|Cover story -- Latin America|
Issue Date: February 17, 2006
Revolution at the polls
Latin American voter disenchantment provokes leftward shift
By BARBARA FRASER
A quiet revolution appears to be under way in Latin America, as changes that guerrillas failed to achieve -- or achieved only partially -- in the 1970s and 1980s are coming about at the ballot box.
Bolivians danced in the streets Jan. 22 after Evo Morales, a native Aymara and former leader of coca-growing farmers, was sworn in as president. A week earlier, Chileans celebrated the election of Michelle Bachelet, that countrys first woman president, who was forced into exile in the 1970s after her father was killed by Gen. Augusto Pinochets forces.
There has never been a left in Latin America that has had the electoral success that various leftist forces are having today, said Farid Kahhat, who heads the international relations program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Because voters who place themselves on the left end of the spectrum are a minority in the region, he said, the shift isnt just among people who define themselves as left. Peoples reasons for voting for the left seem to have more to do with their disenchantment with the status quo.
While that trend could take deeper root this year as voters head to the polls in more than half a dozen countries, the left-right distinction may be misleading.
Its important to look at the different kinds of leftist presidents [in Latin America] and not just see them as one unit, said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group. The United States typically misunderstands leftist movements in Latin America, and the danger is that it will see them as a threat and overreact.
With his outspoken challenges to U.S. policy in the region, Venezuelas President Hugo Chávez is the South American president who has attracted the most U.S. attention -- at least until Morales election in Bolivia, which has been a focus of U.S. anti-drug policy. But with his strong hold on power in the country, Chávez more closely resembles his neighbor, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, than other chief executives, even though Uribe is much farther to the right on the political spectrum, Haugaard said.
In Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, moderate leftists in the style of European social democrats have quietly forged a political and economic alliance that has stymied U.S. efforts to establish a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Those presidents have also led a move to hold previous military governments accountable for human rights violations committed during the 1970s and 1980s.
Throughout the region, the regime change has been a product of voters disenchantment with traditional leadership. In the past decade, at least nine Latin American presidents were hounded from office before completing their terms.
Others were ousted at the ballot box. Mexicans ended the 70-year rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in 2000, while Uruguayans took to the streets in late 2004 to celebrate the victory of President Tabare Vasquez, which broke the decades-long dominance of the countrys two major parties. The 2002 election of Brazils President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gave impetus to a push for South American integration, although subsequent corruption scandals weakened support for the president at home.
Latin Americans seem a bit more optimistic about their new leaders. In a 2005 survey by the regional polling organization Latinobarometro, 49 percent gave their governments a thumbs-up while 43 percent disapproved of the way their countries were run. Just one year earlier those figures were reversed.
Still, the optimism is cautious. More than half the regions voters believe their countries elections are tainted by fraud and that their votes dont bring about much change.
The key issue for the regions voters is the economy. The free-market policies promoted by the United States and multilateral lending organizations over the past two decades have failed to reduce poverty and have exacerbated the gap between rich and poor. Political platforms of the regions leftist candidates are generally marked by calls for greater economic equality within the country and greater autonomy from U.S. control, Kahhat said.
Whether the leftward shift continues will depend on how well these new leaders deliver on their promises.
If they dont achieve both economic improvement and a redistribution of wealth -- and not just [economic] growth, as in Peru in recent years -- theyll probably just create a new sense of disenchantment, which could be dangerous, because it could create support for more radical or even violent antisystem options, Kahhat said.
Despite steady economic growth in Peru, President Alejandro Toledos popularity has been below 15 percent for much of his five-year term. The same disillusionment with traditional politicians that led voters to support both Toledo and his predecessor, Alberto Fujimori, is now bolstering the countrys current antiestablishment candidate, the staunchly nationalist former Army Col. Ollanta Humala.
Many observers have commented that the leftward shift, especially in South America, has come at a time when the Bush administration appears to be neglecting its neighbors in the hemisphere.
For Haugaard, it may be a saving grace that [the United States] is not paying attention. Nevertheless, both she and Kahhat suggested that changes in U.S. policy could go a long way toward smoothing relations in the region.
One bone of contention is the U.S. stance on trade issues, especially agriculture subsidies, which have been a stumbling block in trade negotiations despite agreements that have been reached with Chile, Peru and Central America in recent years. Another is the Bush administrations unwillingness to negotiate on immigration issues.
Morales election will bring U.S. drug policy under scrutiny. In his inaugural address, Bolivias new president pronounced himself in favor of zero cocaine, but not zero coca, the key ingredient in cocaine. Dialogue with the United States on the issue, he said, must take place without blackmail and without subjugation.
That kind of rhetoric, along with his insistence on a greater share of the wealth from natural resources, especially the countrys natural gas reserves, strikes a chord not just in his impoverished Andean homeland but throughout the region. But rhetoric alone is not enough to keep a government in power, particularly in the Andes, where street protests in Bolivia and Ecuador have ousted presidents in recent years.
Ultimately, Haugaard said, in gauging the regions new presidents and the candidates running for office this year, the question should be who is going to govern in an accountable way, who is going to protect citizens rights both on an economic level and on a political level, and who is going to be able to manage the different interests competing for attention and come out successfully.
Barbara Fraser is a freelance writer living in Peru.
National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 2006
|Copyright © The
National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280 Send comments about this Web site to: firstname.lastname@example.org