Published on
World Politics Review

The Challenge of South America's Populist Left

Anastasia Moloney

Just over a decade ago, a sea of supporters dressed in red and lining the streets of Caracas celebrated Hugo Chávez's landslide election victory in Venezuela, marking a watershed in the Latin American political landscape and signaling the emergence of the so-called populist left in the region. Chávez was subsequently followed by a wave of left-wing leaders elected across the continent -- Lula in Brazil (2002), Néstor Kirchner in Argentina (2003), Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay (2004), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005), and a year later Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Rafael Correa in Ecuador -- leaving roughly 75 per cent of South America's 382 million inhabitants living under a leftist government.

While these leaders share some common characteristics, there are vast differences between them. Chávez and Bachelet, for instance, are worlds apart, reflecting what Jorge Casteñada, an academic and former foreign minister of Mexico, described two years ago in a Foreign Affairs article as two distinguishable Latin American lefts. One of them, characterized by Chile and Brazil and referred to alternately as social democrats, the moderate left, and sometimes the soft left, is "modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist." By contrast, Castañeda argued, the other left, exemplified by Chávez, Morales and Correa, is "born of the great tradition of Latin American populism," and is "nationalist, strident, and close-minded."

Nevertheless, the current tide of left-wing leaders shares a historical context. First, their rise can be seen as a backlash to the economic neoliberalism adopted across Latin America during the 1980s. Forming part of the so-called Washington consensus, neoliberal policies emphasized free-market reforms, the privatization of state industries, trade liberalization such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and deregulation as key ways to advance development and prosperity. Neoliberalism was subsequently blamed by some for the region's poor economic growth, the widening gap between rich and poor, currency devaluation and chronic debt crises such as that experienced by Argentina in 2001.

The neoliberal policies prescribed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund also came with tough restructuring and fiscal adjustments that often included deep and politically unpopular cuts in social spending. Leftist parties offering alternatives to neoliberalism campaigned on the mantra of social reform, and gained increasing resonance and support among the marginalized poor. As such, the rise of the left can also be seen as an inevitable and natural shift, responding to the region's lack of social mobility and inequality that, over the course of decades, traditional ruling parties had failed to address and that neoliberalism had exacerbated.

In Venezuela, Chávez's call for a Bolivarian revolution as an alternative to neoliberalism had great appeal among the urban poor. By 1998, after several years of declining oil prices, the Venezuelan economy was on the brink of collapse. Chávez exploited the disenchantment felt towards Venezuela's ruling elites, who were seen to be out of touch, corrupt and agents of U.S.-advocated free-market reforms. He projected a genuine concern for the plight of the poor and attacked the privatization of industries controlled by the white oligarchy, blaming them for confiscating oil profits that, he argued, rightfully belonged to the people.

In many ways, Chávez's message harks back to the days of good old-fashioned populism -- a demagogic leader promising to redistribute the nation's wealth to the poor. It's a tradition that has always been present in Latin American politics, with Juan Perón's appeal to the urban working class in Argentina in the 1940s and Lazaro Cardenas' defense of poor farmers in Mexico in the 1930s just two examples.

The end of the Cold War also played a role in the resurgence of the Latin America's left. According to Castañeda, the fall of the Soviet bloc helped remove the "geopolitical stigma" from the left, allowing leftist ideologies to be judged in their own right, rather than in association with revolution and subservience to the Soviet model.

The strengthening of democratic processes after years of dictatorship in some Latin American countries combined with the gradual rise of a more educated electorate, allowing the poor to become more assertive at the ballot box in support of left-leaning candidates who best represented and defended their interests. At the same time, the various currents of the left also broadened their political agendas, widening their traditional, largely trade unionist base of support to include the unemployed, feminists, grassroots student groups and landless rural workers.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales, a former coca union leader, found his mass support base among the country's majority indigenous population, who felt disenfranchised and marginalized from society. Morales became the country's first indigenous leader in part by arguing that indigenous people had the right be different and autonomous, a message that became as important as the need to combat poverty. In a country where just two generations ago the capital's main square was reserved for whites, Morales' pledge to reverse the legacy of centuries of discrimination perpetuated by the white elite was a powerful message that marked his unique, radical brand of populism.

Chávez's version of populism -- Bolivarianism -- is a loose, diffuse and vague mixture of ideologies drawn from the teachings of Simon Bolivar (the 19th-century independence hero), revolutionary Marxism, socialism, nationalism, militarism and some borrowings from Castroism. Bolivarianism is "an effort to revive Bolivar's dream of the integration of South America, with an emphasis also on the need for social justice in the region," explains Professor Cynthia McClintock, a Latin America specialist at George Washington University.

Morales and Correa share an affinity and mutual respect with Chávez, the self-appointed standard bearer of the new populist left. These Andean leaders all rose to power on an anti-neoliberal platform, and they project themselves as staunch defenders of the excluded in society. They also all rely on the mass support of new social movements that have emerged since the late 1980s, such as Ecuador's Pachakutik party -- the political wing of the country's powerful indigenous organization, CONAIE. They also share a desire for greater autonomy from the U.S. economy and global financial institutions, and regard Washington's involvement in the region with mistrust.

Perhaps the most striking thing these Andean leaders have in common is that they have all tried to spearhead change through wide-ranging constitutional reform submitted to referendums, in the hopes of consolidating their power and that of the executive branch of government. Chávez failed in his attempt two years ago to overhaul Venezuela's constitution, which would have allowed, among other things, his indefinite re-election. But Ecuador's Correa last year won 64 percent of the vote in a referendum on constitutional reform that increased his powers and control over the economy. Morales, who has encountered at times violent opposition from wealthy landowners and business leaders in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, has also opted to write a new constitution, aimed at fully recognizing the rights of the indigenous majority and giving them more power. The outcome of that referendum will be decided in late January.

Morales and Chávez -- and to a lesser extent, Correa -- pepper their speeches with vocal defiance of the United States and calls for greater sovereignty. Morales has expressed his disapproval of Washington's war on drugs -- characterized by coca eradication campaigns -- in Bolivia, which he sees as gross U.S. intervention in the country's internal affairs. He argues that U.S. aid to Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, has been unfairly tied to the results of the anti-drug campaigns. Last year, Morales suspended the operations of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Bolivia, which he accused of inciting anti-government protests. The move was promptly supported by Chávez and Correa. Meanwhile, Chávez has long accused Washington of being involved in a short-lived coup in Venezuela in 2002 that tried -- and failed -- to oust him from power.

Chávez, Correa and Morales all believe that increased state control and regulation of the country's natural resources is the best way to redistribute wealth from the elites to the poor. They have claimed to be vindicated in their approach in the wake of the global financial crisis and collapse of giant banks in the United States, with Chávez blaming the crisis on the lack of government control and regulation in capitalist economies.

The Andean leaders have also all sought to renegotiate the terms under which foreign companies extract their country's natural resources to ensure that the state receives a greater share of the profits. Nationalization is used as a tool by which to recover resources that they believe have been unfairly appropriated by foreign mining and oil companies for decades. Chávez, for instance, has nationalized the oil industry and increased the amount of royalties foreign oil companies must pay for the right to exploit Venezuela's reserves. In 2006, Morales issued a decree giving the state control over the operations of foreign energy companies, including the country's important gas sector.

But if Chávez, Morales and Correa have become close allies who often display a united front when it comes to disputes with the U.S. and/or Colombia, they do not represent a coherent movement. For all the beliefs they share in principle, their priorities and versions of the populist left differ in practice. So while Ecuador has called on Chávez's support when embroiled in diplomatic rows with Colombia, and Chávez and Correa rallied around Morales when he expelled the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia last year, this does not mean that Correa and Morales want to push ahead with Bolivarianism in their own countries, or follow too closely in Chávez's footsteps. Correa, in particular, is keen not to be seen as a puppet of Chávez, an accusation his critics often make. "They share the goal of a greater emphasis on poverty reduction and the inclusion of darker-skinned peoples, but the movement is not fully coherent. Evo Morales is closer to Chávez than Correa, and the allegiance of both Morales and Correa is linked to Chávez's aid," explains Professor McClintock.

The limits of Bolivarianism . . .

The Bolivarian revolution, which according to Chávez is now entering its third phase of "21st century socialism," belongs squarely to Chávez and is unique to Venezuela. And while strands of Bolivarianism can be seen in Bolivia and Ecuador, Chávez's all-encompassing movement can not be replicated outside of Venezuela, primarily because it is built around a cult of personality, inextricably linked and identified with Chávez, who appears increasingly to make all the decisions.

As importantly, Bolivarianism is also dependent on oil profits. Chávez's populism, and in turn popularity, depends largely on social spending sprees backed by rising oil prices, a luxury Bolivia's and Ecuador's more modest energy sectors do not allow them. "Chávez is the leader of a petro-state and has many more resources to play with, which the others don't," says Daniel Hellinger, a professor of political science at Webster University. Neither Morales nor Correa can rely on the vast influx of oil wealth that Chávez uses to broker power and fund social projects. Nor are they able to use their country's natural resources as a geopolitical tool to push ahead with South American integration and form alliances with other countries, as Chávez has adeptly managed to do over the years.

Indeed, for all of Correa's anti-American rhetoric, including his threats to close a U.S. military base in Ecuador and his refusal to sign an unpopular free trade agreement with Washington, Ecuador depends on U.S. investment and loans, and its official currency is the U.S. dollar. This may explain why Correa, who has a doctorate from the University of Illinois, has recently distanced himself from Chávez and Morales, and why he does not allow strained relations with the United States to go to the brink. He has also declined to be a full member state of the Chávez-led initiative, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), which aims to promote hemispheric integration and counter U.S.-advocated free trade agreements. "Correa is the most pragmatic of the three," believes Professor Hellinger.

While Chávez, Correa and Morales all champion social justice, they came to power on the backs of different social movements, which has led each leader to focus on different priorities. Morales latched onto an existing, powerful movement -- the coca growers union -- and made its cause his own. The passionate defense of indigenous peoples has subsequently become his trademark, and his policies are centered on rectifying centuries of colonialism in order to reinstate indigenous rule. Morales's priority is pushing ahead with a "land revolution" that aims to expropriate up to one-fifth of the country's land and redistribute it to around 2.5 million landless poor. He has pledged to move towards his own version of development, a three-tiered Andean capitalism comprised of modern industry (gas production), urban trade and traditional framing.

By contrast, Chávez created a movement around his own persona and promptly filled it with partisans, including loyal army generals. His Bolivarianism revolution goes far beyond trade deals, attempting to impact the cultural and social aspects of peoples' lives as well -- from what families watch on television, to the type of history children study at school. This grandiose vision of nation-building centers around establishing a sense of civic virtue and national pride. To counter what he believes is encroaching American cultural imperialism, as reflected in Venezuelans' thirst for U.S.-style shopping malls and consumerism, Chávez hopes to create a strong Latin cultural identity. This is not part of Morales' or Correa's discourse or vision.

In addition, Chávez's notion of "participatory democracy," aimed at getting citizens more closely involved in decisions affecting their community, is not found in Bolivia or Ecuador. Modeled on the Cuban system, Chávez has introduced thousands of Bolivarian circles and grassroots communal councils that operate like open assemblies in local neighborhoods to promote civic mobilization.

The tide of leftist leaders in Latin America has not resulted in a consensus over how to define the roles of the state, the market and society. Chávez came to power determined to expand the state's power and fundamentally change its relationship with society. Other leaders -- such as Brazil's Lula and, to a lesser extent, Correa -- have decided, or perhaps resigned themselves, to instead try to make the status quo work more effectively in the interests of the poor. In practice, that means being open to free-market systems and allowing some neoliberal policies to play a part in social reform and development.

The question of whether or not Chávez's project for a "21st century socialism" will ultimately be taken up with greater fervor in Ecuador and Bolivia, or subsequently spread elsewhere in the region, is preceded by the question of whether Bolivarianism will even survive in the long term. While the Venezuelan government claims that Chávez's project is stronger than ever, to more objective observers, it is beginning to look overstretched, and both Chávez's popularity and grip on power are waning. The most glaring evidence of this was his defeat two years ago in the referendum on the new constitution, which demonstrated that Venezuelans do not want to see Chávez perpetuate his rule. In recent regional elections, too, an increasingly unified opposition managed to win several governorships and the important mayoralty of Caracas.

Bolivarianism's long-term chances for survival as a social and economic alternative to neoliberalism are also closely linked to the price of oil. Chávez's social projects have been possible because, for most of his tenure, the Venezuelan leader has been the beneficiary of an oil bonanza. When he came to power in 1998, the price of oil was roughly $25 a barrel; by last year, it had skyrocketed to $147 a barrel. Today it is hovering between $40 and $50 a barrel, and economists forecast that this figure is unlikely to rise much higher in 2009. Oil accounts for about a third of Venezuela's GDP and some 80 percent of the country's total export revenues. Questions have been raised about the efficiency and capacity of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company, following years of what industry experts consider insufficient investment in infrastructure and exploration for new reserves.

Populism, too, is often fickle. Chávez -- like Morales and Correa -- is a product, as well as an agent, of history and change, and the very people who elevated him to power can also sweep him away. In some ways, participatory democracy has raised Venezuelans' expectations, amid growing concerns about rampant crime, sporadic food shortages and double-digit inflation rates.

In all likelihood, the appeal of Chávez's brand of popular socialism and his Bolivarian project has limited prospects for spreading, and the notion that he can drive the region towards his version of the populist left has been vastly overblown. For one thing, few regional leaders see Chávez's model as a credible blueprint to follow. So while Chávez grabs headlines with his foreign tours and often entertaining soundbites, he "does not speak for Latin America," as German Chancellor Angela Merkel once pointed out.

Also, his regional influence is largely dependent on bartering oil or selling it cheaply through preferential trade deals such as PetroCaribe. This helps to explain why in practice most governments exhibit a pragmatic stance towards Venezuela, accepting attractive trade deals without necessarily endorsing Chávez's agenda and vision of development.

The rivalry with Brazil . . .

Venezuelans have certainly benefited from Chavez's social programs in many significant ways. The proportion of the population living below the poverty level has been reduced from roughly half to a third, and access to healthcare and education has been dramatically increased. But there is much debate among analysts regarding the extent to which Chávez has delivered real improvements in terms of social equality and mobility. Michael Reid, author and Americas editor at the Economist, argues that the Chávez model is fundamentally based on clientism and nepotism, perpetuating dependence on state patronage rather than promoting broad-based development. As such, it is unsustainable in the long run, and only satisfies a short-term popular demand for social spending.

The model of development put forward by the open-minded and reformist left, as Casteñada calls it, is more likely to offer a sustainable model of development for others to follow. Chile and Brazil, for instance, continue to court foreign investment and are willing to incorporate elements of neoliberalism and free-market policies, while still putting social reform at the center of government policy. As a result, many analysts argue that these countries have delivered better results in alleviating poverty. For instance, social programs adopted by Brazil to tackle poverty -- such as the acclaimed Bolsa Familia program, which gives small stipends to families on the condition that they send their children to school -- have attracted international recognition. Such bottom-up initiatives are seen as more sustainable than Chávez's top-down welfare programs.

Chávez has also had trouble competing with Brazil's size and economic clout -- it is the largest economy in the region -- combined with Lula's growing assertiveness on the international stage. And Mercosur, the region's largest trading bloc -- which is led by Brazil (and of which Venezuela is not a member) -- has shown itself to be a much more powerful organization than Chávez's ALBA group. Neither reality is likely to change in the future.

Nevertheless, there is an emerging consensus that Washington will have to revise its approach to engagement with South America as a whole, and in particular with Morales and Chávez, if it stands a real chance of reversing its declining influence in the region. Forging a new, multilateral approach to South America based on acknowledging the legitimacy of both of the left-wing currents that pervade the region's political landscape is regarded by many policy analysts as the best basis on which to formulate U.S. policy in the region.

There are strong incentives for the U.S. to improve its relations with Venezuela. Roughly 15 percent of oil imports to the U.S. come from Venezuela. Conversely, the U.S. remains Venezuela's most important oil trading partner. But in the past, Washington's posture towards Caracas has alternated between passive indifference and hostility, with Chávez regarded as a destabilizing force in Latin America. A stance that is both more consistent and more coherent is needed.

The first significant shift in the U.S. approach towards Latin America is likely to involve Cuba rather than Venezuela. But lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, as well as loosening travel and remittance restrictions, would send positive signals to Chávez, its close ally.

A real concern for social reform would also help repair Washington's poor image in the region. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations has identified four core issues -- poverty and inequality, public security, migration and energy security -- around which a multilateral relationship should be built. According to Professor McClintock, the United States needs to "show real respect for Latin American leaders and peoples and put greater emphasis in U.S. policy on the need for social justice." The Brookings Institution advocates the creation of the Americas Eight (A-8), a hemispheric steering group designed to build partnerships and establish issue-specific networks.

Should the U.S. engage with Chávez and, more broadly, the populist left, the emerging consensus is that this engagement should come through multilateral institutions, such as the proposed A-8 and other existing hemispheric bodies, including the Organization of American States (OAS). The Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 34 OAS heads of state hosted by Trinidad and Tobago in April, could be an ideal opportunity for President-elect Obama to usher in a new, multilateral approach to the region, and perhaps even to make overtures to Chávez.

The resurgence of the South American left has brought irreversible trends and changes to the continent, often breaking the age-old dominance of ruling parties. Last year, in Paraguay, the ascension of Fernando Lugo, a former priest, marked the end of six decades of rule by the Colorado party, while the arrival of Chávez eliminated Venezuela's two-party system, which had dominated the country's political scene for decades. As a result, the plight of the poor and social reform has now become part of the mainstream political discourse across most of Latin America. New movements as well as new forms of social mobilization have been unleashed that can not be undone, and are likely to continue to impact the political agenda and shape the fortunes of political parties well into the future.

Despite its excesses and shortcomings, the populist left has offered many previously excluded citizens in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador a greater stake in their country's future. It is this defining social experience that perhaps gives the movement whatever coherence it has. In order for America to regain its standing in South America, not only among the continent's leaders but also among its inhabitants, it would do well to place the aspirations that drive that experience at the heart of its regional policy.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Won't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Anastasia Moloney is a Bogotá-based journalist and a World Politics Review contributing editor. She has lectured on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America at the Javeriana University in Bogotá. Her work about Colombian politics, education, human rights and culture has appeared in the London Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Times Educational Supplement, among other publications.

Share This Article