BUENOS AIRES -- Lydia Massone says she is embarrassed to be a new member of
her neighborhood barter club.
"I'm angry at the politicians who put me here," she said, surveying the hundreds
who come each week to trade services or home-produced goods for anything ranging
from pizza to new plumbing in the ritzy Barrio Norte section of town.
Once a well-heeled member of Argentina's middle class, Massone grew accustomed
to foreign vacations, a fancy apartment and the security of a dollar-denominated
nest-egg sitting in the bank.
But like many Argentines, her lifestyle has spiraled downward in the past eight
months. Her savings were trapped after the government froze bank accounts in December.
In January, her employer, a travel agency, went bust. And since her husband died
in March, she has been forced to barter clothes to make ends meet.
Disappointed with hollow promises and disgusted by years of unchecked political
corruption, millions of middle-class voters like Massone are playing a key role
in the recent upsurge of left-wing parties that is rapidly changing the political
landscape in Latin America.
In Brazil, a former union leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is the front-
runner for the presidential election in October. In Argentina, Elisa Carrio, a
populist firebrand, is expected to become the country's next president.
In Bolivia, Aymara Indian Evo Morales, who campaigned on an anti-free- market
platform that included nationalization of key industries, finished second among
11 presidential candidates last month, while his Movement to Socialism party won
a strong presence in Congress.
STATE OF EMERGENCY IN PERU
Mass protests in June forced Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo to declare
a state of emergency after plans to privatize two power utilities in Arequipa
sparked five days of riots. The ensuing violence caused three deaths and $100
million in damages.
And just this month, opposition to free-market policies in Paraguay led to
bloody riots that forced President Luis Gonzalez Macchi to also declare a state
The growing popularity of the left is based on opposition to free-market policies
advocated by the International Monetary Fund and implemented by a generation of
U.S.-trained economists and politicians. Their demand for more sovereignty over
economic policy has also hit a powerful chord.
On Tuesday, thousands of unionists, retirees and others in Buenos Aires waved
anti-U.S. placards at Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who arrived on the last
leg of a regional tour that included stops in Brazil and Uruguay. The protest
underscored a growing resentment against the United States.
"What we are seeing in Latin America is not so much a return to socialism,
but the growing popularity of economic nationalism," said Julio Burdman, director
of research at the New Majority Studies Center, a political research group in
Buenos Aires. "Ideology is circumstantial to the rise of many of these figures
from the left. What's important is their opposition to globalization and U.S.-inspired
For the past decade, much of Latin America has struggled to adopt Washington's
recipe of free markets and free trade. Across the region, governments promised
prosperity through foreign investment, tight monetary policies and privatization.
RESULT OF PRIVATIZATION
At first, inflation tumbled, competition improved services, and investment
fueled growth. But the promised prosperity materialized only for the few. For
the majority, privatization led to higher unemployment, cutbacks in service and
And after most big-ticket state-owned items were sold off, foreign investment
slowed to a trickle. As economic growth stalled in the late 1990s, governments
adopted austerity measures that slashed social services, pension payments and
funds for education and health care.
In some countries, the middle class is disappearing. Argentina's economic crisis
has caused a 21.5 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the nation's history,
and half of its 36 million people are in poverty. Real hunger has appeared in
a country that once provided food for the world.
"A new group is emerging from the middle class in Argentina," said Buenos Aires
charity worker Silvia Baez. "They are hungry, have inadequate clothing and anguish
in their faces. We call them the 'new poor.' "
Some analysts say that the rise of the left also signals a deeper trend, which
is perhaps graver for the region's long-term political landscape. Rather than
throw in with the left, people who would once have voted for center-right parties
are simply dropping out of politics altogether.
"An entire generation that once took an interest in the electoral process now
has no interest at all," said Danilo Morales, president of the Costa Rican- based
political consultancy group Gaia Consultores. "This pattern is being repeated
across the continent."
In part, the disillusionment over politics is a reaction to the corruption
that has accompanied Latin America's experiment with free-market policies.
"Corruption is at the heart of the problem," said Morales. "It's a cancer that
has spread through our society. It's meant that most politicians have lost their
Unfettered by sufficient oversight procedures, privatization programs and the
transfer of government functions to the private sector have fueled patronage and
what many call "crony capitalism."
The anti-corruption group Transparency International gives Latin American countries
an average of 3.6 out of 10 in its corruption index for 2001, worse than Botswana,
Namibia and Bulgaria.
"Finding a solution is not a question of changing one politician, or even an
entire political class," said Luis Moreno Ocampo, Transparency International's
director for Latin America. "It involves encouraging a new business class not
to buy politicians."
Widespread corruption has scared away not only voters but honest politicians,
who are wary of running for office for fear of becoming tainted themselves.
"All over Latin America you have people calling the business community, lawyers
and consultants to run for office," said Juan Jose Rendon, president of Venezuela's
Association of Political Consultants. "But it's incredibly difficult to remain
honest in Latin American politics."
The shortage of serious potential leaders has also led to the apparent swing
to the left. In Argentina, Carrio is leading the polls by default after a long
list of potential presidential candidates have dropped out of next March's election.
The two remaining candidates are Carrio and former president Carlos Menem, who
has been involved in several corruption scandals.
Analysts say it remains to be seen whether a new generation of politicians
will succeed in bringing disillusioned voters back into the political process.
If they don't, Latin America may find its political landscape increasingly
prone to radical shifts between opposite poles.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle