THE KNEE-JERK question about Latin America these days is whether the region is "turning left." The flip answer is: "Obviously yes, look at recent elections." But the serious response is: "Your question is irrelevant." What is happening in Latin America today has little to do with "right" or "left."
To be sure, members of "old left" parties have been elected in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. But these leaders all seem to understand that Milton Friedman was much closer to understanding economics with his focus on monetary stability and markets than poor old Karl Marx, and their economic policies demonstrate this. So does this make Friedman a "leftist" or suggest that "left" isn't the point? Other serious leaders in the region who owe more to Friedman than Marx include presidents Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and Felipe Calderon in Mexico.
Then there are the very noisy "pseudo new left" types, led by just-reelected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with his hangers-on in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. There are Chavistas who were near-winners in some other countries as well, including Mexico, from whom we will hear again if the more moderate leaders fail to meet national demands.
These characters may in some respects be well meaning, but they are largely rudderless, reactionary anti-American populists and/or fascists whose old populist ideas will fail in the future as they have in the past.
The guru of this pseudo new left is, of course, Cuba's Fidel Castro, whose famous phrases of the 1960s are being revived by Chavez, along with lines snatched from Simon Bolivar and Mao Tse-tung. Yet Castro is no Marxist. Rather, he's an egotistical, anti-American manipulator of nationalism -- but at least he had coherent plans and was thoughtful rather than all spleen.
So if "left" is irrelevant, what are the issues? One must note first that if Latin Americans today think they live in the best of all possible worlds, as a recent remark by former Mexican President Vicente Fox seemed to suggest, then there is nothing more to discuss.
But if, as many polls show, the majority want more food, better homes and jobs, quality education, equal opportunities and rights and security under the law, then the basic problems are well known to all serious leaders in the region. They are:
* Poverty, inequality and the inability of the region's leaders, parties, ideas and institutions to significantly improve conditions for most people under any form of government -- right, center or left; military or civilian.
* Frustrations with the above conditions have been exacerbated over the last 15 years by the failures -- often demagogically blamed on the United States -- of most of the highly touted economic, social and political reforms of the 1990s.
* Region-wide anti-Americanism arising from many sources, including U.S. indifference to the region and anger at arrogant U.S. policies, such as those on illegal drugs and Iraq.
It is not clear, however, that most serious leaders really recognize the fact that the region's main problems are internal. Seeking scapegoats is one of Latin Americans' favorite pastimes.
But another challenge has arisen: China and developing Asia. Despite its current relatively high growth in gross domestic product, history suggests that Latin America will soon tumble into a new crisis and continue falling further behind developing Asia.
Most of Latin America is in fact ambling toward irrelevancy except as the source of food and raw materials for the developed world and the big cats of Asia. The only people who can turn that around are capable and determined leaders, along with a public that will eschew the quick fixes of caudillos such as Chavez and face real challenges pragmatically over the long term.