Why Latin America's Left Keeps Winning
Washington's foreign policy establishment has been proven wrong. Latin America is more stable and democratic than ever
A few months ago I ran into an economist who was formerly head of the Bolivian Central Bank in the La Paz airport. He had been reading Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist whom the media has nicknamed "Dr Doom", and was predicting a very gloomy economic future for the hemisphere, the region and especially his own country.
I didn't agree about Bolivia, which has more international reserves relative to its economy than China. But it was striking to see the same thing in all the countries that I visited: opposition economists and political leaders everywhere reminded me of communists in the 1930s, praying for the collapse of the capitalist system - in this case, somewhat ironically, so that they could rid themselves of the left governments that the voters had chosen in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador and elsewhere.
In all of these countries the vast majority of the mass media, to varying degrees, shares the opposition's agenda and in many cases appears willing to present an overly pessimistic or even catastrophic scenario in order to help advance the cause.
But despite the worsening of the world and regional economy, the left keeps winning in Latin America. The latest left victory was that of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, an economist who was first elected at the end of 2006 and was re-elected last Sunday under a new constitution. This gives the charismatic 46 year-old four more years, and he can be re-elected once more for another term.
There are a number of reasons that most Ecuadorians might stick with their president, despite what they hear on the TV news. Some 1.3 million of Ecuador's poor households (in a country of 14 million) now get a stipend of $30 a month, which is a significant improvement. Social spending as a share of the economy has increased by more than 50% in Correa's two years in office. Last year the government also invested heavily in public works, with capital spending more than doubling.
Correa has delivered on other promises that were important to his constituents, not least of which was a referendum allowing for a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, which voters approved by a nearly two-thirds majority. It is seen as one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, with advances in the rights of indigenous people, civil unions for gay couples and a novel provision of rights for nature. The latter would apparently allow for lawsuits on the basis of damage to an ecosystem.
Many thought Correa was joking when he said during his presidential campaign that he would be willing to keep the US military base at Manta if Washington would allow Ecuadorian troops to be stationed in Florida. But he wasn't, and the base is scheduled to close later this year.
He also resisted pressure from the US Congress and others in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit that Ecuadorian courts will decide, in which Chevron is accused of dumping billions of gallons of toxic oil waste that polluted rivers and streams.
And in an unprecedented move last November, Correa stopped payment on $4bn of foreign debt when an independent Public Debt Audit Commission, long demanded by civil society organisations in Ecuador, determined that this debt was illegally and illegitimately contracted.
In the United States, these policies have mostly been dismissed as "populism" or worse. A New York Times editorial in November 2007 entitled "Authoritarians in the Andes" summed up the foreign policy establishment view that Correa, Bolivia's President Evo Morales and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela were "increasingly interested in grabbing power for themselves." For Correa and Morales, wrote the Times editorial board, "their confrontational approach is also threatening to rend Bolivia and Ecuador's fragile social and political stability."
The Times (and Washington's foreign policy establishment) have proven to be wrong, as Ecuador and Bolivia are now more politically stable than they have been for decades. (Ecuador has had nine presidents over the last 15 years). They are also more democratic than they have ever been.
In fact, most of Latin America is going through a democratic transition that is likely to prove every bit as important as the one that brought an end to the dictatorships that plagued many countries through the first four decades of the post-second world war era. Ironically, the region's economic performance was vastly better in the era of the dictatorships, because the governments of that era generally had more effective economic policies than the formally democratic but neoliberal governments that replaced them.
A few years ago there were fears, backed by polling data, that people would become nostalgic for the days of real (not imagined) authoritarian governments because of the much greater improvements in living standards during that era. Instead, they chose to vote for left governments who extended democracy from politics to economic and social policy.
The left governments have mostly succeeded where their neoliberal predecessors failed. Partly they have benefited from an acceleration in world economic growth during most of the last five years. But they have also changed their economic policies in ways that increased economic growth.
Argentina's economy grew more than 60% in six years and Venezuela's by 95%. These are enormous growth rates even taking into account these countries' prior recessions, and allowed for large reductions in poverty. Left governments have also taken greater control over their natural resources (Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela) and delivered on their promises to share the income from these resources with the poor.
This is the way democracy is supposed to work: people voted for change and got quite a bit of what they voted for, with reasonable expectations of more to come. We should not be surprised if most Latin American voters stick with the left through hard times. Who else is going to defend their interests?
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009