Is Latin America Turning Socialist?

The Region’s Electoral Trend 



by | May 3, 2006

Since 2000, candidates representing leftist parties and coalitions have won an unprecedented seven presidential elections. Leftist presidents now govern most of Latin America: most of its people, most of its land area, and most of its wealthier nations. And in the largest remaining non-leftist country—Mexico—a leftist candidate currently leads in the polls to replace President Vicente Fox in 2006. There is little doubt that disappointment with the results of U.S.-backed market reforms has grown in Latin America over the last decade. Most Latin Americans and a majority of elites in recent surveys think that the United States will gain more than they will from further opening of markets. Widespread rejection of the U.S.-led war in Iraq tends to focus this essentially economic discontent even further on the negative effects of U.S. imperialism.

The combination of free-trade skepticism and rejection of U.S. influence has some in Washington worried. At the “Summit of the Americas,” held in 2005 to discuss faltering talks to promote a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement, President Bush found himself the target of strong criticism by several of his fellow presidents as well as thousands of protesters. In his opening remarks, he acknowledged his position: “It’s not easy to host all these countries,” he said to Argentine President Nestor Kirchner. “It’s particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me.” He left without any progress toward a deal and without even a final consensus communiqué.

What is happening in Latin America—and why?

Despite Latin America’s record of frequent economic crises and debt problems, countries in which a leftist won do not appear to be significantly worse off than countries in which other parties remained in power. Countries where the left won power did, in general, have slightly lower GDP growth from 2000-05, as well as higher debt service and higher inflation than countries where the left lost. However, at least some of this difference may be responses to left victories rather than causes of them. And Chile—where the Socialists won reelection—has done better than average.

Instead, the pattern that appears most characteristic of Latin American elections in the first half of the decade is alternation in power, for all countries. A survey of 16 countries that held a presidential election from 2000-05 reveals that alternation of the party in power took place in 13. Disgust with incumbents seems to have been nearly universal. Sometimes the left benefited. Sometimes another party did. But this other party was more likely to be a new party untainted by previous policy failures than an existing party. Indeed, five of the seven leftist parties and eleven of the sixteen parties that won presidential elections had never held the national executive before. A key element of their appeal to the voters—their novelty—may now be undermined by their own success. If this pattern of alternation continues, it does not bode well for the incumbent left parties (in Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela) who will face presidential elections this year.

A further indication that leftist victories did not signal an unqualified endorsement of leftist policies can be found by examining first-round vote percentages. Many Latin American countries use the French system of a dual ballot for the presidential election. Candidates must win a majority of the vote. If they do not, a runoff is held between the top two candidates. The first-round vote therefore is more likely to represent the committed core of each candidate’s support; the second round strategically favors the least-disliked candidate. Leftist candidates won a majority of the first-round vote only in Bolivia, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The average was 42.6 percent—substantial, but hardly a ringing endorsement. In two countries (Brazil and Ecuador), the leftist president did not win a majority of the legislative seats.

Moreover, support for leftist candidates became possible in part because the left itself has changed. In virtually every Latin American country over the last two decades, leftist parties have shifted toward greater acceptance of markets and less confidence in state planning and protectionism. Proclamations about the evils of globalization and imperialism may sound jarring in Washington, but are far tamer than the calls for socialist revolution that used to echo in leftist circles. The left has lost its faith in socialism even as it continues to express concern about the consequences of unregulated capitalism. New Chilean President Michelle Bachelet spent time in a Pinochet prison, belongs to the Socialist Party, and is deeply concerned about social justice, but no one doubts that she will continue to maintain Chile’s basic market-oriented economic model, as her Socialist predecessor Ricardo Lagos did. After the identity crisis of the left following the fall of the Soviet Union, left parties in Latin America appear finally to have reinvented themselves as fiscally moderate, socially progressive, and pragmatic to the core. They have traded in the socialist economic agenda of the traditional left for regulation of capitalism, greater state attention to social needs, and broader democratic participation.

Within this broad trend, however, the seven leftist presidents in office at the start of 2006 vary significantly from one another in their ideological positions and leadership styles. The ideological stance of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, perhaps the most stridently anti-American and anti-capitalist, mimics the populist programs of Juan Domingo Perón more than the communist ideology of Ché Guevara. Populism is a political style that emphasizes solidarity with the “common people” in their struggle against a privileged and corrupt elite. In Latin America, populism has historically referred to broadly multi-class (though mostly urban) coalitions, usually led by a charismatic strongman. Non-revolutionary and strongly nationalistic, populists are pragmatists at heart and often build their programs in an ad hoc way, collecting hot button issues that appeal to “the people” directly, largely outside of institutional channels such as unions and parties. With the weakening of unions and parties, most successful politicians in Latin America today have at least a little populist in them. But leaders like Lula in Brazil or Bachelet in Chile are significantly more constrained by strong parties than leaders like Chávez, who essentially invented his party on the eve of his election. Indeed, one of Lula’s biggest problems as he runs for reelection this year will come from factions within his own party who feel he has betrayed their ideological premises.

Chávez’s chest-thumping tirades conceal a clever politician who, like Fidel Castro in Cuba, has harnessed anti-American sentiment to bolster his position domestically against powerful economic elites who control most of the media and, by and large, despise him. His fellow leftists view him with an odd mixture of admiration and alarm. There is little question that his pressure has pushed them toward more aggressive postures with regard to debt negotiation and foreign policy than might otherwise have been the case, or that his raucous defiance of the United States has given them leverage in negotiations over debt relief and trade. They can demand more, because the alternative may be worse. The potential formation of a Latin American leftist bloc alarms some policy-makers, who see in it the very sort of threat to U.S. interests that used to provoke support for military intervention. In all likelihood, it will continue to be easier to divide the Latin American countries from one another than it will for the leftists to create a genuine negotiating bloc, particularly in light of these diverse shades of leftism.

Nevertheless, the deep social and economic problems that lie at the core of Chávez’s popular appeal resonate in all of the other Latin American nations and explain, at least in part, the rise of the left. Latin American countries rank among the most deeply unequal in the world. Although many of them have achieved sufficient economic development to place them among the middle-income countries in terms of GDP per capita, extraordinary percentages of the population live below the poverty line—in some cases, such as Bolivia and Peru, even a majority of the population. Poverty and income inequality increased in most Latin American countries during the era of neoliberal economic reforms. At the same time, budget cuts made necessary by IMF austerity programs sharply contracted state spending on social services, particularly during the 1980s. While spending on health and education increased for most countries throughout the 1990s, subsidies and price supports generally did not return. Some people became very rich (Mexico got 24 new billionaires), but overall the first generation of Latin Americans to come of age in functioning democracies experienced little or no improvement in per capita incomes. Unemployment is disturbingly high and the informal sector now accounts for a significant proportion of economic activity. Under these conditions, a political discourse which appeals to norms of social justice and calls for greater state attention to the needs of the working poor is bound to find an audience. Even more conservative politicians have been known to see the advantages of reaching out to this electoral base.

The left’s historical failure to secure a strong electoral position in Latin America owed more to political calculations than to the inherent attractiveness of its policy priorities. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States was known to oppose, undermine, and even invade countries that elected a leftist; Salvador Allende in Chile and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala are only two of the best-known examples. Similarly, the military viewed the left as a potential national security threat, targeting its militants for selective repression. Several of the current leftist presidents spent time in military jails during the 1970s. In the early years after democratic transitions began in the 1980s, concern lingered that the election of a leftist might bring the military back in. But by 2002, Lula’s successful campaign produced celebratory t-shirts with the evocative theme: “And hope defeated fear.” Latin America’s turn to the left is perhaps more a sign of the normalization of democratic politics than a genuine shift in ideological preferences.

Even if leftists pick up another presidency or two in 2006, it seems unlikely that these votes will represent a fundamental realignment of Latin American politics. Latin Americans are mostly detached from political parties—all political parties. Polls consistently show that parties are among the most distrusted public organizations in Latin America, below the media, below the army, even below the police. Outsider presidential candidates have been likely to win precisely because they are untainted by, or are somehow above, political parties. Even when they are popular personally, their popularity rarely translates into long-term support for their political party. Latin Americans are giving the left a chance to solve their social and economic problems, but if the left fails to deliver results, they will move on to someone else—whoever else—seems likely to do a better job.

Spring | Summer 2006Volume V, Number 1

Kathleen Bruhn is an Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in comparative Latin American politics. Her research interests include democratization, political parties, and social movements.

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