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Is the Latin American Left Dead?

From Brazil to Argentina, the region is moving right. But one nation shows a path forward for the left.

Victor Moriyama / Getty Images

“Latin America Leans Left,” announced a 2006 story by the Associated Press, listing one election victory after another by a leftist presidential candidate. The beginning of the twenty-first century was the dawn of a new era in South America, a moment of unprecedented political transformation—“not so much a red tide, but a pink one,” wrote Larry Rohter of The New York Times. Between 1999 and 2008, leftist and center-left leaders took office in Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay. While the rest of the world reeled from the economic fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, South America was going strong. “Why the Left Keeps Winning,” a 2009 opinion piece in The Guardian, described a continent “more democratic than ever,” riding high on economic growth. 

While these leftist governments were diverse, they shared a vision that privileges social justice and repudiates, to varying extents, the so-called Washington Consensus: the neoliberal recipe of smaller government, privatization, and open markets. The turn to the left at the start of the century augured new possibilities. According to leftist leaders, “counter-hegemonic” alliances would be consolidated, freeing the region from the yoke of U.S. domination. In economic matters, alternatives to orthodoxy and austerity would prevail. South America had become “the weakest link in the world’s neoliberal chain,” Brazilian sociologist Emir Sader declared in 2008.

Today, the picture looks radically different. A chapter in South America’s political and social history is drawing to a close. Leftist governance has ended in one South American nation and appears to be waning in at least four others. Center-right Mauricio Macri was elected president of Argentina in November, ending twelve years of leftist rule by the Kirchners. In Venezuela, Chavismo is crashing, the opposition having achieved a landslide legislative victory in December, dealing a blow to President Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez’s handpicked successor. Ecuador’s radical economist president, Rafael Correa, announced in December that he will step aside at the end of his term. He faces sinking approval ratings and a contracting economy. In Bolivia, Evo Morales remains mired in a political-sexual scandal involving a young woman with whom he had a child. He lost a referendum in February that would have allowed him to seek a fourth presidential term. Meanwhile, an estimated 1 million people have taken to the streets of cities across Brazil to oust leftist leaders, including President Dilma Rousseff, whom the lower house of Congress on Sunday voted to impeach (the case now goes to the Senate). According to a 2015 report by the Chile-based Latinobarómetro, the world’s lowest satisfaction levels with how democracy functions are found in Latin America. Government approval ratings have fallen precipitously in recent years. So has faith in political institutions.

What happened? Some say the Latin American left failed to deliver on its promises, while others say it’s a victim of broader economic forces. As for the left’s future, some claim there isn’t one. In The New York Times last month, Jorge Castañeda, a political scientist and former foreign minister of Mexico, announced the death of the left. That’s premature—and one country in the region has shown how to have a sustained leftist leadership in the face of economic challenges.

Defining “the left,” and populism in particular, is notoriously difficult on a continent as diverse as it is vast. “I’m not even sure if it’s one of those categories that can be handled with the Potter Stewart ‘I know it when I see it cliché,’” says Patrick Iber, a historian at the University of Texas at El Paso. He added in an email, “Leaders who are described by others as populists don’t define themselves as that; they generally speak of ‘twenty-first-century socialism’ or something along those lines.” 

Social scientists, who tend to explain the world using typologies, have devoted considerable energy to cataloguing who and what exactly belongs on the left. The most important work on the subject is an old one: Castañeda’s Utopia Unarmed. Writing in 1993, after the return of democracy to the region and at the end of the Cold War (a moment of confusion, when Marxist movements lost their Soviet lodestar and import-substitution industrialization, the dominant development strategy since the 1950s fell out of favor), Castañeda charted a new course for the left. He identified “two lefts” in Latin America. One, he argued, shares the aspirations and values of Europe’s social democrats. It wants a welfare state, accepts the logic of the market, shuns revolutionary change, and has made peace with U.S.-led globalization. The other, according to Castañeda, is the populist left, whose rhetoric is strident and nationalist. It “loves power more than democracy” and uses Open Veins of Latin America, the 1971 anti-imperialist text, as a playbook in international affairs. Chávez would become the standard bearer of Castañeda’s “wrong left.” 

Not only did Castañeda’s tone strike many as too moralistic, but also his theory of “two lefts” has been debunked time and again, most recently by Iber in Dissent this winter. There are reformers and revolutionaries in every wing of the left, we now know, and political life is just too varied to conform to the neat boundaries of one dichotomy. But Castañeda’s question, “What kind of left?,” is still relevant today, especially as one cycle of populist governance comes to an end and disillusionment with leftist leaders has grown. “The left lost more than the right won,” says Raanan Rein, a professor of Latin American and Spanish history and vice president of Tel Aviv University. “It wasn’t that Macri became so popular,” Rein explains of Argentina’s new president, “it was simply that his predecessors, the Kirchners, destroyed Peronism,” Argentina’s working-class nationalist movement. The old right isn’t making a comeback. Rather, the left no longer enjoys majority support.

Like other leaders in the region, the Kirchners pursued socially inclusive and redistributive policies based on the premise that the state should divvy up the national pie in a less distorted way. Argentina and its neighbors are deeply unequal societies. Last month, a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and OXFAM showed the extent to which pre- and post-tax measures of inequality in Latin America are virtually identical, in contrast to Europe or even the U.S., where taxes and transfers reduce disparities. Pink tide governments have worked to fix this. Outside the economic realm, they have rehabilitated popular culture, contesting the privilege of elite sensibilities. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, held his inaugural ceremonies at the pre-Columbian ruins of Tiwanaku as part of a drive to reinvent national tradition, bringing visibility and legitimacy to indigenous cultures. Leftist leaders have also challenged liberal notions and assumptions of participatory democracy. “The model is not the old liberal democracy, where citizens vote once every four years and have no say in how policy is shaped,” says Rein. “This populism is tempting because it appears to offer democratizing impulses,” he adds. “But we know that is one part of the story.” 

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s success, like that of others, depended on the constant mobilization of public support by going after enemies real and imagined. “As an ideal type, the populist politician is one who divides the citizenry rhetorically, into ‘a people’ and a group that falls outside, usually an elite that is held responsible for the nation’s problems, often in collaboration with foreigners or internal enemies,” Iber explains. This phenomenon can resemble the political left or right—“it all depends on how the people and its enemies are defined.” Kirchner did exactly that, packing public plazas with her bandas, constructing political and social life as a Manichean struggle, pitting friend against enemy, right against wrong, “the people” against the “anti-people.” When a tampon shortage hit the country last year, the result of trade barriers and a scarcity of dollars, Kirchner’s government attacked a hostile press for spreading rumors that led to a run on supplies in a plot to undermine her. Heriberto Muraro, an Argentine sociologist, summed up the state of public opinion speaking to the BBC: “Our society is divided between those who hate the president, those who adore her, and those who are caught in the middle, fed up with polarization.” Kirchner offers just one example on a continent rife with divisive discourse from charismatic leaders (Chávez is the standard by which all others are measured). 

The left was politically popular as long as it delivered on high-minded promises. The pink tide coincided with a global commodities boom. Soaring prices for raw materials buoyed leaders in Quito, Brasília, and especially Buenos Aires, which was shut out of capital markets. Surging Chinese demand filled national coffers, supplying cash for progressive programs. In Brazil, where President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s “Zero Hunger” campaign targeted the country’s most destitute, human development indices soared during his two terms in office. Brazil’s most powerful and popular president left Brasília with 80 percent approval ratings. During an expansionary economic cycle, statist measures produced real results. In a remarkable reversal, the legacy of former President Lula is now threatened by prosecutors seeking to charge him in the country’s largest ever graft probe.   

The problem wasn’t so much that social subsidies were gifts or simply forms of patronage, as opponents have suggested. Redistributive policies have made a demonstrable difference in the lives of millions of people across South America. Instead, the problem was that money ran out, and there was no plan to sustain these efforts. Noble intentions gave way to ineffectiveness and corruption. Once commodity prices fell and China’s economy cooled, the region found itself with little to sell on global markets. “They spent heavily,” The Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer writes, but neglected “investing in quality education, science, technology, and innovation.” The shocking results of an August 2015 report by Mexico’s El Financiero illustrate the region’s overwhelming dependence on commodity exports. Venezuela produces virtually nothing but oil, iron, and aluminum, relying on raw materials for 98 percent of total exports. In Ecuador, commodities and agricultural goods account for 86 percent of exports, the bulk of which are oil, bananas, and flowers. In Bolivia, 72 percent of exports are oil, copper, and zinc. In Argentina, nearly 70 percent of export income is derived from commodities, mostly soybeans. Despite a windfall that could have funded innovation and secured the future of positive social policies, “the people” are still beholden to fluctuations in world prices for just a few basic goods.

Once illusions of sustainability faded in the minds of voters, so did the left’s prospects. With official reserves drained and inflation climbing, Kirchner’s administration resorted to false numbers and punishing economists who challenged them. In 2013, she earned the distinction of becoming the first world leader to be censured by the executive board of the IMF for “not providing accurate data on inflation and economic growth.” Groups like Oxford Economics and a number of economists, including Paul Krugman, also pointed to bogus data. Days after Macri won the election, Latinobarómetro director Martha Lagos told The Wall Street Journal, “When there’s no money, there’s no populism.” 

Kirchner lost the public’s trust, but this lack of faith isn’t distinctly Argentine. The same phenomenon extends to Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil. But this is less a turn to the right than a rejection of the populist left. If anything, Macri was able to attract support by presenting himself as a moderate technocrat with a pragmatic approach to policy. In the run-up to Argentina’s election, polls by Poliarquía confirmed that nearly 50 percent of respondents wanted a middle ground, opting for “continuity with change.” Moderation became so sought-after that it was adopted by the leftist candidate Daniel Scioli, Kirchner’s hand-picked successor, as a campaign slogan. His assurances of “continuity with changes” failed to win him the election because voters saw in him more of the former and less of the latter. The old categories of left and right have stopped making sense, as long as divisiveness, ineffectiveness, and corruption persist on all sides.

It’s too early to declare that populism has died, or is irrelevant to contemporary processes, as some political scientists have suggested. Leftist populism will soon resurface, if not in exactly the same way. Argentina, for one, is more polarized than ever and awash in corruption scandals that have unknown implications for the future. The region’s economic forecast is grim, and “as long as social gaps are so huge,” says Rein, “middle class and lower-middle class will form multi-class alliances against elites.”

The solution that Castañeda once proposed—that Latin American leftists should model themselves on Western European social democratic parties—makes little sense given the the region’s centuries of colonial rule. There is a third way closer to home. Tiny Uruguay, with just 3.4 million people, has no messianic leaders. On the contrary, its self-effacing former president, José “Pepe” Mujica, was a model of public service. Latin America’s smallest nation is also the least corrupt, according to Transparency International. Uruguay has emerged as a world leader in renewable energy. There are no “social militants” shouting slogans in Montevideo’s plazas, even if memories of economic meltdown—the result of the orthodoxy of the 1990s—remain as fresh in Uruguay as in Argentina. But unlike its neighbor, Uruguay’s road to socially inclusive growth has been largely successful, peaceful, and unifying. This explains the long tenure of the Frente Amplio, a coalition of center-left parties that has governed the country since 2004. Uruguay now faces economic headwinds, driven by downturns in Brazil and Argentina, where it sells the bulk of its exports. So far, President Tabaré Vázquez, now in his second term (Uruguayan law prohibits consecutive reelection), appears to have chosen the path of pragmatism over political partisanship. South American progressives shouldn’t turn to Europe when they can look to one of their own.