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Is the “New Left” Simply More of the Same, or a New Political Force in Latin America?

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  • South American leftward shift here to stay?
  • Latin Business Chronicle's malpracticing prescription
  • Chávez is very different from Morales and Correa, though they all may face similar challenges.
  • What does the Uribe-Chávez flap portend?

The rise of what some call the "New Left" in Latin America has become an increasingly hot topic over the last decade. But what does it really signify for the hemisphere? While some claim that these left-leaning nations reflect just an aberrant phase in the democratization process, others insist that this development is leading to the very embodiment of enhanced freedom, where citizens have the opportunity for their voice to be heard, an education as well as a job paying a living wage. The New Left movement seems to be taking a solid hold in the region: close to 60 percent of its population live under an elected leader who leans or is committed to the left of the political spectrum. While Venezuela's Hugo Chávez may be attracting the most media attention, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa are following close behind the ideological tenacity that they bring to governance and as a result, the region is witnessing transformative changes which seem to be more real than ephemeral.

In an article last October, the Latin Business Chronicle boldly argues that "To reverse Latin America's slide toward socialism, the United States must increase its presence through additional support for democratic, market-based institutions." Critics of this thesis would say that the problem with this prescription is that it is more a bromide than a call to arms in a righteous cause. The advice sketched out by that business-oriented publication is that conventional wisdom has it that private is better than public, that Enron and Parmalat put to shame the Army Corps of Engineers and the Surgeon-General, and that nations currently in the process of development most certainly should follow an orthodox, endemic and political path similar to that of the U.S. and the rest of the West. This advice in itself is similarly flawed due its narrow definition and erroneous concept of the region's contemporary context. In addition, the current debate, which the previous sentiment is only part of, has been founded on an all-too-narrow footing of controversial assumptions. These have led to a series of vacuous generalizations that fail to provide any additional clarity to a country that may be legitimately involved in current polemics regarding developing ideological splits, no matter where it finds itself on the spectrum.

Politics as Usual
Any relevant analysis of the "New Left" must take as a given that the characteristics of each country are specific if not unique. The mistake of taking such a high-visibility administration like that of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and using it as a benchmark for like-minded governments in the region, is made far too often; this appellation commits a disservice if it is used to obscure the political gradations of policy which distinguish one country from another and the depth of those differences. It is important to counter this overly simplistic tendency to amalgamate countries that challenge one aspect or another of the bona fides behind Washington's regional policy but nothing else. All the more so when the rest of the hemisphere is aggressively reacting to Washington's failed neo-liberal economic medications, which have dominated Latin America during the Clinton-Bush decades, and have done it little service.

The Force that is Chávez
To some, Chávez's style of leadership bespeaks of authoritarianism, but to others it etches an old-fashioned brand of populism that for long has been the conventional diet of politics. In part, this may be because the Venezuela strongman has built his base on policies that are personalist rather than institutional. This is most discernable in his proposed constitutional reforms that will be the subject of a referendum next Sunday and which would put an end to all presidential term limits, as well as extend the presidential term from six to seven years and grant extended powers in the advent of a state of emergency, to name a few of the scores of other changes. On October 23, riots broke out in Caracas against these proposed constitutional changes, led in large part by student groups coming from Caracas' major educational institution, Central University, and other members of the middle-class opposition. The marchers believe that Chávez's reforms, which have been approved by the legislature and will be voted upon in the upcoming December 2 referendum, are testing the outer limits of the country's democratic system and must be stymied. Many of these same factions earlier had protested the revisions to the education system which critics claim would risk political indoctrinization, as well as the earlier non-extension of the license of the rabidly anti-Chávez private television station RCTV and the alleged politization of the armed forces.

Nevertheless, what many critics fail to address is that Hugo Chávez's concept of "21st Century Socialism" is not meant to resemble the traditional form of a state-apparatchik-driven bureaucracy where favoritism is the burning ember that provides the energy to the political process. Rather, it is meant to be a potent mixture of socialist economic with constitutionalist parliamentary politics. In Gregory Wilpert's Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, Chávez defends his political vision by claiming that: "There is no solution within capitalism, one must transcend capitalism. Nor is it about statism or state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union, which was the cause of its fall. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, as a project and a path, but a new socialism. Humanism, putting humans and not the machine ahead of everything, the human and not the state."

Debate over the worthiness of Chávez's vision could be threatened with obsolescence in light of recent events that could threaten his grand design; perhaps a more relevant current question might be whether the Venezuelan leader will continue to generate broad enough support within his country as well as abroad to sustain and then amplify his plans for his country's future, even if he is successful in nursing their principle elements for now. The increased tension from protests that plagued the streets of Caracas since the last days of October has cast some doubt on whether Chávez possesses the knack to work public relations in his favor. His weak point always has been more due to an unstable style than a lack of substance; he easily is the most innovative public figure operating in Latin America today, in addition to being the most rambunctious.

The latest Chávez-style eruption occurred in his recent split with President Uribe over Chávez's apparent violation of an agreement between the two over the Venezuela leader's pledge that he would not directly contact the command structure of the Colombian army. This break-off could have an enormous ramification for US-Latin America relations if Washington decides to meddle in troubled waters. Clearly Uribe overreacted to Chávez's action, and may have been spoiling for a fight, perhaps as an aspect of his strategy to influence the passage of the proposed FTA by the US Congress—an issue that most likely will be manipulated to achieve a trade matter which has been in trouble up to now. Among the issues which COHA is researching right now regards the grief that the break-off of efforts to achieve a release of the hostages and internal pressures in Colombia for a resumption of Chávez's humanitarian efforts there.

Chávez occupies an immensely important leadership role for Latin America's left, but it is entirely unrealistic to expect any kindred nation to follow in his exact footsteps. His critics maintain that he is a missile whose guidance system sometimes fails with catastrophic consequences; while often he can be counted on to win, he doesn't always know what to do with his victory. While this might be a fairer charge to bring against Lula, who has governed as a centrist after running as a man of the Left, it certainly cannot be claimed as accurately describing the Venezuelan leader. Chávez led the historic outbreak in anger over the harsh structural adjustment policies which were imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on such recipients as Venezuela and Argentina. Strings attached to loans emanating from these institutions allowed Chávez, with growing public support behind him, to assume the role of protector of the common Latin American and to arm him with the mission to lift his sword against the towering international lending bullies. As a result, the Venezuelan leader was able to generate an intense personal following while at the same time, the middle class opposition, some of whom originally had supported him, rapidly changed to despising his personage.

Bolivia's Indigenous Champion
The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has been bandwagoning on Chávez's "Leftist" train, vocalizing contempt for U.S. policies towards Latin America, while speaking out against Washington's outrageous treatment of the Cuban Five and regularly siding with Caracas when it came to condemning U.S. economic policies and its "imperialism." On October 30, Prensa Latina highlighted a Morales trip to Italy and reiterated his words that Bolivia faces two types of enemies, "the internal ones represented by oligarchic families, and the external one, namely the U.S. imperialism." However, Morales' trademark position is his passionate defense of indigenous rights, something distinct in focus from Chávez's ideological predilections and not historically frequently found high up in the agendas of Latin American leaders.

Like Chávez in Venezuela, as well as Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Morales has been spearheading an effort to fashion a new constitution for his country. This document would guarantee indigenous representation in congress as well as recognize the right to communal property. However, since the Constitutional Assembly began working on the new constitution in August of 2006, it has ended up at a dangerous standstill. The process has been bogged down by the battle between the nation's commercial and political center of La Paz and the colonial city of Sucre, as to which of these urban centers would be the country's capital (see "Capital Wars" by COHA Research Associate Cassidy Rush). Amid the bitter racial overtone between the largely indigenous-populated western highlands and the more Europeanized flatlands surrounding Santa Cruz, this struggle was more than symbolic. Fortunately for Morales, he just managed to finally get the Assembly seated after months of delay.

As these roadblocks illustrate, the current state of affairs in Bolivia is too divided to allow for the same type of evolution that Venezuela and even Ecuador have been attempting. This is where the similarities between Chávez and Morales cease. Whereas Chávez has created a movement around his persona, Morales saw an existing social movement and made it his cause. Thus, the confrontation in Bolivia is less about Morales and more about the structure of the social movement he is trying to mount. His status of peasant, farmer, union leader and indigenous is what helped carry him to the presidency, and not necessarily any charisma or high soaring political rhetoric.

Another Constituent Assembly
While Hugo Chávez in Venezuela may have initiated this generation's leftward canter in Latin America, with Evo Morales closely following, Rafael Correa of Ecuador is the most recent Latin American president to unleash reforms, that also are worthy of being branded with the "new left" emblem. Through a series of highly publicized moves, Correa is distancing Ecuador from Washington, without altogether breaking ties. Upon being elected president, he chose Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) over continuing Free Trade talks with the U.S., and also has firmly maintained that he will not renew an agreement that allows U.S. forces to continue to use the controversial Manta airbase for its anti-drug efforts, after the lease has run out in several years. But perhaps the most contentious of all of Correa's actions as president has been his determination for the Constituent Assembly, which was created as a result of his referendum victory to draft another new constitution—the 19th in Ecuador's 180 years of existence.

In April, the referendum on the creation of the Constituent Assembly passed and on September 30th, the country elected members to that body. Correa's PAIS Party won 80 of the 130 seats, giving it an outright majority. Many speculated that this favorable tally would translate into an easy road for Correa, since he would be largely spared the insuperable political roadblocks that Morales was facing in Bolivia. However, this is only where the battle began. Correa's plans for the dissolution of Congress have met unexpectedly harsh opposition from many of its members. As Correa continues to call for resignations of certain legislators, the Ecuadorian congress continues to scramble for outside support. In late October, indigenous groups marched on the capital demanding the recall of congress, citing that the body was a hotbed of corruption, and a pawn of foreign corporations.

The Constituent Assembly belatedly has begun the vexatious process of drafting a new constitution; following its completion, it will be the subject of another referendum. However, according to a poll by Cedatos/Gallup International, the general public's awareness of the plans for the new constitution is hardly profound. Only 34 percent of the respondents actually knew what the ultimate goal of the Assembly was supposed to be, as was broached in the April referendum: 66 percent thought that it would do such things as "reform laws," "end corruption," and "lower prices." These statistics do not provide the international community much confidence in the seriousness or the effectiveness of the process. So is this a case of apathy on the part of average Ecuadorians, or is it a matter of a hidden agenda on the part of the government? This is where many critics of the leftward shift begin to be worried, as they fear that the line between this new movement and a quick transformation into an authoritarian regime or dictatorship could be all too easy to cross. It is not that Chavez, Morales, or Correa have exhibited even the smallest dollop of preference for dictatorial rule over a thriving democracy, but that the dynamics of confrontation inadvertently produce such visceral consequences. Unfortunately, despite all of the oratory to the contrary, Correa, to his great frustration, has not been able to close the gap between the actual steps being taken by the government and its future intentions and the public's awareness of them.

Leave it to Evolution?
Blindly lumping Correa and Morales in with Chavez could wrack up heavy costs in terms of accuracy and sensitivity to nuances. It may also be a mistake to seek congruency with the country's various factions when great importance lies in the differences that deserve to be acknowledged and ventilated. While other Latin American leaders recognize that Hugo Chavez is extraordinarily open to generously sharing his nation's wealth by aiding his less well-endowed neighbors, through his petrol-dollar diplomacy, not all of them are entirely enthusiastically behind these efforts. Unlike Chavez, both other presidents have opted to remain in the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) when Venezuela left in 2006, in favor of signing onto Mercosur. At the time, the Venezuelan leader announced that CAN was dead as a result of Peru and Colombia's pending Free Trade Agreements with the U.S. Now the tide has somewhat shifted, however, as Correa and Morales continue to resist entering into FTA's with the U.S. and are fighting to keep CAN alive and perhaps link it with Mercosur. By aligning with an administration with the resources that are available to someone like Chavez, Morales and Correa are able to cash in on the implicit rewards that can follow from such a relationship not just of convenience, but also of solidarity, while still being able to maintain their independence and keep their own unique goals in sight, is no small matter.

The unusually dour fate of leftist movements in Latin America rarely has given optimists much grounds for hope over their longevity. Yet it can be argued that there may never have been a time where socialism's modest prospects are so bright as they are in contemporary Latin America. This could be an important juncture in the region's history, and whether you would rather term it "populist," "leftist," "New Deal," or socialist, it is undeniable that the "new left" movement in Latin America is presently a force majeure, at least for the near future. Previous U.S. policies have done little to alleviate the region's griefs, and quite often have accelerated them.

The populist precursors to the presidencies of Chávez, Morales, and Correa, like Maurice Bishop of Grenada, Salvador Allende of Chile, and Michale Manley of Jamaica, in addition to Getúlio Vargas of Brazil, Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, all had their differences at the time over how to unite around the common goal of affirming their nation's independence while, ultimately, encouraging further genuine development. Whatever insights one may hold regarding where Latin America is now headed, and whatever the personal demurrers one may hold, it does not appear to be merely more of the same.