Political polarisation in Latin America
European social democrats should look to Latin America for broad lessons from the struggles for redemocratisation and emergence from economic crisis
Anyone who has strolled through the streets of Buenos Aires, Valparaiso or Mexico City will recognise the architectural influence that Europe has had in Latin America. But the Conquest left a colonial legacy that is also institutional, cultural, and political. Even the struggles for independence in the nineteenth century were reactions to, and heavily influenced by, events in Europe. The newly independent Latin American states, and especially their elites, kept looking towards the continent for ideological and political ideas.
Obviously, this meant that the political struggles were imported as well: liberals versus conservatives, church versus secularity, capitalists versus socialists, etc. Despite the clear Latin American and national contexts in each of these cases, European DNA is evident in the political parties, the ideologies, the models of development and public policy throughout the region.
Most recently we have adopted 'fashionable' development models, from the neoliberalism and privatisation of the 1980s and 90s to the third way of the late 90s and 2000s. In this last case, however, Latin America took two routes: the Bolivarian route (led by Hugo Chavez' incarnation of a new leftist paradigm) on the one hand, and on the other, the social democratic route (represented by the likes of Lula, Lagos, Bachelet and Vázquez).
The latter group was sympathetic to, yet slightly wary of, European notions of a third way.
But ultimately, the third way was overtaken by events. The international financial crisis of 2008 brought down the few remaining social democratic governments in Europe. Worse still, a sense of guilt overcame European social democracy, which whilst in power had been unable to contain the excesses of international capital markets. Its credibility in opposition, therefore, when claiming to be the solution to the crisis, seemed damaged, to put it mildly.
A similar weakness afflicted Latin American social democracy, as politics has become increasingly polarised between left and right. Whilst the Bolivarian model expanded beyond Venezuela and Cuba to include Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and, to some extent, Argentina and Paraguay; at the other end of the spectrum right-of-centre governments took over in Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Panama, Chile and Honduras.
Alongside this political upheaval, social democrats remain in office in Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Uruguay.
In the face of this bleak electoral situation, Francois Hollande's victory in France is important, and not just because it represents hope of a turnaround in electoral fortunes. It is a victory at the expense of a very particular kind of new right, one which combines media-savvy populism, pragmatic social policy (which confuses and siphons off social democratic voters), a terribly dangerous xenophobic discourse, and close relationships with financial and business interests (not unlike those which have emerged in Chile under president Sebastian Piñera).
Hollande has the responsibility to remind Europeans what social democracy has to offer, particularly as it continues to climb out of economic hardship. It would be unfortunate if he were simply to become the candidate that defeated Sarkozy. He has to create a new approach for tackling the crisis, one that combines audacity with responsibility. Austerity is not the solution, but neither is reckless management of the economy nor autarchy. In building a new approach, he could do worse than to look to Latin America. Latin American social democracy, the heir to a long European tradition, today has much to show its European counterparts.
Social democracy led the struggle for redemocratisation in the 1980s, leaving behind radicalism and violence, thereby gaining the voters' trust. As the region at the time was itself, like Europe today, emerging from economic crisis, social democrats in Latin America also had to earn the trust of investors, and learned to maintain their core values whilst embracing sound fiscal management. Latin American social democracy resisted populism, whether from the left or from the right. And as it emphasised poverty reduction as well as economic growth, voters felt that their governments cared for and listened to their needs.
These qualities resulted in successful and popular governments such as those of Lula, Lagos, Roussef, Bachelet and Vazquez.
That was the Latin American model. But given the depth of the European crisis, those measures may indeed be insufficient. Citizens expect more. In taking care of basic economic needs, social democracy was always about infusing democracy with basic social policy such as education and health care. In Europe, facing challenges from extremes in France, Greece, and elsewhere, social democracy must recommit and work towards a healthier democracy as well. In this, Latin America has some lessons to share, and still, many things to learn as well.
A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics
Robert Funk is professor of political science and deputy director at the University of Chile’s Institute for Public Affairs
Francisco Javier Díaz is a Senior Fellow at CIEPLAN