Many see the New Left spreading rapidly through Latin America today: Presidents Lula in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Tabaré Vasquez in Uruguay, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile are all considered part of the Left. Though they are often treated as part of the same phenomenon, these leaders are completely different from one another. And not all of them even represent the Left.
In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former trade union leader, used to say he would change “everything” when the Workers’ Party reached power. This did not happen. Lula has been governing Brazil for more than four years without any relevant change in official economic policy -- the same policy he used to call “neo-liberal.” What happened? Why did he change his mind instead of the policies he criticized?
The simple answer is this: Brazil changed first. One of our worst problems was hyperinflation. In July 1994, annual inflation reached an unbelievable 5.000% over twelve months. After that, the government’s stabilization plan established the right to a currency -- a real one. The Workers’ Party accused the Real Plan of merely adopting IMF ideas and submitting to the forces of globalization. However, it was a plan that made sense, calling for budget control, fiscal responsibility, inflation targeting, and free trade. Since then, voters have sent politicians a straightforward message: there are many things that should be changed, but not by sacrificing stability.
In Argentina, Nestor Kirchner organized economic chaos. More recently, however, he has been tempted by the old Peronist economic ideas that produced the hyperinflation tragedy of the late 20th century.
In Chile, a leftist coalition has held power since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and has never touched the pillars of his economic policy. In fact, under the “Concertación,” Chile’s commitment to global integration has deepened. The country is a success story -- a stable investment-grade economy that has maintained a high GDP growth rate and a significant reduction in poverty.
Venezuela’s problems are more complex. Hugo Chavez, a former military officer who first attempted to gain power through a coup d’état, is a dangerous politician. His primary objective is not to reduce poverty and inequality -- the traditional leftist platform -- but only to perpetuate his power. To achieve this goal he eliminates his opposition, constrains the free press and undermines democratic institutions. Chavez is an old-fashioned populist leader with old-fashioned economic ideas, such as price controls and breaking contracts. He is far distant from any new Left.
Bolivia’s Evo Morales represents the empowerment of an indigenous majority, kept marginalized since the beginning of the country’s history. Morales has the potential to be a new hope for Bolivia, but has decided to follow some of Chavez’s methods. It would be deplorable for Bolivia to lose this opportunity to change the country’s old power structures.
In Ecuador, Rafael Correa is putting his country’s future in jeopardy as he follows in Chavez’s footsteps. He has been aggressively restricting the opposition and undermining democratic rule. Correa is a young politician who emerged as a promising defender of rationality for a country that has had eleven governments in the last eleven years.
In Uruguay, alternatively, Vasquez is looking more to the Chilean model than to the Venezuelan.
There are many different pathways being pursued in Latin America, but the question is not about right versus left. This is an outdated political distinction. It is also not a case of backlash against globalization. The main struggle in Latin America has always been over how to build a strong and stable democracy that can help people fight poverty and inequality in a free society. In some countries, there is reason to be concerned about the fate of democracy.
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