After Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia (which recently moved to nationalize the country's gas industry) have made major swings to the left, Peru seems poised to follow their sharp turn. What is to be done? What sort of action should the Bush administration take? Believe it or not, the most strategic answer: nothing.
Contrary to what thought shapers on Wall Street and inside the Beltway may be recommending, any dabbling in the region will only hurt U.S. credibility there. It is best for the United States to understand that the prevailing Latin American idea of democracy is in many ways different from our understanding of the concept.
All eyes are now on Peru, where retired Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala is campaigning on a leftist platform (similar to that of Bolivian President Evo Morales) against former President Alan Garcia in the runoff election scheduled for June 4. Already, he's sending friendly signals toward Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Moves to the left traditionally frighten the United States. Before reacting hastily, however, the Bush administration should consider that, with the possible exception of Venezuela, all socio-democratic Latin American countries are staunch defenders of liberty.
People and societies above and below the Gulf Stream interpret liberty very differently. In the United States, we cherish an idea of freedom centered on the "maximization of self-interest." In Latin America, instead of emphasizing the "freedom from" infringements on accumulated possessions -- at the heart of the Anglo-American understanding of liberty -- the people feel that liberty is about everybody's "freedom to" live in dignity and autonomy, and that includes the poor.
For Latin Americans, liberalism means empowerment. Their philosophers, for instance, do not hold property sacred. Property is to establish freedom, and if excessive property on the part of the few is why the many cannot attain any freedom at all, then "the people," or the state acting on their behalf, should intervene for the common good.
The same holds true with environmental issues. Several South American constitutions state that politics must be made in the name of all humankind, including future generations as much as present voters. And since nature cannot sue, government interference with the market economy becomes necessary.
The progressive taxes, nationalizations, and expropriations now in vogue in South America have prompted many U.S. politicians to brand those governments "undemocratic." But Latin Americans beg to differ. They argue that in a democracy one must weigh the rights of property owners against the rights of those who cannot fend for themselves. To us, they ask: Why show so much concern about the rights of rich landowners and powerful oil companies, but so little about impoverished individuals and polluted landscapes?
Latin Americans have not forgotten -- nor should they -- that the United States backed the very dictators that cruelly suppressed their liberty. Given this history, our routinely accusing South American politicians of democratic deficits whenever their elected governments act against U.S. interests is unfortunate and insulting.
Social democrats are not socialists -- not here or in Peru, Bolivia or Argentina. Despite histories of violence and upheaval, the liberal roots of Latin American political ideology are strong. Many different brands of liberalism -- krausismo, battlismo, radicalismo, aprismo, to name a few -- are a staple of Latin American political culture. Although pervasive poverty tempts the people to communism, the vast majority of Latin Americans have not given up on government by the people for the people.
The Bush administration has therefore nothing to fear in Latin America except its own shadow. Anti-democratic forces will succeed there only if we help them -- for instance, by failing to accept the legitimacy of their social-democratic interpretations of freedom. If we hinder Latin Americans from attaining democracy with social justice, then, indeed, they may find it ultimately wiser to go for social justice without democracy.
In Peru and elsewhere, we must not confront other nations as they democratically explore what works for them. Let us not insult them by second-guessing their commitment to liberty. Our own recent record on civil liberties gives us little reason to boast.
What is more, as the most inequitable among the industrialized nations, with considerable social problems on our hands, we stand to learn quite a bit ourselves about the social dimensions of freedom.
Claus Dierksmeier, a philosophy professor at Stonehill College, in Easton, Mass., teaches and writes on the roots of Latin American political thought in European liberalism.
© 2006 The Providence Journal Co.