Thursday, April 20, 2006

Castañeda on the new Latin American Lefts

Intriguing article by Jorge Castañeda, now at NYU, on the rise of different "lefts" in South America. [Via Pablo Policzer]. I like the idea of different leftists, which is clearly true. But I have serious doubts about his characterizations of particular regional leaders. But... take a read, and let me know what you think.
The reasons for Latin America's turn to the left are not hard to discern. Along with many other commentators and public intellectuals, I started detecting those reasons nearly fifteen years ago, and I recorded them in my book Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, which made several points. The first was that the fall of the Soviet Union would help the Latin American left by removing its geopolitical stigma. Washington would no longer be able to accuse any left-of-center regime in the region of being a "Soviet beachhead" (as it had every such government since it fomented the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz's administration in Guatemala in 1954); left-wing governments would no longer have to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union, because the latter had simply disappeared.

The second point was that regardless of the success or failure of economic reforms in the 1990s and the discrediting of traditional Latin American economic policies, Latin America's extreme inequality (Latin America is the world's most unequal region), poverty, and concentration of wealth, income, power, and opportunity meant that it would have to be governed from the left of center. The combination of inequality and democracy tends to cause a movement to the left everywhere. This was true in western Europe from the end of the nineteenth century until after World War II; it is true today in Latin America. The impoverished masses vote for the type of policies that, they hope, will make them less poor.

Third, the advent of widespread democratization and the consolidation of democratic elections as the only road to power would, sooner or later, lead to victories for the left -- precisely because of the social, demographic, and ethnic configuration of the region. In other words, even without the other proximate causes, Latin America would almost certainly have tilted left.

This forecast became all the more certain once it became evident that the economic, social, and political reforms implemented in Latin America starting in the mid-1980s had not delivered on their promises....


Compare this article from the NY Times on the erosion of the old South American political parties.
From Venezuela to Argentina, many of the traditional parties that built dynasties through patronage and hard- knuckle politics - but also offered stability, a clear ideology and experienced functionaries ready to govern - are disintegrating. Disillusioned by corruption and a failure to deliver prosperity, voters are increasingly captivated by new, mostly leftist movements that promise to redistribute wealth, punishing traditional parties and turning political systems on their heads.


Anonymous said...

The fall of the Soviet Union certainly did help the left, for the reasons Castaneda describes. But justifications like "fighting communism" were not always necessary for intervention, and intervention often took the form of de facto economic sanctions, rather than military actions.

Two factors not mentioned have South Americans insulate themselves from US intervention: a more informed American public, and the rise of the Asian economies.

A much greater percentage of Americans is now cognizant of the fact that the US often intervenes on behalf of a few influential business interests, rather than in an attempt to stop communism or help lift up the poor of Latin America.

Also, more people recognize that many of the regimes we supported in the past were at least as bad as Castro's. So it's harder for the US government to sell Americans on humanitarian justifications for intervention.

And the rise of the Asian economies has made it possible for countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to find markets and investment capital without having to trade with the US, so it's no longer possible to destabilize the governments of those countries by refusing to trade.

One of the reasons that the Pinochet coup was successful was that the Chilean economy had been brought to a standstill by what amounted to an American boycott. So people were much more willing to accept an undemocratic ruler, because it meant a significant improvement in living standards.

helmut said...

Great points. I think it's especially true that trade with China in particular has helped to give South American nations a sense of economic independence from los nortenos.

troutsky said...

I don't think you can discount the importance of petro dollars helping the new leftist leaders make good on their promises to the poor, in the past the US could strangle the populist leaders through economic embargo and there would be no Chavez ready with alternative financing.At 75 dollars a barrel he can buy all kinds of debt.

There also is a new rise in indigenous consciousness, dark skinned people using the language of anti-colonialism to spark new movements.

helmut said...

I think it's interesting that petro-wealth is used as leverage in different ways by VZ than those traditionally used by the North/West, in which there are few petroleum countries that have used that wealth to solve social or environmental problems. VZ goes a different route, collecting allies along the way. Same dynamic, but VZ makes an effort to aid countries in gaining independence from the North. The North doesn't like that.