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Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Parsing the "Left" in Latin America
Over the past decade or so, political parties of the left have come to power throughout much of Latin America; Colombia and Central America being the only exceptions. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has received much media attention in the United States because of his confrontational rhetoric. But for the most part this seismic shift in Latin American politics has happened below the radar of most North Americans. To the extent that it is noted, there is a tendency to imagine that it represents some coherent wave of rejection of the "neoliberal" policies of the nineties, fueled by the failure of those policies to improve the lives of the poor, and also by a rejection of the global policies of the Bush administration.

A careful examination of the particular situation in each country could note the unique aspects of each country's political dynamic, but there would remain a very interesting question. To what extent are these movements of a single kind, and what are the deeper wells of tradition and ideology that they draw upon?

In an article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, Jorge G. Castañeda divides the current leftist movements into two categories, based on the manner in which two long-standing political traditions have evolved.
"The left...has followed two different paths in Latin America. One left sprang up out of the Communist International and the Bolshevik Revolution and has followed a path similar to that of the left in the rest of the world. The Chilean, Uruguayan, Brazilian, Salvadoran, and, before Castro's revolution, Cuban Communist Parties, for example, obtained significant shares of the popular vote at one point or another, participated in "popular front" or "national unity" governments in the 1930s and 1940s, established a solid presence in organized labor, and exercised significant influence in academic and intellectual circles."
"The origin of the other Latin American left is peculiarly Latin American. It arose out of the region's strange contribution to political science: good old-fashioned populism. Such populism has almost always been present almost everywhere in Latin America....These populists are representative of a very different left -- often virulently anticommunist, always authoritarian in one fashion or another, and much more interested in policy as an instrument for attaining and conserving power than in power as a tool for making policy. They did do things for the poor -- Perón and Vargas mainly for the urban proletariat, Cárdenas for the Mexican peasantry -- but they also created the corporatist structures that have since plagued the political systems, as well as the labor and peasant movements, in their countries."
"...recently, something funny has happened to both kinds of leftist movements on their way back to power. The communist, socialist, and Castroist left, with a few exceptions, has been able to reconstruct itself, thanks largely to an acknowledgment of its failures and those of its erstwhile models. Meanwhile, the populist left -- with an approach to power that depends on giving away money, a deep attachment to the nationalist fervor of another era, and no real domestic agenda -- has remained true to itself. The latter perseveres in its cult of the past: it waxes nostalgic about the glory days of Peronism, the Mexican Revolution, and, needless to say, Castro. The former, familiar with its own mistakes, defeats, and tragedies, and keenly aware of the failures of the Soviet Union and Cuba, has changed its colors."
It is interesting how Castro seems to be the central figure in both of these movements - arising from the Bolshevik model that has now given rise to a quasi-social democratic model, but also one of the heroes of the authoritarian populist left of today. Perhaps it is an example of political success becoming an obstacle to the positive evolution that less successful parties are forced to undergo.

Castañeda makes strong arguments for how a leftist polity is almost inevitable in Latin America, so long as there is some measure of democracy, and that the populist tradition has been a consistent disaster for the people of Latin America. Writing for a readership that includes most of the decision makers in the foreign policy area (though probably not "the decider"), he advises the developed powers to acknowledge the differences in these movements, and to encourage one, while containing, though not undermining, the other. It is an intriguing analysis that deserves critical assessment.

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