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Latin America Shifts Left

On his first trip abroad since re-election, George W. Bush was greeted by thousands of Chileans, protesting his trade and military policies and telling him to go home.

The protests at last week’s APEC meeting were not just a manifestation of the historic anti-American response to an imperial president. The anti-Bush demonstrations in Santiago highlighted a new political trend in Latin America–where many countries are moving to the center-left, just as the United States takes a sharp turn to the right.

With all eyes focused on the presidential elections in the United States, key elections in Latin American countries went almost unnoticed over the past weeks. The results in Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Nicaragua, and to some extent Brazil, showed a shift toward the center-left or a consolidation of left-leaning leadership.

The victory of Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay was the first sign. Vazquez’s Broad Front brought an end to 170 years of political power shifting back and forth between the rural elite in the Blanco Party and the urban elite in the Colorado Party. Vazquez’s win was not a surprise. The Broad Front has governed Montevideo since 1990 and polls showed him in the lead. But his victory demonstrated the steady accumulation of power and credibility that the left has built up over the past three decades. The equally impressive failure of the two conservative parties to solve growing problems of poverty, inequality, and corruption also contributed mightily to Broad Front’s win.

The gains of Chilean President Ricardo Lago’s progressive coalition in the municipal elections of October 31 was yet another sign of the problems that the Latin American right has had in maintaining or building political force. The elections are viewed as a precursor the presidential elections in 2005. With the right winning only 39% of the mayoral races to the progressive alliance’s 45%, the prospects for a progressive victory in 2005 look increasingly favorable. The two main contenders for the progressive candidacy, former Defense Minister Michele Bachelet and former Foreign Relations Minister Soledad Alvear, now seem well-positioned for a successful presidential bid.

In Brazil’s first-round elections on October 3, Lula’s Workers Party (PT) garnered most votes and now governs in more cities than any other party, including nine state capitals. But the Oct. 31 second-round loss of Sao Paulo to the social-democrat candidate and the loss of Porto Alegre–after 16 years of being a PT showcase and center of the World Social Forum–mitigated any conclusion that the PT had received a resounding vote of confidence. Although the majority clearly support the center-left over the right, the nation continues to be living a political experiment with contradictory and unpredictable results.

Finally, Nicaragua’s municipal elections provided yet another sign of a turn in the tides. The Sandinistas, who were voted out of government in 1990 and have repeatedly lost to the right since then, swept municipal elections against a divided right and easily maintained control of the nation’s capital. In Venezuela, a somewhat vote-weary nation gave President Hugo Chávez a mandate with 20 of 22 governorships, a fact that no doubt galls key figures on the Bush team who consider Chávez a major threat in the region.

 

No to Privatization and Free Trade

Besides voting for center-left parties and candidates, Latin American societies are also beginning to demonstrate their rejection of the dominant economics in many other ways. In Uruguay , voters rejected any privatization of the water system, while efforts to hold referendums rejecting free trade agreements have gained momentum in Ecuador and Peru . Popular demonstrations against privatizations, free trade, and military intervention, as well as local struggles for autonomy and resource control, are mounting.

Many factors have converged to push Latin America to the left. Foremost is the failure of the neoliberal economic model to improve standards of living. Signs that patience has run out have become common–from the street chants of angry Argentines that “they’ve all got to go! to widening citizen movements against free trade. The economic crisis in Uruguay in 2002, precipitated by the financial free-fall in neighboring Argentina , played a big role in Vazquez’s triumph.

Another reason is that center-left forces have adopted more conciliatory attitudes toward the market economy, in some cases embracing it enthusiastically. Traditional ideological differences have blurred in the new context of economic integration, which now seems inevitable to many Latin Americans, even many on the left.

In contrast to former times, most of modern left does not envision storming the palace. Vázquez calls his platform the “cautious revolution or the “agreed-on transition. Even the FSLN has left its radical past behind and worked to mend fences within Nicaraguan society, while the Chilean progressive alliance has turned out to be one of the region’s most vocal champions of free trade–to the chagrin of much of the traditional left. Brazil ‘s workers, government, meanwhile, is walking a tightrope between conservative economic policies and commitments to its grassroots constituencies and leftist origins.

Even so, Latin America’s center-left shares some major differences with precepts of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Among shared key principles are commitments to social justice, an active role of the state, and national sovereignty. In the name of defending national sovereignty, center-left forces are seeking greater control over natural resources, and they are now confronting corporations that have gained ground through investment-protection clauses and increased access that resulted from neoliberal economic restructuring. Also, Washington ‘s increasing proclivity for unilateralism and its plans for global hegemony are most often viewed as a threat, spurring initiatives for more independent regional integration and cooperation. Uruguay ‘s incoming government, for example, has announced its intention to immediately re-establish ties with Cuba and to stick to its principles of non-intervention and regional solidarity.

 

Continental Drift

For the Bush administration, it can either accept Latin America ‘s bid for greater policy independence or attempt to divide the continent into simplistic categories of “unconditional allies that it will favor and “dangerous foes that it will seek to undermine.

So far, Bush’s new foreign policy team does not bode well for the accommodation route. As a Russian scholar, Condoleezza Rice was intellectually raised on the Cold War and has insisted on recuperating the ideological offensive of that era.

A new kind of continental drift–this one born on political currents–appears to be distancing the north and south in the Americas. The U.S. government can either choose to respect the innovative attempts by southern nations to meet the region’s economic and political challenges, or it can force the north-south fault lines to widen. The latter course could be cataclysmic.

LAURA CARLSEN is Director of the Americas Program for Interhemispheric Resource Center. She holds a BA in Social Thought and Institutions (1980) from Stanford University and an MA in Latin American Studies (1986) from Stanford. She received a Fulbright Scholarship to study the impact of the Mexican economic crisis on women in 1986 and has since lived in Mexico City. She can be reached at: laura@irc-online.org

 

 

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Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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