Don’t buy those Latin American labels

MICHAEL SHIFTER is vice president for policy at Washington's Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University.

EVO MORALES’ resounding victory in Bolivia’s presidential vote on Sunday has, not surprisingly, buttressed the media’s conviction that Latin America is drifting decidedly leftward. Champion of his country’s downtrodden and advocate for the legalization of coca cultivation, Morales is portrayed as having joined other leaders -- especially such prominent U.S. adversaries as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez -- in resisting globalization, defying the United States and focusing on their nations’ poor and excluded.

The figures most often labeled leftist cover a wide gamut. In addition to Castro and Chavez, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, from the Workers’ Party, is seen as ideologically aligned with Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez and Argentina’s president, Nestor Kirchner. Outgoing Chilean Socialist President Ricardo Lagos is also seen as part of the new configuration. Some observers have admitted the presidents of Ecuador and the Dominican Republic to this club.

Looking ahead to Latin America’s crowded 2006 electoral calendar, two self-defined leftists, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Revolutionary Democratic Party and Nicaragua’s former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega are contenders for their countries’ top job.


Despite these labels, viewing Latin America through a strictly “left-right” lens doesn’t make sense today. It is too simplistic, and it obscures the region’s highly differentiated political landscape. Latin America is undergoing considerable social and political ferment. Street protests have forced a string of presidential resignations -- in Bolivia and Ecuador, for example. Economic and political reforms haven’t tamed the unrest. As poll after poll has shown, Latin Americans are disenchanted with politics of all colorations and with the lack of remedies for mediocre economic growth, scant job creation and stubborn poverty.

The political responses to this sour mood are far from monolithic. The prescriptions promoted are so varied as to render suspect any overarching, catch-all term -- including “leftist.” Politically, Latin America is, and will likely remain, a patchwork, marked by hybrid social, economic and foreign policies.

To illustrate: Chile under Lagos (his likely successor and fellow Socialist Michelle Bachelet is expected to continue his policies) reflects Latin America’s most successful model, one that blends reliance on free markets and trade with targeted progressive social policies. The results -- in terms of sustained growth and poverty reduction -- have been impressive.

Brazil’s Lula, like Lagos, has controlled spending, a policy not usually associated with the Latin American left. Unlike Lagos, however, Lula’s government has been critical of hemispheric free trade initiatives.

Argentina’s Kirchner, charting his own peculiar course, takes an anti-U.S. stance, pursues closer ties to Venezuela’s Chavez and consistently defies the international financial community. Neighboring Uruguay’s first “leftist” government (in office since March) has been distinguished chiefly by more conservative economic policies than its predecessors.

Even as celebrated a leftist as Chavez is trying to forge his own brand of 21st century socialism rather than following the old formula. He combines greater social spending in the barrios with a fiercely independent foreign policy. More important, Chavez’s strident anti-Americanism and autocratic rule are mixed with active courting of private investment, essential to Venezuela’s oil industry.

Besides Chavez, Morales is probably most deserving of the leftist label among the new crop of leaders (unless one counts Ortega, who is a hangover of the Cold War and whose prospects appear to be declining). Yet despite his affinity with Chavez’s populist rhetoric, Morales’ “revolutionary” options are more limited than those available to the Venezuelan president. Venezuela’s well-developed energy sector allows Chavez to rake in windfalls from record oil prices and to carry out his social programs. In return for 90,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan oil, Castro provides thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers to work in Venezuela’s poorest barrios. Bolivia, despite its natural gas reserves, has no such bargaining chip. The United States can help shape the overall political environment in the region to promote moderation in Bolivia and the rest of Latin America. Treating Morales as a threat, irredeemably allied with Chavez and Castro, would be unwise and could well become self-fulfilling. Instead, Washington should engage Morales and give him some time. And rather than blindly pushing a U.S. economic and anti-drug agenda, it should join with Bolivia and other Latin American nations to devise alternatives that address their problems and ours.

Trying to understand all of Latin America with blanket terms like “left” or “right” makes headlines, but it can lead to misguided, counterproductive policies. It ignores the complicated dilemmas all Latin American leaders must wrestle with, whatever their rhetoric and politics may be.