Leftist Latin America: Destined for dysfunction?

Author: Liam Murphy, Johns Hopkins University

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Is the pink tide ebbing? Less than a decade ago, Latin America was home to numerous vibrant leftist political movements, with popular leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Brazil’s Lula da Silva leading the charge for socialist reform and a rebuke of capitalist intervention in the region. The potency of leftist regimes in the region was palpable, but it was less certain whether the stability of the movement depended on the tenacity of its leaders or its overarching principles.

Today, it is clear the profundity of leftism in South America rests on its individual champions, as the absence of Chavez, Lula and Cuba’s Fidel Castro has left the position of standard-bearer for the continent’s radical left seemingly vacant. In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro has lacked the zeal and nuance to successfully maintain Chavez-era policies, leaving the country’s inflation-ridden economy in flux and drug-related crime continually worsening. Lula’s leftist successor, Dilma Rousseff, has been inconsistent in her adherence to leftist principles, to say nothing of her waning popularity and the recent questions of corruption in her ranks. Cuba’s new Castro has largely remained committed to his brother’s doctrine, but increased cooperation with the United States marks a pivotal change in the new regime’s policy. A new wave of leaders has risen to power elsewhere, though. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first president of indigenous origin, appears determined to pursue policies of industrial nationalization and anti-interventionism. Likewise, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has cemented himself as a steadfast critic of the United States and supporter of socialist principles. Yet even as new leaders seek to uphold leftist ideals and distance Latin America from the rest of the West, the ambivalence and discontinuity of the region as a whole may ultimately undermine the efforts of radicals like Correa and Morales.

Over the last few years, the rise of more moderate leaders in Latin America has been overshadowed by the boldness and dysfunction of their more extreme counterparts. Left-leaning, pragmatic regimes in Chile and Uruguay have been keen to both maintain ties with the rest of the region and placate capitalist nations like the United States. Meanwhile, the seemingly moderate nature of the regimes of Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Brazil and Argentina has given way to a dizzying array of rhetorical inconsistencies and ineffective economic policies. Rousseff was fortunate to gain reelection in Brazil’s recent runoff, but questions about the efficacy of her government and the country’s stalling economy may soon undermine the ideological closeness she claims to have with her Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorian counterparts. The situation is similarly troubling in Argentina, where President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner faces the country’s eighth default in its history and has grown increasingly paranoid of US meddling in Argentinean affairs, a paranoia many believe to be unfounded.

This combination of economic dysfunction and supposed ideological solidarity among the Latin American left suggests the region’s most powerful and polarizing leaders are not prepared to participate on the international stage in earnest. It seems South America’s leading politicians are willing to scapegoat the United States and the forces of corporate imperialism rather than examine their own domestic deficiencies. To be sure, the region’s leftist leaders have experienced a wide range of results in their efforts to collectivize industrially and distance themselves from the US. Morales, who was recently reelected to a third presidential term, has been largely successful in his efforts to nationalize Bolivian industries and promote the country’s disenfranchised indigenous majority. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has seen mixed results domestically since coming to power in 2007, succeeding in lowering unemployment and poverty while flaking on the country’s national debt and threatening to limit the civil liberties of his opponents. Nicolas Maduro’s succession of Chavez has been nothing short of a disaster, as inflation has risen to over 63% and a decline in oil prices has led many to predict a Venezuelan default may not be far off. This range of outcomes has typified the leftist experiment in Latin America since Chavez and Castro. Economic policy in the region has been erratic and inconsistent and consensus on foreign issues is largely dependent on an overarching anti-American sentiment – a sentiment that may not last.

Fortunately, economic dysfunction and ideological discontinuity may not ultimately define the legacy of leftism in the region. There is evidence that socialist ideology has sometimes been effective in South America. In Chile and Uruguay, pragmatic leaders Michelle Bachelet and José Mujica, respectively, have been flexible and cautious in their domestic and international approaches, without sacrificing their positive relationships with their more radical contemporaries. It is difficult to say whether this pragmatism, the dysfunction of Rousseff and Fernández, or the radical dogma of the Morales bloc will prevail in Latin America. The region’s most extreme leaders retain the conviction and charm of their predecessors, but audacious policy has begun to fail. Their moderate counterparts seem caught between their ideological roots and the realities of the global economy. It is possible that the current dynamic of loose ideological solidarity and collective stubbornness will be enough to preserve leftist sentiments in the region. But if Latin America and its wide array of charismatic, recalcitrant leaders wish to assume a bigger role internationally, it is imperative that they first take a sensible approach to the problems that exist at home and understand their unique respective circumstances.

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