In Latin America, Politics Become Eclectic


An eclectic group of Latin American politicians and intellectuals, including potential presidential contenders from the region’s biggest nations, met here recently for the fifth in a series of freewheeling discussions about politics and economics.

The group is dominated by center-left opposition leaders who see themselves as the coming wave of Latin American politics. Trying to stake out a middle ground between the extremes of left and right that have dominated the region’s recent history, they refer to themselves informally as the “Buenos Aires consensus.”

The title poses a challenge to the political and economic gospel known as the “Washington consensus.” That approach--beloved by many U.S. policymakers and the czars of international finance--prescribes purist free-market reforms as the cure to Latin America’s socioeconomic ailments.

During the 1990s, free-market technocrats from Mexico to Chile to Brazil restructured the region, transforming once-moribund economies into dynamos and consolidating the stability of emerging democracies. But as the decade draws to a close, election results and opinion polls express the discontent of voters who feel that the macroeconomic improvements have failed to ameliorate social crises: poverty, street crime, corruption, and troubled justice, health and social welfare systems.

Increasingly, popular opposition movements have gained ground on once-omnipotent architects of change in nations such as Argentina, Peru and Mexico. Even Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who has adroitly combined free-market restructuring with social consciousness, faces tougher competition in his reelection bid after economic woes in recent months.


In this evolving political panorama, the members of the Buenos Aires consensus, which formed about 18 months ago, want to articulate their vision for Latin America’s future. A recent communique from the group charts a course between the stolid statism of the past and a current governing philosophy that they regard as extreme and unjust.

“We are firm proponents of overcoming the ‘neoliberal’ policies that have extracted the market from its condition as an instrument and elevated it to the status of a religion,” the group stated. “Unrestrained privatization, systematic reduction of taxes and deregulation of labor markets . . . have aggravated social tensions and conflicts, deepening the poverty of vast sectors of the population.”

The group’s strategy sessions have tried to put national issues into a regional context, said Mexican scholar Jorge Castaneda, the founder of the group.

“This is not ‘neoliberalism lite,’ ” Castaneda said. “Clearly, the momentum has shifted. The participants see that this is more and more important. They see that they may reach power soon.”

Not all the participants agree with all the premises, and attendance has been intermittent. But the roster of participants reflects the sense of changing times. The leaders are intellectually and politically impressive; their ideologies and personalities are diverse, even contradictory.

The list includes likely Argentine presidential candidate Graciela Fernandez Mejide, a human rights crusader turned lawmaker who polls show is the country’s most admired politician, and her colleagues in a nascent center-left coalition known as the Alliance. The Brazilian representatives include former President Itamar Franco and Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, an old-school leftist who will make his second presidential bid next year.

The Mexican contingent similarly teams potential rivals for the presidency: Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party and Guanajuato state Gov. Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party. Other participants have included Ricardo Lagos, Chile’s popular public works minister, and former Salvadoran guerrillas who have done well at the ballot box.

The forces of the political right have eliminated crippling inflation and made other healthy changes but have failed to show much energy when it comes to social issues and human rights, according to Felipe Noguera, a political consultant in Buenos Aires.

Voters believe that the post-Cold War left cares more about their struggles, but they also fear that its leaders could revive outmoded economic policies that proved disastrous, said Noguera, who works with candidates throughout Latin America.

“It is not yet clear if the left presents itself as a successor or an alternative,” Noguera said. “They are at this crossroads: Do they want to show they are correct, or do they want to be successful? The voters aren’t saying nationalize or roll back what was done. They don’t want something different; they want more.”

In Argentina, the voters made their dissatisfaction clear when the Alliance trounced the ruling Peronists during October congressional elections. The Alliance is a partnership between the century-old Radical Civic Union and Frepaso, an amalgam of left-leaning parties. Alliance leaders point to their surge as a sign of the decline of neoliberalism.

“We have to recognize the things that have been done well and address what comes next,” said Frepaso strategist Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez, who assembled the coalition. “We have to take better care of the Argentine middle class. We want to emphasize jobs . . . education and justice. That is what the voters want.”

But can the coalition hold together and win the 1999 presidential elections? Wary voters regard one of its leaders, former President Raul Alfonsin, as a symbol of economic chaos and “the failure of the left,” Noguera said.

Allaying the worries of the economic establishment is a key step, Alvarez said. He talked of the need for a political partnership with corporate executives and even faulted the organizers of the Buenos Aires consensus for not inviting business leaders to the discussions.

Most critics of free-market thinking reject a return to populist nationalism or to the “import substitution” policies that allowed Argentina and Brazil to develop industry but kept their economies closed and inefficient.

Nonetheless, the dogmas of privatization and deregulation have weakened fragile institutions in many Latin societies, the Castaneda group argues. “New public agencies can be created tomorrow while others are privatized today,” their communique stated.

Castaneda cited the example of highways in Mexico, which the government sold off but then took back under control when private operators went bankrupt. “And people are dubious about re-privatizing them. The federal government maintains them rather well,” he said.

At a broader level, the communique calls for more regulation of the speculative foreign capital whose fluctuations wreak havoc during upheavals such as the Asian stock crisis. And regional integration should take precedence over the Americas-wide free trade zone envisioned by the U.S., according to the communique.

If the participants in the Buenos Aires consensus reach power, they will have to achieve a delicate balance between economic modernization and the unfinished business of democratization.

“What we face now is the task of the end of the century,” Alvarez said. “How do we construct a more harmonious system?”


A Consensus on the Future

Popular opposition movements are gaining ground on once-omnipotent architects of change in Latin American nations such as Argentina, Mexico and Brazil. In the evolving political panorama, the members of the “Buenos Aires consensus,” which formed about 18 months ago, want to articulate their vision for Latin America’s future.


Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva

Leader of the leftist Workers Party. Recently announced he will challenge President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in next year’s presidential election.

‘In the nations of the Third World . . . it is possible to establish social policies that effectively guarantee full citizenship for all.’



Congressman Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez

Leader of the Frepaso party and architect of a new center-left coalition that triumphed over ruling Peronists in October congressional elections.

‘In Argentina you have the worst of neoliberal economics, which is disregard for the social effects of reforms.’



Vicente Fox

Governor of Guanajuato state for the center-right National Action Party, or PAN.

‘The time has come to go in a new direction . . . Mexico cannot go on with the same scheme unless we wish to sentence many generations to continued marginalization.’

Source: Times staff reports