THE BLOG

Quo Vadis Latin American Left?

14/01/2016 15:44 GMT | Updated 14/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Over the past weeks, Latin American left wing movements, politicians, and parties have looked increasingly weakened. From the ongoing impeachment process against Brazilian Dilma Rousseff, to the defeats of Cristina Fernández in Argentina and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the so-called Latin American New Left seems to be in disarray; but is it so?

It is undeniable that a combination of poor economic and political choices combined with faltering of prices of key exports such as oil and iron ore have put the onus on governments which had been relatively successful before. Equally, the international financial crisis has dented virtually every country around the world, regardless of their political leanings, and this region has been no exception.

In the case of Latin America, certain sections of the media have lost no time to call it a day for the New Left. Joshua Goodman called it a "retreat"; Raymond Colitt, Anna Edgerton and Charlie Devereux referred to it as the "end of the Latin American populist Left"; while Christopher Sabatini went as far as announcing, almost in messianic tones, that we are witnessing its "sad death".

Yes, the Latin American New Left has suffered some setbacks, but it is far from being in retreat, at an end, or facing a sad death. The reality, not only at a regional but also at a global level, is that the Left is, if anything, on the rise. The reasons for this rise are varied, but seeking an alternative to the current neoliberal sort of uncontrolled capitalism, first tested in Latin America of all places, seem to be at the core of it.

In Europe, earlier this year Syriza put up a mighty fight against the austerity policies dictated by the EU and its financial buddies. Although Syriza yielded in the end, their struggle did not go unnoticed. In Portugal, a coalition of progressive parties has recently taken power, providing the EU with another test of wills. In Spain, Podemos has had a meteoric ascent, breaking the traditional two-party system that has been in place since Franco's death. In Britain, the Scottish National Party, and the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, have given impetus to a resurgence of the Left, in ways that were thought impossible only a year ago.

If anyone harbors doubts about this global revival of the Left, one needs to look no further than the United States, where Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, finds himself challenging Hilary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination for the next presidential elections. In a country such as the US, this is no joke. Here is a man who, among other things, wants to address income and wealth inequality; a man who is interested in raising the living wage, strengthening social security, and reforming Wall Street. Sanders, however, wants to do all this through Democratic Socialism, a recipe Latin American New Left politicians should be willing to follow as well.

Carving a new path

The emergence of the New Left has been marred, it seems, by a lack of theorists, on the one hand, and by an abundance of strong figures, on the other. While neoliberalism as an economic and political force has counted thinkers such as Hayek and Friedman, whose free-market capitalism premises were first implemented in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the Left has relied mostly on strong men -and women- who have often shown what Noam Chomsky refers to as the pathological traits of the caudillo.

Authoritarianism has been and is a key problem in Latin America. Ever since Jacobo Arbenz attempted to introduce a series of progressive social reforms in Guatemala in the 1950s, US-backed destabilization campaigns, assassination attempts, and coups have been the response to every progressive administration in the region. The examples are plentiful, and include Cuba in 1961, Brazil and Bolivia in 1964, Uruguay in 1972, Chile in 1973, and Argentina in 1976. Unfortunately, this practice of bringing down progressive governments is not a thing of the past, as the coups of 2002 in Venezuela and 2009 in Honduras demonstrated.

The main issue with the achievements, which are many, of the New Left governments, is that often their drive to redistribute wealth is accompanied by democratic erosion, which, in turn, paradoxically, puts their own achievements in jeopardy when the time to cede power comes. In that sense, they have become their own worst enemies. Take for example the case of Venezuela, where all the popular reforms that benefitted large numbers of people are now in serious danger of being erased, because they were achieved, to a certain extent, by bullying and corruption.

The solution, of course, is more democracy and less populism. This is the only way of cementing life-changing reforms, instead of making them easy targets for the following administrations. In Latin America we have at least one recent case of a progressive government that has succeeded in challenging the Washington Consensus and reducing the power and influence of big international businesses. In Uruguay, that small country between two giants, we have seen a blossoming economy develop in the midst of the international financial crisis. More to the point, this healthy economy has emerged accompanied by social reforms that include progressive laws concerning abortion, same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization.

At an end? In retreat? Sadly dead?

Has the New Left failed? Honestly, it would be difficult to find sound arguments to demonstrate that it has. Paraphrasing Malcolm X, those recent defeats are nothing but seeds and lessons that will hopefully lead to better strategies of government in the future. This is not a story about failure or success, but about learning from one's own mistakes. After all, what have unregulated markets and privatization done for Latin America so far?

We would do well to remember that Chávez, Morales, Correa and others were elected to office, often in landslide victories, precisely because of the failure of neoliberal governments to address the needs of the many. The media mongers of doom should care to mention that in Bolivia and Uruguay both Evo Morales and Armando Tabaré Vázquez won convincingly in respective presidential elections held in 2014. Other rarely discussed recent Left victories in the polls that hardly point to a sad death are those of Salvador Sánchez Cerén in El Salvador, Ollanta Humala in Peru, Michele Bachelet in Chile, and Luis Guillermo Solís in Costa Rica. Setbacks in a long process that aims to replace greed and excess with equality and justice are to be expected, but this is a journey and there is still quite a long way to go yet.