in Brazil’s recent success. Its economic stability, accentuated by its yearly production of quite an extraordinary fiscal surplus, demonstrates Brazil’s successful fusion of traditional socialist principles with rather orthodox economic policies.

Without abandoning socialist principles, however, Lula developed the “Zero Hunger” initiative, a creative manifestation combining ideology with political practicality. In addition, Lula devised the “Bolsa Familia” welfare program (“Family Scholarship” in English), which entails direct cash transfers to poor Brazilian families strictly on the condition that the children attend school and acquire vaccinations. Modeled on Mexico’s “Oportunidades” program, Bolsa Familia is the largest and most extensive conditional cash transfer initiative in the world.

Lastly, Uruguay is, to some extent, another illustration of the dichotomy. Quite the prodigy, it has the lowest poverty rate, as well as low levels of inequality – an accomplishment in the most unequal continent in the world.

Vazquez is borrowing from the old and combining it with the new, a strategy with the potential of producing positive results. This is exemplified not only by Uruguay’s mature relationship with the United States, but also by its ability to resist some of its counterparts’ ideological warfare on neo-liberalism.

Populism Returns

The resurrection of populism in Latin America is spearheaded by one man: Hugo Chavez. His demagogic, anti-USA and authoritarian nature aims at “decontaminating” the region of neo-liberalist tendencies. Its results can be seen in the ongoing deterioration of Venezuela’s situation: from 1997 to 2003, GDP shrank 45 percent, while the national currency, the Bolivar, dropped 292 percent from 1998 to 2005.

Argentina and Bolivia are no different: Nestor Kirchner was a die-hard Peronist who defaulted on IMF loans, while Morales is a populist in the purest form, with plans to nationalise the country’s assets.

Argentina, however, judging from the recent election results, seems poised towards a more practical view of socialism. Although Cristina de Kirchner cites good relations with Venezuela’s Chavez, she seems focused on improving her country’s education and public health system.

Despite her Peronist background, her idea of “social and inclusive” capitalism is characteristic of a more pragmatic economic policy under which the country is more likely to positively contribute to the region. She expressed this view in an exclusive interview with Time Magazine: “We’re not averse to capitalism. But if they used to say, ‘Workers of the world unite!’ then we also say today, ‘Capitalists of the world, assume your social responsibility!’” This is akin to Lula’s popular view of the economy, and one he is successfully implementing.

El Salvador Goes Red

Mauricio Funes is to El Salvador what Hugo Chavez Frias was to Venezuela ten years ago. Here is a popular, charismatic, electable and self-declared man of the people delivering a potent political message: El Salvador is for El Salvadorians, not the big business interests allegedly protected by the two decade rule of the right. Undoubtedly, the late Sunday night victory of the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a party largely composed of former Marxist guerrillas, marks a monumental shift in the country’s bloody history. Nationally, and most superficially, it signifies an ideological change marked with both populist and communist rhetoric. Regionally, the election results are a blatant triumph for the left axis spearheaded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. His incessant presence throughout the campaign, mainly via endorsements, is only one sign of his role in the eventual catapult of the left to power. The picture, however, need not be a grim one. 
All the while Rodrigo Avila’s right wing party has been successful in maintaining some sense of social stability and creating an environment conducive towards business and investment, growth has since 1999 been below 3 percent, starkly low compared to most of its Latin American neighbours. The party, despite several social initiatives, has a disappointing record in alleviating the grievances of El Salvador’s poor. Gang violence, drugs, and tin shacks disguised as housing all continue to plague San Salvador’s most destitute areas. A change in policy was clearly in need in a country ripe with not only social ills but also the remnants of a 12 year long civil war. 
Is this a good change for El Salvador? It can be. The new leadership, although feared by many will become a communist satellite and align itself with the vociferous camp led by Chavez, can in fact become a hopeful chapter in El Salvador’s history. Its promises to begin afresh with the United States and remain faithful to a free trade agreement instated by the previous government is a fine start. During the campaign, Funes also alluded to framing his own policies according to Brazil’s Lula Da Silva, a highly positive development judging by the country’s success in assuaging political divisions and placing the country on a veritable path towards an auspicious economic future. Whether these were simply campaign tactics designed to temper fears of extremism remains yet to be seen.

Economically, the victory spells a different story. El Salvador’s growth was sacrificed by conservative party’s importance on stability rather than clear macroeconomic principles. In 2001, El Salvador undertook the dollar as its currency, at the cost of employment and production. The fact that 18 percent of its gross national product (GDP) is composed of remittances from abroad will constrain the new government’s ability to stimulate growth, especially as the global recession crashes in with full force. 
El Salvador on Sunday night could have been mistaken for a scene in any Chavista rally in Caracas – shirts, minivans, and faces all clad in red, illustrating an unquenchable thirst for the end of what in their minds has been a stagnant and corrupt rule. What happens next is clearly up to the Salvadorians – they can cleverly follow the example of their Brazilian neighbour, or they can destructively immerse themselves in the demagogic leadership of its less clever neighbour, Venezuela. Only time will tell.

Ideology vs. Pragmatism

It is vital to take notice of the fact that socialist policies are not necessarily a path to destruction; the ideas upon which they are contingent are essential in every political system to compensate for the distortions resulting from capitalist development. The populist-propelled kind of left, however, ignores the “compensation” element of the rule, trying to destroy all modes of capitalism, thus eliminating the prospect of beneficial social and economic progress.

The political, economic, and social progress of any region is based on its ability to create a stable balance between its allegiance to ideology and pragmatism. The left dichotomy present in Latin America is creating a two-camp sort of Western Hemisphere – not conducive to a constructive political climate.

If the region were united rather than strictly partitioned into two separate ideologies, the sense of alienation Latin America has experienced would lessen, and would provide an opportunity for Latin America to fulfill its potential as a powerful, promising, and vigorous region. Some in the region have already taken the initiative to detach themselves from the negative effects of past ideology. It is time that the rest follow in the same propitious direction.

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