Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Latin America's turn to the Left

A lot has been made of Latin America's recent turn to the left. Between Silva in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia, Kirchner in Argentina, Ortega of Nicaragua, Correa of Ecuador, and everyone's favorite whipping boy, Chavez of Venezuela, there are six countries with definitive leftist slants.

In some ways, this is just another swing of the pendelum in Latin America. I don't get the sense through my readings or conversations that Latin America has any particular allegiance to the Left or the Right (although perhaps Colombia is different), but instead, are basically willing to try anything to make things better. A lot of people don't know this with all the attention paid to Africa, but Latin America is the only region in the world to actually have gotten poorer over the last 50 years. Now there is wealth here, but on a comparative basis, the economic situations in Africa and Asia have been steadily improving while the vast majority of the poor in Latin America have either struggled to match inflation or consistently fallen behind.

This, at least for now, is my theory as to why leftist politics are increasingly popular across South America. Chavez, for example, built domestic support by basically buying off the public with dirt cheap gas prices. And in other countries, leftism (read: socialism) holds the appeal of bringing government attention to the poorest of the poor.

However, just because there is a turn to the left, doesn't mean that neo-cons and other hacks should be quaking in their boots right now. One interesting thing is the diversity of Latin American leftism. As this article explains, there are a variety of different approaches with only Venezuela's being of the Cuba/North Korea dictatorship variety. More often than not, Latin American "socialism" follows the Chinese model. What this means is that these countries (read: all previously mentioned except Venezuela) welcome foreign investment, as long as the terms are economically favorable. For all the hub-hub about Bolivia's nationalization of the energy sector, foreign interests weren't lost, they were just renegotiated at more favorable terms for the Bolivian government.

Venezuela, however, is a different case. Chavez is clearly a power hungry savant who cares about his people only to the extent that they keep reelecting him. The streets of Caracas are now the most dangerous of South America. Corruption runs deep in the government. The vast majority of talented and experienced administrators have been purged and replaced with Chavez loyalists. And now, Chavez is eliminating the free press and nationalizing telephone and electricity services (to the detriment of foreign owners of those companies), with more radical policies likely forthcoming.

But, before anyone buys into a risk of "red spread" (or "Chavez spread") across Latin America, realize that Chavez is incredibly unpopular among the rest of the continent, with only George Bush matching his pathetic marks. It's not just uncouth to suggest that there is a danger from the spread of leftism in South America, it's also just plain ignorant.


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