After a decade of flirtation with economic liberalism, Latin America is veering to the left. Elections in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua have all produced populist, left-leaning governments of varying hues. And "progressive" social policy is not far behind. Legislators are busy liberalising laws on abortion and the morning-after pill. Some could follow the lead of Spain and promote gay marriage and homosexual rights. Like many other countries, Latin America surfing a "progressive" wave. What is going on?
In South America there are now seven countries with leftist governments. Hugo Chavez won handily in Venezuela recently and Brazilians confirmed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for a second four-year term. In Central America, Nicaragua elected a revolutionary Sandinista, Daniel Ortega. And Ecuador has just chosen a friend of Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa.
Political analysts agree that Latin American voters are fed up with the liberal model of economic development which was popular in the 80s and 90s.
"Each country has suffered a different kind of failure in its reform process. Chile after having a long dictatorship; then, Menem’s failure in Argentina, the same for Lacalle, Sanguinetti and Batlle in Uruguay, Cardoso in Brazil — actually, a lesser failure — and the big failure of the traditional parties in Venezuela," says Argentine analyst Pedro Isern from the Centre for Openness and Development in Latin America.
Claims of the poor
According to Uruguayan historian and professor of international politics Alberto Márquez, the first reason for a left-wing resurgence is the failure of the traditional parties. "Venezuela’s case is very interesting," he told MercatorNet. "The right had been wearing out until it disappeared. Then, there was no other option apart from the election of Hugo Chávez. Something similar has happened in Uruguay, but not so radical as in Venezuela."
Also at work were opposition to capitalism, continuing inequality, on-going instability and anti-Yanquismo. Latin America is said to have the highest levels of income inequality in the world. With Caribbean countries included as well, more than 120 million are poor and 97 million extremely poor. "If you look at the poor areas in the cities, you will notice that they were the responsibility of past governments", says Márquez. Consequently, the left grew in fertile soil over the last 15 years. "The worries and claims of the poor have become a part of the policy scene," says the BBC.
The shift is also a matter of generational change. Fabián Bosoer, writing in the Argentine newspaper Clarín, has stressed an "inescapable" biographical factor: "The leftist leaders and the groups of men and women who came from the 60s and 70s guerrilla fighters — and their children — were victims and survivors of repression and dictatorship, resistance and exile." As well, the first generation without a first-hand knowledge of the Cold War era have now entered national politics. Disenchanted with the right, voters have decided to give the left a chance.
Varieties of leftism
But, what sort of leftist is governing Latin America today? There have been several varieties over the last 15 years. According to The Economist‘s Michael Reid, they range from liberal democrats to populists. Chile and Uruguay are examples of one extreme and Venezuela and Bolivia the other, with while Brazil and Argentina are sailing between the two.
"We can see the difference between two clear left extremes in South America: Chile and Venezuela," says Pedro Isern. "The Chileans have constructed a proper democracy with a consensus and a market economy. In Venezuela you can see a vicious inner circle of left-wing disagreement. The left hasn’t reformed; it is pure Chavism, a path which is even a bit fascist."
Anti-American sentiment, which has worked well for decades, plays a role, too. "It is the stance against the United States which allows one to group a heterogeneous and assorted panorama of national experiences," says Clarin. However, not every leftist government spurns Washington. Chile and Peru are happily dealing with the US to open up a free trade agreement. "That anti-Yanquismo is an old-fashioned idea without a future," says Professor Márquez.
‘Progressive’ social legislation
In a globalised world it is inevitable for Latin America to feel the temptation of Spain’s "progressive" stand on abortion, divorce, same sex "marriage" and morning-after pills.
Chile, a country with a strong Catholic tradition and model for every Latin American nation in economic growth, has made a sharp turn in this direction after the election of Michelle Bachelet. Morning-after pills are already in the shops and there is a committee of the government which is willing to allow their sale to the under-16s without medical prescription or parental permission. However, the Chilean parliament has just rejected the legalisation of abortion and, after a campaign by Catholic institutions, youth associations and pro-life legislators, the Constitutional Tribunal has accepted the need to assess whether the morning-after pill is really abortifacient.
Same-sex marriage is also on some countries’ agendas. In Mexico, the Legislative Assembly, which is dominated by socialists, approved a controversial Life Together Societies law that allows same-sex partners to establish a "common home". However, a progressive approach towards life issues is not a monopoly of left-wing parties. In Colombia, under the conservative President Álvaro Uribe, such legislation has become common.
Not everything is bad news on this front. Nicaragua recently passed a law banning abortion for any reason — with the agreement of former Marxist Daniel Ortega. In Peru, the Superior Court of Justice has recognized the negative effects of the morning after pills and suspended free delivery in public hospitals, at least for a year. And in Uruguay, despite pressure from feminists, the socialist president, Tabaré Vázquez, has promised to veto any law legalising abortion.
Pedro Dutour writes from the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo.