The pendulum swings: Here’s how Latin America has shifted politically over the years

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, left, receives Peruvian President-elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski for a meeting and a private lunch at the Government Palace in Lima on June 22, 2016.
(Ernesto Arias / EFE)

The election of a former investment banker to the presidency of Peru last month marked a sharp turn from the left to the right in national politics there — and could presage a wider shift in Latin America.

To see how the political winds have blown across the region in recent decades, The Times looked at the presidents of the 10 most populous South and Central American countries since 1980, classified each as left, center or right and tallied the results.

The resulting graphics show a political pendulum that has swung back and forth in response to economic or social crises.

The left hit a low point in 1981, with zero presidents. The region was dominated by right-wing military regimes that seized power to quash leftist insurgencies in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and elsewhere.


By the middle of the decade, however, the balance of power shifted to the left as citizens rebelled against authoritarianism. But the transition was short-lived as the free-market economic policies favored by Washington took hold, and by 1995 the left was shut out again, with the 10 presidencies evenly split between the right and the center.

After free-market policies failed to deliver prosperity and poverty reductions, a new era for the left began with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998. Socialists were elected in Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador, their social welfare programs fueled by high prices for oil, soybeans, coal, copper and other commodities. By 2008, the left held eight of the 10 presidencies.

Its power has diminished slightly since then, however, as declining prices for national resources and farm products have left many governments with deep fiscal problems and less money to spend on the poor. There are indications that the right is poised for a comeback.

The election of centrist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru to replace a left-of-center regime follows the election of right-leaning Mauricio Macri in Argentina in November after 12 years of populist governments there.


In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, a socialist, is facing an impeachment trial that could permanently end her presidency and the Workers Party’s 14-year grip on power.

And in Venezuela, where the most recent rise of the left began, opponents of President Nicolas Maduro are trying to recall the socialist president amid food shortages, deteriorating security and hyperinflation.

Kraul is a special correspondent.



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