Montevideo, Uruguay, Feb. 28 – When tiny Uruguay inaugurates its new president here on Tuesday, it will make a clear break with the country’s past. After 150 years in which two moderate parties alternated in power, Uruguay’s five million people will have turned decisively to the left.
But more than that, the moment is fraught with symbolism for the region. Uruguay’s shift consolidates what has become the new leftist consensus in South America. Three-quarters of the region’s 355 million people are now governed by left-leaning leaders, all of whom have emerged in the past six years to redefine what the left means today.
They are not so much a red tide as a pink one. Doctrinaire socialism carries the day far less than pragmatism, an important change in tone and policy that makes this political moment decidedly new.
From Brazil to Argentina to Ecuador and Venezuela, while demonstrating important differences in style and substance, these new leaders are united in their conviction that the free-market reforms of the 1990’s have failed and by a renewed focus on egalitarianism and social welfare, but not to the point where it breaks the bank.
They are sympathetic to the symbols and rhetoric of the left’s revolutionary past, cozy with Fidel Castro, and frequently anti-American in their talk, but they continue to pursue economic policies that are favorable to American interests and sensitive to perceptions of Wall Street. None, for instance, would even think of nationalizing foreign-owned companies, as both Mr. Castro and Salvador Allende of Chile once did.
From one country and leader to the next, the governments can be described as representing similar “tendencies within a spectrum that allows for various colorations,” in the words of Gilberto Dupas, director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo.
Indeed, though many of the new leaders have roots on the revolutionary left, they now seem inspired less by Che Guevara than Felipe González, the Socialist who was formerly Spain’s prime minister. They have shown they are willing to play by the established rules of the game, even if it forces them to abandon cherished ideological goals.
That overriding pragmatism has left the Bush administration less overtly antagonistic to the trend than it might have been in another era, with the clear exception of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who is more fiery and provocatively populist than most.
Still, across the board, the attitude toward the United States has been one characterized by at least polite distancing, the case here and in neighboring Brazil and Argentina, as the economic reforms being rejected are closely associated with Washington and the financial institutions it backs, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“There is a growing consensus against the way the United States is using its power,” said Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarómetro, a Chilean public opinion firm that regularly conducts surveys of political attitudes around the continent. “Ten years ago that was an attitude typical of the elite, but now we see it across the board, regardless of class or level of education.”
That backlash has left these governments groping for a middle way between the unrestrained capitalism of the 1990’s – what Mr. Chávez invariably calls “savage neoliberalism” – and the earlier reliance on the state as the main engine of development.
To critics on the left, it reeks of a sellout. But others see it as maturing into the mainstream.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, for example, has followed the same policies of fiscal restraint and openness to foreign investment that he criticized as a candidate, and President Lucio Gutiérrez of Ecuador has maintained the policy of his predecessors, who adopted the dollar as the county’s currency.
Even Argentina, where President Néstor Kirchner has defied the I.M.F. and forced foreign creditors to take big losses on their debt holdings, has run up large budget surpluses
“You have to see much of what is said as good use of communications for the purpose of maintaining their popularity,” said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami. “It’s a domestic rhetorical game, but when they are put against the wall, they have to make pragmatic decisions.”
Now it is Uruguay’s turn, as this small country sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina marks the arrival in power of Tabaré Vázquez, a 64-year-old physician, and the coalition known as the Progressive Encounter/Broad Front/New Majority.
The new president proudly describes himself as a man of the left and says that his first actions in office will include restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and re-examining an investment treaty with the United States.
“We have changed because the world has changed,” said Senator José Mújica, the most prominent of the former Tupamaro guerrilla leaders who now preside over Congress here. “We live in a unipolar world in which attempts at socialism have failed and there are no alternatives. We have to take a pragmatic line.”
The doctor’s ascendance is indicative of the region’s sharp turnabout from a decade ago. At the outset of the 1990’s, “The Washington Consensus” – the name given to the recipe of open markets, privatization and stabilized budgets being pushed by the United States – seemed to have swept away everything before it. Voters were pleased to see inflation, a traditional bugaboo in the region, quickly brought under control and looked forward to other gains.
But over the past decade, freer trade and increased foreign investment have failed to narrow the gap between rich and poor and left millions of poor people outside the economy and looking in resentfully. Between 1998 and 2003, once inflation is taken into account, Latin America as a whole did not grow at all, according to International Monetary Fund figures.
As a result, in one country after another, the candidates who have been most successful in appealing to voters are those who, like Dr. Vázquez here, promise that the state will play a greater role and not leave the market to its own devices.
The egalitarian argument resonated particularly strongly here and in neighboring Argentina, two countries that were once middle class and have fallen on hard times in recent years. Once known as the “Switzerland of South America,” Uruguay enjoyed a European-style welfare state whose last remnants were stripped away in the crises of the 1990’s.
“What all of them have in common is that they favor measures to bring in the segment of the population that has thus far been excluded from the market,” Ms. Lagos said of the new leftist leaders. “That is combined with a massive rejection of the I.M.F. and the Washington Consensus.”
The shift is not without political consequence for the United States. With Washington still pushing free trade and economic liberalization, many South American nations have begun a flirtation with China in hopes of finding some kind of counterweight.
But their main, stated focus has been to try to encourage trade and integration with each other in a way similar to, though far less evolved than, the European Union.
Brazil and Venezuela in particular have been moving toward what Mr. da Silva described as a “strategic alliance” when he called on Mr. Chávez at midmonth.
During the visit, the two countries signed agreements that ranged from Brazilian financing of irrigation and subway projects in Caracas to a joint venture to build an auto lubricants plant in Cuba. Mr. Chávez also talked of “military cooperation” with Brazil and expressed interest in buying as many as 24 Brazilian-made patrol planes.
“Instead of the United States and Europe, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia,” Mr. Chávez said in explaining his trade preferences. “Even if it costs a bit more, it is necessary to make this a priority. It’s not a one-day deal, the gains will come over the long term.”