Left Behind? Venezuela Charts Course for Latin America’s New Left

Latin American voters have overwhelmingly supported Left political parties for a reason. The pragmatism of those parties, abandoning their ideological goals, has only been made possible by abandoning their constituencies. One key exception is Venezuela.

Early last week Latin America inaugurated its most recent in a long line of left-wing Presidents. Uruguay’s new leader Tabaré Vasquez heads a coalition of socialists, labour leaders, and former guerrillas, and has sparked considerable speculation among Latin America watchers up North.

At the turn of the 21st century, it appeared as though South American politics were steering hard port-side, with the elections of Ricardo Lagos (Chile), Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Lucio Guttierez (Ecuador), and Nestor Kirchner (Argentina). These leaders shared a more or less common rhetoric decrying the excesses of neoliberal economics and American intervention in the region. Yet since taking office, they have been hard-pressed to realize their campaign rhetoric.

Uruguay, the most recent addition to Latin America’s left-wing line-up, already has many analysts predicting another step in a preordained direction. “If all goes well,” said Uruguayan emerging market analyst Arturo Porzecanski recently to Uruguayan radio, “a Vázquez victory will reconfirm that leftwing governments are not the end of the world.” “Whether it is the Socialists in Chile or the Labour party in Brazil,” he continued, “the fact is that sensible policies live on.”

This analysis has become so prevalent, it led Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue analysts Michael Shifter and Vinay Jawahar to declare in last week’s Los Angeles Times that the “‘leftist’ label is by now an artificial construct that should be jettisoned.”

And in a sense, they are right: Latin American governments, like most governments elsewhere, have drifted towards a middle-ground, difficult to differentiate from their pro-market, pro-American predecessors, despite their left-wing credentials.

One tangible effect of this drift was revealed last summer, in a Latin America-wide poll conducted by the Chilean firm LatinoBarometro, according to which, Latin Americans have lost faith in democracy. On average, their faith declined 8 percentage points compared to 1996, falling to just 53%. The only country to significantly challenge that tendency was Venezuela, where faith in democracy increased to 74%, up 12 points over 1996 levels.

There is a connection between the value Latin Americans place on democracy in their respective countries and the apparent toothlessness of the region’s left-of-center governments: they’re masquerading under a false banner. Latin American voters have overwhelmingly supported Left political parties for a reason. The pragmatism of those parties, abandoning their ideological goals, has only been made possible by abandoning their constituencies.

A genuine Left still exists in Latin America, as it does in the United States and Canada, but it has been largely alienated by political parties and trade unions who elected to “play ball” with international financial institutions and the US State Department, rather than identify with the burgeoning resistance to globalization.

The mantle of the Latin American Left has largely fallen to the region’s social movements who have, for the most part, been successfully isolated from mainstream politics. One key exception is Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has made common cause with social movements, community organizations, and most importantly, the masses of unorganized Venezuelan poor.

Perhaps what most sets Chávez apart from his regional counterparts is the fact that, as a recent article in the Economist noted, since Chávez emerged victorious from two electoral contests in 2004 “some of his words are turning into deeds.”

Unlike other left-of-center governments in the region, Chávez has not abandoned the radical platform on which he was elected. Venezuelan voters have reacted, supporting the President in 9 electoral contests and referenda held in the last six years.

The result has been two-fold: First, the estimated 70% of Venezuelans currently living below the poverty line have been called back from their twenty-year political hiatus, once again being incorporated into a transformed political system that has placed a premium on local democratic structures. Second, the Chávez government has spent heavily on social programs from education and health care to subsidized food markets, articulating its clear rejection of neoliberal economic austerity. These two factors have combined to raise the standard of living of poor Venezuelans, and to encourage their participation in the country’s politics.

Critics argue that, while possible in Venezuela, such measures could never be transplanted to other countries in the region. Venezuela is unique, argue some, because its oil-wealth has, for the most part, kept its economy safely out of reach of international lending institutions, and because of a working-class army that does not identify with elite interests as closely as its brethren in countries such as Argentina and Brazil.

Though oil has obviously greased the wheels of Chávez’s reforms in Venezuela, the will to promote social change at the expense of antagonizing foreign and domestic big-business–and the United States–is what has made Chávez different. And neither oil, nor the specific demographics of the Venezuelan armed forces alone saved Chávez from a coup that briefly overthrew him in April, 2002. When he was restored to power 48-hours later, it was on a wave of popular support–loyal to Chávez because he had been loyal to them.

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