Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Welcoming Latin America's New Left

by Shannon K. O'Neil
December 5, 2006

Over the last eighteen months Presidential elections occurred in twelve Latin American countries. While Hugo Chavez and his anti-American tirades grab most of the headlines, these elections actually show the rise of a new Left in Latin America. In contrast to Chavez’s more socialist populism, these new leaders promise to balance market-friendly economics with broader social policies and protections.

These new governments have already shown their commitment to free markets. In less than a year, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet has signed free trade agreements with China, New Zealand, and Singapore, and is negotiating new accords with both Japan and Australia. Alan Garcia of Peru appointed a well-known private banker as Finance minister and vocally supports free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, and many Asian countries. Brazil’s Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva was re-elected based on his conservative first term economic policies. Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay also continued the orthodox economic choices of the previous government, attracting both Finnish and Spanish foreign investment for Uruguay’s cellulose industry.

Even the more rhetorically radical leaders are governing or likely to govern near a pragmatic center. During his first year in office, Bolivian President Evo Morales drew back from his more populist campaign appeals. He cancelled the nationalization of the mining industry, and is now negotiating gas contracts with foreign companies. While peppering campaign speeches with anti-American quips, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega left the Sandinista’s economic ideology behind. During his first weeks in office he has already started courting domestic and foreign investment, promising to uphold contracts and maintain open markets. Rafael Correa’s of Ecuador began moderating his promises in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, and even reached out to U.S. ambassador, Linda Jewel. In fact, only Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, supported by oil revenues – represents a firm holdover from the political past.

Yet while rejecting old-style socialism, Latin American voters did turn left. The winning candidates all reached out to the large portions of the population that have not benefited from economic reforms. They promised to improve the social welfare of ordinary citizens. Now in office, they are pushing forward to create jobs, eliminate hunger, and provide better access to education, social security and health care.

This shift Left reflects the real needs of Latin America’s populations. While Latin America’s economies have grown in recent years, these benefits have not trickled down. Some 25% of the population still lives in poverty. The difference between the haves and have nots stubbornly remains one of the most pronounced in the world.

More positively, this political turn reflects the spread of democracy. As more open and inclusive governments take root, politicians are responding to voter demands. The winning electoral campaigns focused not just on overall economic growth but also on increasing economic opportunities, particularly for the poor.

These newly elected leaders now will try to soften the rough edges of globalization while continuing to compete in international markets. This is a difficult balancing act for any leader, and many will not meet the challenge. But as Leftists, they have an opportunity to build a social consensus behind the long-term investments necessary for real change in these countries. To that end, this new Left represents the best chance for strengthening the economies and the democracies of Latin America.

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