When Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recently expropriated the Spanish oil company YPF, condemnation quickly blared out from the usual quarters. In a subsequent piece for the Washington Post, Juan Forero declared that the Latin American “radical left” is at a “crossroads,” and rounded up a posse of commentators to articulate some fairly predictable claims. Arturo Porzecanski, an Uruguayan economist at American University, asserted that “Populism is running out of gas in Latin America.” Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue characterized policies in Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador as attempts to scrape the bottom of the populist/leftist policy barrel, and as signs that such movements are “in disarray.” Rather than standing at a simple crossroads, however, the Latin American Left most recently finds itself deep within a labyrinth of winding policy paths, and has set out to explore many of them simultaneously.
In the early 1990s, the lords of policy dwelling in the capitals of the Western Hemisphere declared a “consensus” about how to correct what Teddy Roosevelt might have called “chronic wrong-doing” in Latin America. These grandiose sins included populist and leftist politics, government interference in the sacred marketplace, and the economic nationalism of import substitution industrialization, among others. Such policies, it was argued, resulted in political and social instability, inflation, and reactionary military regimes. This new general understanding, known as the “Washington Consensus,” championed neoliberal market “reforms” (a euphemism for privatization), and repeatedly insisted on the superiority of free trade policies. The neoliberal champions of the market also defended a bloodless and “institutionalized” version of democracy to provide “good governance.” The discussion was supposed to be over forever, amen.
Yet as George Philip and Francisco Panizza note in their new book, The Triumph of Politics: The Return of the Left in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, “fundamental ideological debate has returned to the region” since the 1998 election of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Chávez, along with Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who each self-identify as “twenty-first century socialists,” present a “left-wing” critique of the Consensus. Their competing agenda is based on a blend of old, supposedly discredited ideas and practices, and new ideas and tactics that “together form a distinctive political brew.” While Philip and Panizza acknowledge other electoral successes on the Latin American Left over the last decade, their subjects represent “a particular kind of left,” more “personalist” and less “institutional.” Other leftist leaders, such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and José “Pepe” Mujica of Uruguay, are “bridge-builders” who “have sought to construct broad political alliances and promote inclusive politics by working in the system rather than against it.” In contrast, Chávez, Morales, and Correa are “trench-diggers” who work to “de-legitimize traditional parties as self-serving partycracies” whose leaders are “corrupt defenders of oligarchic interests.”
The key point is that the Latin American Left these days is a diverse place. For the Washington policy establishment, as it looks to Latin America, there is a “good” Left, (the “bridge builders,”) a “bad” Left (the “trench diggers,”) and a “worst” Left, represented by the brothers Castro in Cuba, with their low-rent authoritarianism and clunky command economy, widely recognized even on the Left as a policy dead end. Whether one points to Lula in Brazil, Mujica in Uruguay, Ollanta Humala in Peru, the Kirschners in Argentina, Chávez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, or even prominent leftist also-rans like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Antanas Mockus in Colombia, the democratically elected leftist leaders in Latin America are all seeking solutions to the long-term problems of poverty and economic inequality.
It is also important to remember that this general policy discussion is now taking place in the context of continued world economic fragility and a global slump. The U.S. economy presently languishes in neutral, technically no longer in recession, but with intolerably high unemployment rates. European leaders seem unable to face their own devastating rates of unemployment in Greece, Spain, Italy, and Ireland, while growth in China, India, and Brazil slows. Yet big portions of the U.S. and European policy elite refuse to recognize this overall crisis of “really existing” capitalism. Incidentally, historians will point out, Cassandra-like, that we have been here before, when the neoclassical economic order of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries collapsed in the late 1920s. Then, as now, defenders of classical economics refused to acknowledge the devastating effects of austerity politics, and the world capitalist economy was only saved by the stimulus of World War II. It is no surprise, therefore, that some U.S. commentators on Latin America continue to thunder and rumble about the folly and sins of all who refuse to bow down to the crushing, self-serving logic of the Washington Consensus, reminiscent of late Byzantine emperors whose power did not extend beyond the walls of Constantinople. In many ways, it can be likened to a zombie policy, perpetuated in part by Washington’s general disinterest in all things Latin American since 9/11. Outside Washington, however, the world moves on. The Left around the globe continues to struggle to come up with viable solutions to the excesses of the market economy, especially the concentration of wealth. The fact that they have yet to solve such problems does nothing to mitigate another fact: the neoclassical/neoliberal economic orthodoxy which has dominated policy discussions since the 1980s now crumbles around us.
Certainly, many of the current leaders on the Latin American Left have reenacted some of the more unsavory populist shenanigans of days gone by, including presidentialism, unsustainable reliance on oil and gas revenues, and a lack of infrastructure investment (though the last, of course, is one of Washington’s failings as well.) Their existence has contributed to the polarization of politics (though such polarization stops short of violent counterrevolution). They can also be accused, at times, of an overreliance on plebiscite governance, thin respect for constitutional norms and institutions, and attempts to intimidate the media. But the continued electoral strength of the Latin American Left belies the assertion that it is “running out of gas.” Indeed, there are other reasons that populist and leftist movements keep reoccurring, beyond charisma and personalism. These include the ongoing problems of social and economic inequality, grinding poverty, and stagnant middle classes instinctively aware of the expanding wealth at the top of the social ladder. A lot of ideas are in play, old and new, in different countries. Expropriations like that of Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina are popular because they underscore the leftist sensitivity to demands for social justice that has so often animated populist movements in Latin America. In this vein, Philip and Panizza’s robust study avoids the hyperventilation that often accompanies discussions of Chávez, Morales, Correa, and their ideological brethren. They demonstrate that what these leaders really signify is a competing model of democracy, which certainly has its warts, but represents more than mere revamped populist caudillismo. They also capture some of the worthy spirit of political and economic experimentation currently being conducted within the Latin American Left.
One thing is clear: the region will not be coming back into the neoliberal fold anytime soon. Increasing levels of democracy make social “injustice” harder to sustain; the political fix is harder to maintain and enforce. Leaving aside the somewhat unlikely return of military governments and overt repression (Honduras is an outlier here, though Guatemala and El Salvador are also problem cases for the idea of a solid block of Latin American democracies), the experiments will continue. People around the world still very much want to construct more sustainable and democratic economic systems, where markets and private property, whatever their imperfections, can adapt and coexist with the moral sensibilities of social and economic justice.
What remains unclear is exactly what the U.S. role will be. As American influence continues to contract in Latin America, there will be new opportunities for policy experimentation in Washington. But whether such experimentation will mean renewed attempts at maintaining hemispheric hegemony, a resurrection of long-forgotten “good neighbor” policies, continued neglect mixed with more failed drug policies, or something completely new and creative, is hard to say.
Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution.
Exclusive rights can be negotiated.