Is Latin America's "New Left" Really New?

The rise of what some call the "New Left" in Latin America has
become an increasingly hot topic over the last decade. But what does it
really signify for the hemisphere? While some claim that these
left-leaning nations reflect just an aberrant phase in the
democratization process, others insist that this development is leading
to the very embodiment of enhanced freedom.

By Larry Birns and Montana James - COHA
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  • South American leftward shift here to stay?
  • Latin Business Chronicle's malpracticing prescription
  • Chávez is very different from Morales and Correa, though they all may face similar challenges.
  • What does the Uribe-Chávez flap portend?

The rise of what some call the "New Left" in Latin America has
become an increasingly hot topic over the last decade. But what does it
really signify for the hemisphere? While some claim that these
left-leaning nations reflect just an aberrant phase in the
democratization process, others insist that this development is leading
to the very embodiment of enhanced freedom, where citizens have the
opportunity for their voice to be heard, an education as well as a job
paying a living wage. The New Left movement seems to be taking a solid
hold in the region: close to 60 percent of its population live under an
elected leader who leans or is committed to the left of the political
spectrum. While Venezuela's Hugo Chávez may be attracting the most
media attention, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa are
following close behind the ideological tenacity that they bring to
governance and as a result, the region is witnessing transformative
changes which seem to be more real than ephemeral.

In an article last October, the Latin Business Chronicle
boldly argues that "To reverse Latin America's slide toward socialism,
the United States must increase its presence through additional support
for democratic, market-based institutions." Critics of this thesis
would say that the problem with this prescription is that it is more a
bromide than a call to arms in a righteous cause. The advice sketched
out by that business-oriented publication is that conventional wisdom
has it that private is better than public, that Enron and Parmalat put
to shame the Army Corps of Engineers and the Surgeon-General, and that
nations currently in the process of development most certainly should
follow an orthodox, endemic and political path similar to that of the
U.S. and the rest of the West. This advice in itself is similarly
flawed due its narrow definition and erroneous concept of the region's
contemporary context. In addition, the current debate, which the
previous sentiment is only part of, has been founded on an
all-too-narrow footing of controversial assumptions. These have led to
a series of vacuous generalizations that fail to provide any additional
clarity to a country that may be legitimately involved in current
polemics regarding developing ideological splits, no matter where it
finds itself on the spectrum.

Politics as Usual
Any relevant analysis of the "New Left" must take as a given that the
characteristics of each country are specific if not unique. The mistake
of taking such a high-visibility administration like that of
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and using it as a benchmark for like-minded
governments in the region, is made far too often; this appellation
commits a disservice if it is used to obscure the political gradations
of policy which distinguish one country from another and the depth of
those differences. It is important to counter this overly simplistic
tendency to amalgamate countries that challenge one aspect or another
of the bona fides behind Washington's regional policy but nothing else.
All the more so when the rest of the hemisphere is aggressively
reacting to Washington's failed neo-liberal economic medications, which
have dominated Latin America during the Clinton-Bush decades, and have
done it little service.

The Force that is Chávez
To some, Chávez's style of leadership bespeaks of authoritarianism, but
to others it etches an old-fashioned brand of populism that for long
has been the conventional diet of politics. In part, this may be
because the Venezuela strongman has built his base on policies that are
personalist rather than institutional. This is most discernable in his
proposed constitutional reforms that will be the subject of a
referendum next Sunday and which would put an end to all presidential
term limits, as well as extend the presidential term from six to seven
years and grant extended powers in the advent of a state of emergency,
to name a few of the scores of other changes. On October 23, riots
broke out in Caracas against these proposed constitutional changes, led
in large part by student groups coming from Caracas' major educational
institution, Central University, and other members of the middle-class
opposition. The marchers believe that Chávez's reforms, which have been
approved by the legislature and will be voted upon in the upcoming
December 2 referendum, are testing the outer limits of the country's
democratic system and must be stymied. Many of these same factions
earlier had protested the revisions to the education system which
critics claim would risk political indoctrinization, as well as the
earlier non-extension of the license of the rabidly anti-Chávez private
television station RCTV and the alleged politization of the armed
forces.

Nevertheless, what many critics fail to address is that Hugo
Chávez's concept of "21st Century Socialism" is not meant to resemble
the traditional form of a state-apparatchik-driven bureaucracy where
favoritism is the burning ember that provides the energy to the
political process. Rather, it is meant to be a potent mixture of
socialist economic with constitutionalist parliamentary politics. In
Gregory Wilpert's Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, Chávez
defends his political vision by claiming that: "There is no solution
within capitalism, one must transcend capitalism. Nor is it about
statism or state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the
Soviet Union, which was the cause of its fall. We must reclaim
socialism as a thesis, as a project and a path, but a new socialism.
Humanism, putting humans and not the machine ahead of everything, the
human and not the state."

Debate over the worthiness of Chávez's vision could be threatened
with obsolescence in light of recent events that could threaten his
grand design; perhaps a more relevant current question might be whether
the Venezuelan leader will continue to generate broad enough support
within his country as well as abroad to sustain and then amplify his
plans for his country's future, even if he is successful in nursing
their principle elements for now. The increased tension from protests
that plagued the streets of Caracas since the last days of October has
cast some doubt on whether Chávez possesses the knack to work public
relations in his favor. His weak point always has been more due to an
unstable style than a lack of substance; he easily is the most
innovative public figure operating in Latin America today, in addition
to being the most rambunctious.

The latest Chávez-style eruption occurred in his recent split with
President Uribe over Chávez's apparent violation of an agreement
between the two over the Venezuela leader's pledge that he would not
directly contact the command structure of the Colombian army. This
break-off could have an enormous ramification for US-Latin America
relations if Washington decides to meddle in troubled waters. Clearly
Uribe overreacted to Chávez's action, and may have been spoiling for a
fight, perhaps as an aspect of his strategy to influence the passage of
the proposed FTA by the US Congress—an issue that most likely will be
manipulated to achieve a trade matter which has been in trouble up to
now. Among the issues which COHA is researching right now regards the
grief that the break-off of efforts to achieve a release of the
hostages and internal pressures in Colombia for a resumption of
Chávez's humanitarian efforts there.

Chávez occupies an immensely important leadership role for Latin
America's left, but it is entirely unrealistic to expect any kindred
nation to follow in his exact footsteps. His critics maintain that he
is a missile whose guidance system sometimes fails with catastrophic
consequences; while often he can be counted on to win, he doesn't
always know what to do with his victory. While this might be a fairer
charge to bring against Lula, who has governed as a centrist after
running as a man of the Left, it certainly cannot be claimed as
accurately describing the Venezuelan leader. Chávez led the historic
outbreak in anger over the harsh structural adjustment policies which
were imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on
such recipients as Venezuela and Argentina. Strings attached to loans
emanating from these institutions allowed Chávez, with growing public
support behind him, to assume the role of protector of the common Latin
American and to arm him with the mission to lift his sword against the
towering international lending bullies. As a result, the Venezuelan
leader was able to generate an intense personal following while at the
same time, the middle class opposition, some of whom originally had
supported him, rapidly changed to despising his personage.

Bolivia's Indigenous Champion
The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has been bandwagoning on
Chávez's "Leftist" train, vocalizing contempt for U.S. policies towards
Latin America, while speaking out against Washington's outrageous
treatment of the Cuban Five and regularly siding with Caracas when it
came to condemning U.S. economic policies and its "imperialism." On
October 30, Prensa Latina
highlighted a Morales trip to Italy and reiterated his words that
Bolivia faces two types of enemies, "the internal ones represented by
oligarchic families, and the external one, namely the U.S.
imperialism." However, Morales' trademark position is his passionate
defense of indigenous rights, something distinct in focus from Chávez's
ideological predilections and not historically frequently found high up
in the agendas of Latin American leaders.

Like Chávez in Venezuela, as well as Rafael Correa in Ecuador,
Morales has been spearheading an effort to fashion a new constitution
for his country. This document would guarantee indigenous
representation in congress as well as recognize the right to communal
property. However, since the Constitutional Assembly began working on
the new constitution in August of 2006, it has ended up at a dangerous
standstill. The process has been bogged down by the battle between the
nation's commercial and political center of La Paz and the colonial
city of Sucre, as to which of these urban centers would be the
country's capital (see "Capital Wars" by COHA Research Associate
Cassidy Rush). Amid the bitter racial overtone between the largely
indigenous-populated western highlands and the more Europeanized
flatlands surrounding Santa Cruz, this struggle was more than symbolic.
Fortunately for Morales, he just managed to finally get the Assembly
seated after months of delay.

As these roadblocks illustrate, the current state of affairs in
Bolivia is too divided to allow for the same type of evolution that
Venezuela and even Ecuador have been attempting. This is where the
similarities between Chávez and Morales cease. Whereas Chávez has
created a movement around his persona, Morales saw an existing social
movement and made it his cause. Thus, the confrontation in Bolivia is
less about Morales and more about the structure of the social movement
he is trying to mount. His status of peasant, farmer, union leader and
indigenous is what helped carry him to the presidency, and not
necessarily any charisma or high soaring political rhetoric.

Another Constituent Assembly
While Hugo Chávez in Venezuela may have initiated this generation's
leftward canter in Latin America, with Evo Morales closely following,
Rafael Correa of Ecuador is the most recent Latin American president to
unleash reforms, that also are worthy of being branded with the "new
left" emblem. Through a series of highly publicized moves, Correa is
distancing Ecuador from Washington, without altogether breaking ties.
Upon being elected president, he chose Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative
for the Americas (ALBA) over continuing Free Trade talks with the U.S.,
and also has firmly maintained that he will not renew an agreement that
allows U.S. forces to continue to use the controversial Manta airbase
for its anti-drug efforts, after the lease has run out in several
years. But perhaps the most contentious of all of Correa's actions as
president has been his determination for the Constituent Assembly,
which was created as a result of his referendum victory to draft
another new constitution—the 19th in Ecuador's 180 years of existence.

In April, the referendum on the creation of the Constituent Assembly
passed and on September 30th, the country elected members to that body.
Correa's PAIS Party won 80 of the 130 seats, giving it an outright
majority. Many speculated that this favorable tally would translate
into an easy road for Correa, since he would be largely spared the
insuperable political roadblocks that Morales was facing in Bolivia.
However, this is only where the battle began. Correa's plans for the
dissolution of Congress have met unexpectedly harsh opposition from
many of its members. As Correa continues to call for resignations of
certain legislators, the Ecuadorian congress continues to scramble for
outside support. In late October, indigenous groups marched on the
capital demanding the recall of congress, citing that the body was a
hotbed of corruption, and a pawn of foreign corporations.

The Constituent Assembly belatedly has begun the vexatious process
of drafting a new constitution; following its completion, it will be
the subject of another referendum. However, according to a poll by Cedatos/Gallup International,
the general public's awareness of the plans for the new constitution is
hardly profound. Only 34 percent of the respondents actually knew what
the ultimate goal of the Assembly was supposed to be, as was broached
in the April referendum: 66 percent thought that it would do such
things as "reform laws," "end corruption," and "lower prices." These
statistics do not provide the international community much confidence
in the seriousness or the effectiveness of the process. So is this a
case of apathy on the part of average Ecuadorians, or is it a matter of
a hidden agenda on the part of the government? This is where many
critics of the leftward shift begin to be worried, as they fear that
the line between this new movement and a quick transformation into an
authoritarian regime or dictatorship could be all too easy to cross. It
is not that Chavez, Morales, or Correa have exhibited even the smallest
dollop of preference for dictatorial rule over a thriving democracy,
but that the dynamics of confrontation inadvertently produce such
visceral consequences. Unfortunately, despite all of the oratory to the
contrary, Correa, to his great frustration, has not been able to close
the gap between the actual steps being taken by the government and its
future intentions and the public's awareness of them.

Leave it to Evolution?
Blindly lumping Correa and Morales in with Chavez could wrack up heavy
costs in terms of accuracy and sensitivity to nuances. It may also be a
mistake to seek congruency with the country's various factions when
great importance lies in the differences that deserve to be
acknowledged and ventilated. While other Latin American leaders
recognize that Hugo Chavez is extraordinarily open to generously
sharing his nation's wealth by aiding his less well-endowed neighbors,
through his petrol-dollar diplomacy, not all of them are entirely
enthusiastically behind these efforts. Unlike Chavez, both other
presidents have opted to remain in the Andean Community of Nations
(CAN) when Venezuela left in 2006, in favor of signing onto Mercosur.
At the time, the Venezuelan leader announced that CAN was dead as a
result of Peru and Colombia's pending Free Trade Agreements with the
U.S. Now the tide has somewhat shifted, however, as Correa and Morales
continue to resist entering into FTA's with the U.S. and are fighting
to keep CAN alive and perhaps link it with Mercosur. By aligning with
an administration with the resources that are available to someone like
Chavez, Morales and Correa are able to cash in on the implicit rewards
that can follow from such a relationship not just of convenience, but
also of solidarity, while still being able to maintain their
independence and keep their own unique goals in sight, is no small
matter.

The unusually dour fate of leftist movements in Latin America rarely
has given optimists much grounds for hope over their longevity. Yet it
can be argued that there may never have been a time where socialism's
modest prospects are so bright as they are in contemporary Latin
America. This could be an important juncture in the region's history,
and whether you would rather term it "populist," "leftist," "New Deal,"
or socialist, it is undeniable that the "new left" movement in Latin
America is presently a force majeure, at least for the near future.
Previous U.S. policies have done little to alleviate the region's
griefs, and quite often have accelerated them.

The populist precursors to the presidencies of Chávez, Morales, and
Correa, like Maurice Bishop of Grenada, Salvador Allende of Chile, and
Michale Manley of Jamaica, in addition to Getúlio Vargas of Brazil,
Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, all had
their differences at the time over how to unite around the common goal
of affirming their nation's independence while, ultimately, encouraging
further genuine development. Whatever insights one may hold regarding
where Latin America is now headed, and whatever the personal demurrers
one may hold, it does not appear to be merely more of the same.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Associate Montana James