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Latin America: In Search of the New Left


Most Latin Americans, say observers, have turned their backs on authoritarianism, but the region is now swept by a new wave of populism. About 300 of the 365 million people in Latin America live under leftist governments. Latin Americans seem disenchanted with democracy.

Thirty years ago, authoritarian regimes dominated Latin America's political landscape and many observers were skeptical about the prospects for reform. By the end of the 1990s, virtually every country in the region had experienced a transition to democracy. And despite economic problems, gaping social inequalities, crime, corruption and weak judicial and representative institutions, most Latin American democracies have proven to be durable.

Yet according to a recent survey taken in 18 countries - from Mexico to Argentina - only about a half of Latin Americans are committed democrats. The poll, conducted by Latinobarometro, a leading Latin American survey organization based in Santiago, Chile, also shows that only one in three citizens approve of the way democracy works in their countries.

Many analysts, including Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, are troubled by the continent's move toward the left. Mr. Llosa warns that new social movements and leftist parties have reappeared with unparalleled strength.

Revisiting Populism

He says, "Populism is coming back to Latin America. We thought we had gotten rid of it at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, but it's coming back with force. And it is going to be a major component of Latin American politics and economics in the next few years. This is not the type of populism that should be very welcomed. I don't think it is going to create the types of prosperous societies that we want in Latin America."

Mr. Llosa, author of the new book, Liberty for Latin America: How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression, adds that today's populist leaders practice a new style of authoritarianism tailored to the age of democracy. For example, he says, the most extreme new populist leader in the region, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, controls his country's legislature, the Supreme Court, the armed forces and the main revenue source, the oil industry, while tolerating an active opposition, a vigorous free press and a lively civil society.

Other observers look at the growing leftist movement in Latin America in economic terms. Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says the leftward turn of many of these countries is a backlash to failed economic reforms and policies prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s.

A Period of Stagnation

Analyst Mark Weisbrot argues, "You've had this 25-year period now, which is the worst economic failure in Latin American history by any measure, even by economic growth. There has been very little growth, about 10 percent in terms of income per person since 1980. If you compare that to the 82 percent that the economy grew from 1960 to 1980, you can see why you had all these elections where the same theme prevailed. You've had these candidates in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, Ecuador, and most recently in Bolivia, where they all ran against what they call 'neo-liberalism,' which is the word that people use for the last 25 years of economic reforms."

The new populist leaders, says Mr. Wiesbrot, put strong emphasis on social egalitarianism and rely less on policies of fiscal and monetary discipline favored by the IMF and the United States.

Empowering the Poor

Carol Graham of The Brookings Institution in Washington points out that those reforms in the 1980s did not address the region's age-old social barriers and injustices. According to Ms. Graham most leftist leaders in Latin America do not reject reforms and are learning by example from what are often called the 'New Left' leaders in Europe.

She says, "There is a very strong and a sound leftist movement that is very committed to markets and democracy. And most of these leaders are also pro-free trade. So it is really very hard to say that they are implementing some unique model as much as trying to implement a market-friendly set of policies that also address unmet social needs in the region. You have a very similar kind of trend with Filip Gonzales in Spain and Tony Blair in Britain. This is kind of a 'New Left'."

Ms. Graham, Co-Director of The Brookings' Center on Social and Economic Dynamics, adds populist victories at the ballot box in recent years are a sign of the growing assertiveness of Latin America's numerous poor.

Holding Leaders Accountable

But most analysts warn that the institutions of democracy are weak and imperfect throughout the region. According to the Latinobarometro survey, only 26 percent of the respondents said that citizens in their countries are equal before the law, only a quarter expressed faith in their legislatures and courts, and only one-fifth trust political parties, which are viewed by many as corrupt vehicles that cater to elites. However, the poll shows that a majority of Latin Americans believe that market economies are essential.

Marta Lagos, Executive Director of Latinobarometro, notes that voters are increasingly holding their political leaders accountable.

"It's a more educated population”, she says. “It's a population that is not going to support a bad government. Fourteen presidents have been kicked out of office in the last ten years in Latin America. Not a single military is there. And those 14 guys who have been kicked out of office were somehow populists. So it shows that being elected, as a populist is not enough. It is the end of what we have called the 'honeymoon' period because people want results straight away."

Ms. Lagos says Latin Americans will not easily revert to authoritarianism, even in difficult times. But she adds that in a region where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and is burdened with deep-rooted social, cultural and even language barriers, democracy building will be slow.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.