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State of the Left - Latin America

Latin America's left: the end of an era?

Arturo Franco - 13 November 2015

South America’s progressive wave has succumbed to the very forces is rose to fight against: authoritarianism, nepotism and greed

A wave of leftwing governments in Latin America raised hopes for social and economic progress, in what is still the world’s most unequal region. Today, however, the credibility and legacy of the progressive project is at risk, as it battles corruption, slowing growth, and leadership renewal.

After many decades of failed reforms, slow progress and bad economic results, an exceptional experiment began in Latin America at the turn of the 21st century. It took off as Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 – followed by Ricardo Lagos in Chile in 2000, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003. In quick succession, the victories of Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay in 2004, Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2006, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2007 made the trend irreversible. Before 2010, seven countries in South America, and two Central American nations, would be governed by left-leaning politicians. Latin America had turned to the left.

In many ways, the progressive experiment was very positive for the region. From the onset, extreme measures to tackle poverty were implanted, and success in this area is undeniable: more than 56 million people have been lifted out of poverty in these seven countries, according to the 2014 Human Development Report. Along with these social policies, important sectors of society who had previously been excluded, from indigenous groups, to urban popular movements, to trade unions, managed to regain political prominence. The World Social Forum, held every two years during the same week that global business leaders meet in Davos, served as a platform for tracking progress.

An interesting trait of this so-called ‘new left’ in Latin America was that it seemed to embrace capitalism and democracy, in what came to be seen as a more nuanced, and pragmatic, conception of development. Jorge Castañeda once referred to it as “a modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist” left. By doing so, most of these leaders distanced themselves from the previous surge of leftist governments in the region, one that began in 1959 with the Cuban revolution, and was followed by Salvador Allende Chile, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The world praised this new vision, and many of its protagonists, including Lula da Silva, Michelle Bachelet, and Uruguay’s ‘Pepe’ Mujica, rose to celebrity status.

But in the last couple of years, whether by corruption, poor performance, or political scandals, the popularity of most of these Latin American leftist governments has quickly declined. In Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, the magnitude of the corruption involving the state-owned Petrobras has been so great that the leftwing coalition in government has completely discredited itself. Today, even after more than 20 officials and top business executives have been jailed, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff still faces an opposition that wants to judge her politically.

Similarly, the socialist government of Venezuela faces a wide array of problems, which go from violence in the streets, to foodless supermarket shelves. According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation there will hit 159 percent this year, and the economy will shrink 10 per cent, the worst projected economic performance in the world this year. The country that dreamed of a better future under Hugo Chavez is now in the brink of collapse, with accentuated class conflict, corrupt party elites, and a failed economy.

Even Chile, by many accounts the most developed and successfully managed country in the region, has fallen pray to some of these evils. President Bachelet, who finished her first term in office with an impressive 84 per cent approval rating in 2010, is trapped in the middle of a corruption scandal that has seen her popularity plummet to less than 30 per cent. Revelations that her son used his political influence for personal gain have ended in a cabinet reshuffle, and there is widespread outrage over the influence of money in the South American country’s political system.

So what went wrong? We must note that many of these leaders came to power when the Chinese economy was booming, and thus, demand for raw materials from South America was an important driver of progress during these years. Today, as the world's second largest economy slows down, revenues from products that created a bonanza for these countries have fallen substantially. Economic woes are definitely at the heart of this crisis of confidence, but they are not the main source of discontent.

The core of the matter is that many of the issues that are currently undermining the credibility of these left-leaning governments are exactly those that the left had traditionally been fighting against: authoritarianism, nepotism, and greed. The modern ‘liberators’ such as Chavez, Morales in Bolivia, or even the PT party in Brazil, now seem to have become the new ‘state-capturers’ and autocrats.

What we are witnessing is the end of the progressive project in Latin America, at least until the next wave comes splashing in.

Arturo Franco is an economist, writer and entrepreneur. He has been a fellow at the Center for International Development, Harvard University, and the World Economic Forum. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London

A contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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12 November 2015 13:45

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