Latin America’s turn to the left: a 21st century political laboratory

The recent re-election of Dilma Roussef as Brazilian president confirmed a trend already in motion since the end of the Cold War, a shift towards the left of many Latin American countries. Unlike the European counterparts, where the end of the Cold War put in disarray all socialist and communist parties, in Latin America a new mix of socialist ideals, nationalism, indigenous renaissance paved the way for the rise to power of leftist parties.

The shift is even more remarkable when we consider that Latin America has been for decades under the iron fist of Washington that directly or indirectly applied a sort of “Brezhnev doctrine” to contain and destroy any attempt not only of soviet influence but also of any independent policy or worst of all a repetition of the Cuban example.

Nevertheless, the new socialist course in Latin America is far from being homogeneous, and has assumed different shapes. Some of the roots can be found in the traditional political or guerrilla movements, with some parties developing an innovative mix of policies and experiences, others combining old and new elements. In this way the entire continent has assisted to the rise of leftist governments, more or less radical, with some resisting to today others altering in powers under the electoral process with the traditional liberal and conservative parties.

An analysis of this trend can identify the different methods adopted to access political power and shape it and split them in three groups: the radicals that have obtained power by revolutionary tactics or trough election for then speed up the revolutionary process; the moderates that with socialist ideas have also met compromise with popular centrists and progressive groups, and the old guerrillas fighters who accepted reformism.


Roots of socialist resurgence

Latin America has been a puzzle for many leftist and socialist groups in Europe and, although they tried to hail the victory and achievements of their American counterparts, failed to understand these lessons encountering instead disastrous electoral defeats. The end of the Cold War generated in Europe a reaction contrary to the same strengths with which the socialist ideas grew in the 20th century: everything was dubbed obsolete and the market hailed as the winner and the only way to a prosperous future. European socialist/communist parties failed in addressing the dynamics of the new era and tried to act on the surface by renaming themselves in a constant revisionist process thus betraying most of their social links and losing popular support. But in 1994, suddenly from Latin America arrived a shock, not a ghost like in Marx’s manifesto but a new and unexpected protagonist: the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberation Nacional (EZLN). The Chiapas revolution, that caught the world by surprise, was seen at first as a remnant of old Marxist rhetoric, a movement of disillusioned fighters, thus failing to comprehend the importance of that event. While the Mexican state waged war and treated the rebels as criminals or terrorists, the European counterparts used paternalistic views like they were talking of an endangered species on the brink to extinction. The reality could not be more different: Chiapas witnessed a new method of struggle, combining Marxism, ethnicity, requests for land reforms, democracy, freedom and justice for all the oppressed people. Chiapas was the first experiment in addressing the same old problems of Latin America Cold War era in a new model for the 21st century.

Demands for democracy, freedom and justice for indigenous people, treated as second class citizens in their own countries, the need for schools, education, and health system accessible to everyone, appealed not only to Chiapas or Mexico but to all countries in the subcontinent. Nevertheless, Ezln was not exporting a revolution or trying to overthrow the Mexican government, therefore whilst Mexico was left alone in addressing its own problem, the US on the other were not concerned in getting involved in a matter that after all was seen not only as justified but acceptable under the new political standards. What the US did not realise is that this was the starting point for a new political course in the subcontinent that was now increasingly feeling itself as ready to take a more independent policy. Chiapas was not considered a new “Cuba”, and the indifferent approach by Washington paved the way for a repetition of the experiment.

Latin America was not new of revolutionary movements, the continent was a fertile ground being a land of inequality, racial discrimination, political corruption, economic plunder by multinationals. The wonders of the capitalist market never reached the main population which continued to be governed by corrupt and conservative élites obedient to Washington desires. This led during the Cold War to a fertile ground for Marxist groups trying to establish a socialist agenda, but while Cuba succeeded other experiments failed like Che Guevara’s foco in Bolivia, the attempted revolution through the ballot in Chile or the contras war in Nicaragua that undermined the successful Sandinista revolution. The response has been for decades military coups, dictatorships and repressions culminating in the infamous Operación Condor.

With this rich history, the idea of a social revolution never disappeared but at the same time generated in the ruling classes a sort of over confidence in getting this quarantined. The shock could not therefore be stronger when the next political earthquake came from another US staunch ally five years later: Venezuela.


The socialists route to power: radicalism, compromise and reformism 

In 1998 Venezuelans elect the populist left-winger Hugo Chavez, a former army officer, who proclaimed a “Bolivarian revolution“, named after South America’s independence hero. Hugo Chavez won the elections reviving the concept of revolution through the ballot after the failed attempt made by Salvador Allende in early 70s Chile. Chavez, brought to a wider international scenario what Ezln has done for Chiapas, but building a new society where Marxism came back at the centre of the stage thus putting Venezuela at the head with Cuba of a new radical group. If in Europe, this time, the reception was tepid, the US were clearly uneasy of losing control of a major oil producer and the change of leadership to the republican George Bush did not help in calming the sentiments. The attempted military coup in 2002 was a sign that a limit was reached and at the same its failure was the end of conservatives and US ability in stopping the trend.

Following the example, Bolivia and Ecuador soon joined Venezuela in their socialist experiments. Evo Morales, with the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador joined Hugo Chavez in constituting a radical block opposed to US dominance.

What are the main features of this block? In all these countries the government parties achieved the conquer of power by election, but pushing then the bar further along once a majority has been obtained by introducing constitutional reforms or amendments. Having consolidated wider popular support, referendums were used to pass laws intended to extend presidential powers and limits to re-elections, thus trying to escape the logic of political turnover typical of multiparty electoral systems. The extension of power sought by referendum has also been a valuable weapon of propaganda against opposition’s accusations of dictatorship. In all these countries the electoral results strengthened the power of the socialist parties, giving legitimacy to their policies.

On a political side, these countries shares a strong opposition to market policies and institutions like the IMF and WTO seen as tools of US predominance; nationalisations and social redistributions of resources are the backbone of their programmes aimed at the poorest strata of the population, although many accuse these governments of overspending and fuel a corrupted apparatus growing out of control. In foreign policy this block advocate a total distance from the US and its allies, in general aligning itself with Russia and the emerging countries like India, China or South Africa. They sought to strengthen regional influence through diplomatic and economic overtures towards other South American and Caribbean nations and supporting Cuba.

The second block is formed by countries that although turned to the left, have chosen a more moderate path, where socialist parties have sought sometime an alliance with progressive movements to address social inequality but with an eye to the market. These countries are Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and even Argentina. Brazil started the path with Lula, soon followed by Uruguay with the Frente Amplio and Chile with the socialist governments of Ricardo Lagos first and Michelle Bachelet today. Argentina, although formally under a peronist government, adopted a mix of national-populism and socialist tints with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to contrast growing opposition. These countries introduced reforms aimed at the poorest and redistribution of resources, but avoided strong nationalisation programmes or attacking directly the bases of the traditional élites. Constitutional reforms to prolong their power are not sought and they follow the normal electoral process relying on the strength of their popular support to stay in power. They share with the radical block an opposition to US supremacy and finance bullying but fell short from joining overtly the revolutionary block. These are also the countries that experienced some of the most brutal dictatorships in the past and although they seek to close with the past by bringing to justice the perpetrators, are also trying to avoid confrontation with a still strong conservative block

The last group is mainly formed by those countries that turned to the left with ex guerrilla fighters now champions of reformism and that brought into power once well known hard-line revolutionary insurgents such the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Frente Farabundo Martí in El Salvador. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega made his political comeback in the November 2006 elections, having led Nicaragua through revolution and a civil war before being voted out in 1990. Mr Ortega was re-elected to another five-year term with a landslide victory in 2011, winning 63% of the vote. By the time he came to stand for re-election in 2006, Mr Ortega had toned down his former Marxist rhetoric. However, the global financial crisis that began a few years later prompted him to declare that capitalism was in its “death throes”. Mr Ortega has maintained close ties with fellow leftwing populist leaders in the region, in particular Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Although Mr Ortega still enjoys solid support among the poorer parts of Nicaraguan society, his critics have accused him of exhibiting dictatorial tendencies especially after the amendment of the constitution to allow him to stand for re-election.

In Salvador, the Frente Farabundo Martí became a political party after the 1992 peace accords. Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and rebel, inaugurated the first FMLN government in 2009 ending two decades of conservative rule, mostly under Arena Party. He restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and his successor, also a former rebel leader, Salvador Sanchez Ceren won the presidential run-off of March 2014 by a narrow margin. In his inauguration speech, he promised to fight corruption and violence, and to follow a politic of reconciliation for all Salvadorans with security, employment and education as priorities of his government.

Of the three groups inevitably the radical one appears the strongest and able to resist call for change from opposition, able to win every electoral contest due to a solid popular base. The rise of these countries and their radical socialist agenda is then completed by the resistance of Cuba and the survival of the Chiapas Zapatista. But the road has not always been smooth and not all countries managed to turn to the left without encountering a strong opposition or even a government being overthrown.


When the turn to the left is to a blind road

After the failed attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002, the accusation by Evo Morales of attempted assassinations or Ecuador denounce of destabilisation from the US, in Paraguay and Honduras prevailed a reaction typical of old times. Both leftist governments were overthrown after being legally elected, both forced out of power by coup, military the first, constitutional the second. President Zelaya was overthrown by military in Honduras in 2009 and leftist former bishop Fernando Lugo was impeached in June 2012 over his handling of a deadly land dispute, a move that several regional governments denounced as a “legislative coup” by the conservative assembly.

In 2005 the Honduras Liberal Party of Manuel Zelaya is declared the winner of presidential elections, but soon his moves in the international scenario created uneasiness especially in Washington. Once a long time US ally, Honduras joins the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an alliance of leftist leaders in Latin America headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; President Manuel Zelaya visited Cuba, the first official trip by a Honduran president to the island in 46 years. In June 2009, the opposition decided has to stop Honduras from becoming another Ecuador, Bolivia or Venezuela and President Manuel Zelaya is removed by the military and forced into exile. The coup was widely condemned with the Organisation of American States (OAS) suspending Honduras.

In 2008 the political earthquake reaches Paraguay, where Fernando Lugo achieves a historic victory in the presidential election, defeating the ruling party candidate and ending 61 years of conservative rule. Soon followed attempts to undermine his power: he accuses his predecessor, Nicanor Duarte, and former military commander General Lino Oviedo of masterminding a conspiracy against his government; in 2009 President Lugo refuses to resign over claims by several women that he fathered children with them while he was a Catholic bishop; in April 2010 security forces launch operation against left-wing rebel group Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) blamed for a spate of violent incidents in northern Paraguay of which Lugo was accused of being complacent and inactive. In June 2012, President Lugo is ousted over his handling of a land eviction in which 17 people are killed. The South American Mercosur trading bloc suspended Paraguay until next year’s presidential election in protest at President Lugo’s ouster, but stopped short of imposing sanctions.



After Chavez death in 2013, many questioned if the Bolivarian revolution and its allies would start a descending phase, but Nicolas Maduro managed to stay in power and Evo Morales and Rafael Correa appear stronger than ever. Recent calls to US to review the embargo policy on Cuba united with the re-election of Dilma Roussef in Brazil, of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay gave further boosts to Michelle Bachelet election in Chile and Argentina strong stance against US and UK in recent financial turmoil and post colonial struggle concerning the Falkland Malvinas Islands. Taking into account the above is difficult not to see Latin America as the real political laboratory of the 21st century, with their rising economies, against the grey, zero growth and political dullness of Europe. Their socialist parties, except the name, have nothing in common with the American counterparts, and by promoting austerity measures and financial dependence from IMF they became part of the same establishment that these raising powers are trying to demolish and consign to history as happened to the Cold War.







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