Cover story -- Latin America
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 17, 2006

Revolution at the polls

Latin American voter disenchantment provokes leftward shift

Lima, Peru

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 country’s first woman president, who was forced into exile in the 1970s after her father was killed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 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 “isn’t just among people who define themselves as left. People’s 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.

“It’s 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, Venezuela’s 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 country’s two major parties. The 2002 election of Brazil’s 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 region’s voters believe their countries’ elections are tainted by fraud and that their votes don’t bring about much change.

The key issue for the region’s 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 region’s 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 don’t achieve both economic improvement and a redistribution of wealth -- and not just [economic] growth, as in Peru in recent years -- they’ll 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 Toledo’s 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 country’s 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 administration’s unwillingness to negotiate on immigration issues.

Morales’ election will bring U.S. drug policy under scrutiny. In his inaugural address, Bolivia’s 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 country’s 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 region’s 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.

Elections in Latin America, country by country

Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the opposition Liberal Party scored a narrow victory over Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the governing National Party in the Nov. 27 presidential election. But despite his slogan of “citizen power” and his rival’s attempts to characterize him as a radical, Zelaya is a wealthy landowner and former president of the country’s forestry trade association. His family has large agricultural and timber holdings in Olancho, north of Tegucigalpa, where church leaders have been fighting illegal logging by timber companies.

Evo Morales’ December 2005 election was a milestone not just because the new president comes from a rural indigenous family and has been a leader of the influential coca growers’ movement, but also because he won a clear majority on the first ballot in a country where backroom deals sometimes end with the lowest vote-getter becoming president. In his inaugural address, Morales pledged greater social equality and promised that more benefits from the country’s natural resources, especially hydrocarbons, would flow to Bolivians. Although he has served in Congress and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) has led local governments, Morales and his new cabinet have little national government experience. One test of Morales’ leadership and political strength will come in early August, when he has pledged to hold an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution.

While the international media most often point out that President-elect Michelle Bachelet, who took office Feb. 5, is a socialist, an agnostic and a single mother, Chileans know her as a strong supporter of human rights whose family suffered under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. She is a former cabinet member who has held the posts of both health minister and defense minister. Bachelet, a pediatrician with training in defense issues who is widely praised for her technical expertise, provides continuity to the policies instituted by the coalition government that steered Chile back to democracy after Pinochet’s 16-year dictatorship.

Costa Rica
Former President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, heads a field of 14 candidates for the February elections, but he is unlikely to poll enough votes to avoid a runoff. In a region where several countries sent troops to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Arias has been a critic of U.S. policy. Nevertheless, he has supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, unlike his closest opponent, Otton Solis, who trails by about 15 points in pre-election opinion polls.

With disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori’s bid for a return to the country squelched, the front-runners for the April elections are Lourdes Flores, a former congresswoman billed by local media as the right-wing candidate, and Ollanta Humala, a retired Army colonel with strongly nationalistic rhetoric and a vague platform. A total of 23 candidates, including former presidents Alan Garcia and Valentin Paniagua, are vying for the presidency. Because in Peru it is not uncommon for the winning candidate to move up from the back of the pack at the last minute, most political analysts are still hedging their bets.

A constitutional change made last year will allow President Alvaro Uribe to run for re-election in May. Although the country’s four-decade armed conflict continues, Uribe enjoys one of the region’s highest approval ratings, with 62 percent of Colombians saying he is doing a good job, according to Latinobarometro. There have been rumors that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) could release some politicians they have kidnapped over the years, possibly to Venezuelan government officials. Such a move would probably give a boost to Uribe’s candidacy. One of the hostages, Ingrid Betancourt, is a former presidential candidate who was abducted while campaigning in 2002.

Although President Vicente Fox broke a seven-decade grip on power by the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI), the candidate of his Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, is trailing in the polls. Former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido de la Revolución Democratica (PRD), currently the front-runner in the campaign that recently got under way for the July elections, would fit into the ranks of left-leaning leaders around Latin America. PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo has been in third place, slightly behind Calderón in the polls.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was a strong force behind the formation of a South American Community, but he has been battered by corruption scandals in his Workers Party and has not announced whether he will run for a second term in October. The mayor and governor of São Paulo have been named as possible candidates, but so far the field is undefined. According to Farid Kahhat, unless a right-wing candidate wins, whoever takes office in Brazil is likely to continue the current government’s social policies on the domestic front and integration efforts in the region.

Ecuador has had seven presidents in the past nine years. The current chief executive, Alfredo Palacio, took office when former President Lucio Gutiérrez, who was elected in 2002, was ousted by Congress last year. Gutiérrez had come to power largely with the support of the country’s indigenous movement, whose power eroded with the government’s credibility. The campaign for the October elections has not yet officially begun, but left-leaning names in the mix include former Finance Minister Rafael Correa and the indigenous mayor of the city of Cotacachi, Auki Tituana. Other possible contenders are Leon Roldos, brother of a former president, and businessman Alvaro Noboa. Gutiérrez, though in prison, has already announced his candidacy.

Two members of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) are vying to return the party to the presidency in Nicaragua’s November elections. Former President Daniel Ortega, who led the country after the success of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 but was subsequently defeated at the polls and tainted by personal and political scandals, is facing off against the more moderate Herty Lewites, former FSLN mayor of Managua. According to Lisa Haugaard, the competition could split the leftist vote, paving the way for a right-wing victory.

Venezuelans will go to the polls in December to choose a new president. The most likely front-runner is President Hugo Chávez, who has survived various opposition efforts to unseat him at the polls. The opposition withdrew from last year’s legislative elections, further solidifying Chávez’s grip on power. The president has raised his profile in the region with his outspoken opposition to U.S. policy -- and the heating oil his country provided for low-income residents in the northeastern United States -- as well as his political and financial support to other Latin American governments. Although other political figures, including Morales in Bolivia and candidate Ollanta Humala in Peru, look to Chávez as an ally, his model of domestic populism and foreign influence is difficult to emulate because it depends heavily on the petroleum bonanza currently buoying Venezuela’s economy.

-- Barbara Fraser

National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
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: