Is Latin America Really Turning Red?


The impression that Latin America is heading decidedly to the left was reinforced on 15 August when former Catholic archbishop Fernando Lugo was sworn in as the new President of Paraguay.

Leading the Patriotic Alliance for Change, a broad coalition of left parties and progressive social movements, Lugo’s victory ended six uninterrupted decades of government by the Partido Colorado. This right wing conglomerate counted among its leaders the infamous dictator Alfredo Stroessner who ruled Paraguay for 35 years.

The election of President Lugo is the most recent of several successive victories for the Latin American left. He comes to power with great hopes of rebuilding this impoverished nation: in a country of around 6 million people, 35 per cent of the population live in poverty.

These are the same hopes that have brought power to an unprecedented number of left-wing leaders in the region. The election of this 57-year-old former Catholic priest and exponent of Liberation Theology followed the victory last year of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. These three successive victories add to the existing left governments of socialist Michelle Bachelet in Chile, former Sandinista guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, Alvaro Colom in Guatemala and Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. Also significant is the 2006 victory of Peru’s Alan García, an exponent of the "moderate left", who beat the "ultra left" of former army officer Ollanta Humala.

"Not since the 1970s has the world seen anything like it," editorialised Thomas Catan in Times Online last year, giving the impression that Latin America was flirting once again with the radical socialist experiments of the 1970s. Not quite.

At best this new wave of left wing governments are pink rather than red and – with a few exceptions – most of this new generation of Latin American leaders are leaving old ideological postures behind in favour of far more practical approaches. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is a socialist who spent some time in Sydney as a political exile in the 1970s. She doesn’t like to characterise the newly elected Latin American governments as "left wing", preferring instead to call them "progressive governments without family names".

It is incorrect to suppose that the left leaning governments that have came to power in the last few years are politically unified and form a sort of homogeneous left wing anti-liberal anti-American bloc. Instead of one linear and uniform trend, the emerging political landscape in Latin America splits into two clearly discernible blocs.

Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Tavaré Vázques in Uruguay and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil are leaders of centre-left governments. Chilean political scientist Marta Lagos says they should not be called left but rather "social democrat". They are less ideologically driven and far more concerned with the establishment of stable governments and economic growth. Alongside their genuine concern for social justice they have undertaken conservative economic policies. Brazil is a notable example of this. President Lula’s political power relies on left-wing oriented reforms but his economic program is conservative and his fiscal discipline is such that it has even been praised by the International Monetary Fund.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega form a second bloc described as the "radical left", a grouping enlarged by the addition of Cuba. This bloc has indigenous nationalistic characteristics and evinces a profound antipathy towards the US. This second group is closer to the 1970s Latin American left to which the Times Online referred.

These four governments have pursued a strong anti-neoliberal economic agenda. "The neoliberal dark night was left behind," said president Correa in his maiden speech. Chávez is the self-appointed leader of this bloc: his anti-Washington stand is widely known, and "21st century socialism" has become his mantra.

The election of progressive governments that began in 2000 is a response to the economic debacle caused by the right-wing governments that ruled the region for the past two decades. The shift to the left is also due to the new-found sense of national identity and economic independence from the United States that is being experienced in many of these countries.

Until the 1980s, the United States was Latin America’s major trade partner and the region was regarded as Washington’s "backyard". Not any longer. China has become a major player in the region. It has already replaced the US as the second business partner of Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America. The European Union is now the first commercial partner of the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR or Southern Common Market) and trade ties with Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and India are being strengthened.

The challenges for newly elected left-wing governments like Lugo’s are immense. They have to be able to foster economic growth as they develop effective social justice policies and ensure a better distribution of wealth. Their key tasks are to defeat unemployment and poverty. The disastrous failure of the neo-liberal economic models of the last two decades brought about massive unemployment, a disgraceful gap between the haves and the have-nots, and massive poverty. Forty per cent of the population of Latin America lives in poverty and 16 per cent in abject poverty, according to José Luis Machinea, the head of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The other challenge for the new left in Latin America is the achievement of political stability. While the Latin American right – renowned for its historically anti-democratic tendencies – has been defeated in the ballot boxes; it has not entirely lost power. Far from it. Underpinned by unelected powerful poderes fácticos (de facto powers) like the financial sector, the military and the media, the right won’t hesitate to destabilise left-wing governments regarded as threats to its interests. The recent attempts of regional secession in Bolivia planed by the wealthy rural oligarchy of Santa Cruz, the ongoing campaign against Argentina’s Christina Fernández de Kirchner by powerful landowners and the 2002 failed coup orchestrated by the commercial media against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez are just a few examples.

Like other governments of the Latin American left, the new Paraguayan government represents real hope for social justice in the region. As Lugo prepares to tackle poverty and the economic legacy of decades of right-wing rule however, he will also have to face the extra challenge of consolidating his power and ensuring political stability.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.