The Latin American New Left

Chavez's Influence Continues to Spread Throughout the Continent

by Seth R. DeLong

Resist newsletter, July/August 2005


The inauguration of Tabare Vadzquez in Uruguay shows that Latin America's democratic march to the left continues, and could be a forerunner to Mexico's 2006 presidential election. The Bush administration, already uncomfortable with Latin America's new left, would become apoplectic if this movement reached the US-Mexican border. A Lopez Obrador victory in the Mexican election would signal the ultimate domino falling. Bush's Latin America team fails to understand that the model of the new left in Latin America today is less Che Guevara than FDR and Tony Blair's British Labor Party.

The growing center-left ideological tilt among Latin American states is symptomatic of a growing movement towards a continental alliance and a political stance markedly different from that being fielded by the US.

The Uruguay Example

On March 1, 2005 Uruguayans inaugurated their first ever left-of-center president. This event shattered the power-sharing arrangement that had existed for the last 170 years between the moderate Colorado and Blanco parties. Dr. Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist, who ran on an antineoliberal platform, was not the standard bearer of any well entrenched political party. Rather, he was the leader of a medley of relatively small movements that joined together under his Broad Front (Frente Amplio) coalition.

The major issue Washington will be watching in the months ahead is not whether Vazquez will chart a leftist course, but just how left-of-center that course will be. Will he adopt a concertación style of government as seen in Chile, a balancing act between populist demands and IMF mandates as in Brazil, or a frontal assault on Washingtonat least rhetorically-like Venezuela under Hugo Chavez?

It is difficult to divine how Uruguay's new president will deal with the threefold challenge posed by his country's crippling debt, widespread poverty and high unemployment rate, all of which were exacerbated by Argentina's 2001 crash. Those in the coalition's far left-wing will want him to challenge the IMF's prescriptions at every turn; but, unlike Argentina under Nestor Kirchner, Vazquez has given no indication that he will default on his country's foreign loans. To the contrary, his choice for economy and finance minister, Danilo Astori, is viewed by observers as cautious and conservative. Astori, as reported in the Economist, believes that "Brazil played a central role to prove that a leftist government can be compatible with rigorous fiscal behavior." Given that Vazquez's likely economic model will be similar to the Keynesian model to which other new left governments in the region have turned,.what does the Uruguayan leader's victory mean for the future of the continent's resurgent left-leaning movement?

New Left Movement Marching North?

In an interview with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), Professor Peter H. Smith of the Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of California in San Diego said, "The greatest significance for Latin America is whether Vázquez's victory is part of a trend that culminates in a win for LOpez Obrador in the upcoming Mexican elections." In the event of a Lopez Obrador victory, Smith continued, "Washington would really start to worry. That would mean a major tilt in the [ideological] balance of the hemisphere."

So far, Latin America's leftward shift has been relegated to the southern continent. However, a Lopez Obrador victory could precipitate a tectonic shift for the Bush administration's ill-reputed Latin America team from grudging acceptance of South America's left-of-center governments to the use of Cold War-style tactics against them. Even though Lopez Obrador, as the candidate of Mexico's left-leaning PRD party, appears to be moderate, the prospect of another new left administration-this time right on the US border-would be all but intolerable to the administration's nostalgic Cold War ideologues. A Lopez Obrador victory particularly would upset Eliot Abrams, that self-confessed perjurer and booster for Central America's death squads in the 1980s who now serves as Bush's Deputy National Security Advisor and Roger Noriega, the assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Both men see regional policy exclusively through an anti-Havana prism and can hardly be comfortable with Latin America lurching in the direction of everything they loath.

A New Left Oil Bloc?

While the US is forced to barely tolerate Chavez so long as he keeps the oil flowing, a Lopez Obrador victory in Mexico next year would likely scorch Washington policymakers, especially if he reverses Vicente Fox's policy and reaches out to Castro as have Chavez, Lula, Kirchner and Vázquez. If he wins, the administration will then be faced with four left-of-center hemispheric powerhouses: Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The nightmare scenario for the Bush team would then be Chavez inviting Lopez Obrador and Mexico's state owned oil company, Pemex, into a cooperative arrangement with the Venezuelan leader's oil trading bloc, "Petrosur," which already includes Argentina and, as of March 2, Uruguay. Given

that Mexico and Venezuela are two of the US' top four sources of foreign oil imports (behind Saudi Arabia and Canada), a combined Obrador-Chávez alliance would account for upwards of a quarter of all US petroleum imports. One can pretty easily anticipate how the Bush administration would react to such a petro bloc emerging, recalling Henry Kissinger's old adage that any threat to Saudi oil exports to the US would be a casus belli. As Kissinger famously said, "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist becaue of the irresponsibility of its own people."

Though the current administration has so far not done anything as brazen in Latin America as Nixon and Kissinger routinely did in terms of destroying democracy in order to save it, when confronted with a choice between backing authoritarian regimes friendly to US interests or freewheeling democracies, it has unfailingly opted for the former. In 2002, the Bush administration, after having channeled funds to the Venezuelan opposition, openly endorsed the coup against Chavez before hastily retracting that position once the coup failed. As usual in interventions of this kind, US support of the minority opposition resulted directly into swelling the majority of the population's support for Washington's self-denominated foe.

In February of last year, the administration arranged the de facto ouster of Haiti's first democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since then, it has failed to publicly condemn human rights violations under interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue's bankrupt regime, nor has it tried to ensure that the island's majority party, Fanmi Lavalas, can participate safely in next fall's scheduled elections. These examples demonstrate that contrary to President Bush's words in his last inaugural address that "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way," his administration is quite firmly prepared to sabotage Latin America's 'own way' to democracy if it differs from Washington's.

But Just How Left-wing Are They?

In contrast to right-wing jitters over Latin America's "rising red tide," a sober look at these governments-certainly Brazil, Argentina and even Venezuela-reveals a significant gap between their antineoliberal rhetoric and their actual economic policies. While bashing the IMF and the World Bank has become the region's polemical norm, no leader-not even Chavez-is seriously contemplating a wholesale rejection of the basic principles of Keynesian economics even if some, like Kirchner, challenge IMF mandates. What this means is that Latin America's new left governments will favor mixed markets modeled on the post World War II monetarist policies of social democratic European states, like Clement Atlee's Britain. Befitting this pattern, as Latin America's new left-of-center states go about creating safety nets for the poor, they continue to court foreign investment and encourage capitalist ventures to help pay for them.

On the gap between the theory and practice of the new left in Latin America, as can be seen in Chavez's government, Dr. James Petras of the University of New York at Binghamton has written that, "The euphoria of the left prevents them from observing the pendulum shifts in Chavez's discourse and the heterodox social welfare and neoliberal economic politics he has consistently practiced." Confirming Chavez's progressive bona fides while at the same time calling attention to his standard Keynesian economic policy, Professor Petras writes that the Venezuelan leader's policy ". . . is closer to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal than Castro's Socialist revolution."

None of the above is meant to suggest that the region's leaders have not made significant strides towards alleviating poverty and hunger. To the contrary, Lula and Chavez have enacted some of South America's bolder initiatives in order to reduce the region's inordinate levels of inequality. The important point is that while the new left-of-center governments are launching many New Deal-style reformist initiatives, the core free market structures remain intact.

Accordingly, if Vázquez follows Latin America's other neo New Dealers, we can expect the following from his Broad Front administration: first, a neoliberal economic policy coupled with a politically left agenda; second, interest in revivifying the PanAmerican ideal, currently modeled on Chavez's Bolivarian dream of South America as a regional economic hegemon; third, a gradual turning away from Washington politically, if not economically. An amalgam of these three creedal beliefsKeynesian economics hitched to left-of-center politics, intra rather than interhemispheric integration, and a gradual shift towards Europe and Asia is probably the most apt description of the new variant of leftism being displayed in Latin America today. If Vázquez ends up fitting this mold, then we can expect him to be far more like Lula and even Chavez than Fox and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia.

Drive Toward Intrahemispheric Trade

Though efforts to strengthen the South American Common Market have been somewhat disappointing, Brazil and Venezuela have retarded and maybe even shut down Washington's push for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). This integrationist approach is likely to advance at least as long as Washington continues its duplicitous subsidization of US agriculture while preaching the virtues of free trade to its southern neighbors.

As part of the region's Pan-American drive for Latin unity, we will see further moves toward solidifying a South American trade bloc, such as Chavez's proposal for ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for America. Eduardo Duhalde, former president of Argentina, already has declared that "our mirror will be the European Union, with all its institutions." Following this trend, on March 2 Vázquez signed the "Declaration of Montevideo" with Chavez. The significance of this agreement, which brings Uruguay into Venezuela-sponsored Petrosur, is that it is one more step, albeit a small one, in the direction of intrahemispheric trade and cooperation and away from Washington's preferred plans for multilateral, interhemispheric trade.

Could the next step be a single South American currency modeled after the euro7 If Lopez Obrador wins, that possibility could be on the docket and certainly Chavez-notwithstanding Washington's fear of another debilitating blow against the dollar, as happened with the advent of the euro-will continue pushing for it.

Meanwhile, the danger Latin America's New Dealers face is that Bush's cabal of neoconservatives does not seem to realize that having an occasional dinner with Castro does not make one a Che Guevara. In Professor Smith's words, "Vázquez needs to court Castro because if he can't deliver to his base materially then he can at least deliver symbolically. But politically, he will throw his lot in with Kirchner and Lula." Unfortunately, if the past is to be our guide, there is no indication that Washington has the patience or wisdom to interpret such courting as merely symbolic.


Seth R. DeLong is the Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. This article is excerpted with permission from COHA. For more information, contact Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 1250 Connecticut Avenue NW Suite 1-C, Washington, DC 20036;

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