Part One: Mixed Legacies
By Jared Abbott
(This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Spring 2014 Democratic Left magazine. Part Two will follow tomorrow. – Editor)
In what is often called a “pink tide,” left-leaning governments have come to power in Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador. Some commentators break these countries into the “good” left (Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina) and the “bad” (or Andean) left (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador).
According to this interpretation, the former camp has strengthened democracy and produced robust and sustainable economic growth while at the same time increasing social inclusion and decreasing inequality. The latter camp has chipped away at hard-won democratic gains through populist tactics and doled out vast sums of cash (paid for by income from natural resource rents) to political supporters in an effort to consolidate power in the chief executive. Other observers critique what they see as the half-measures taken by countries such as Brazil to address socioeconomic inequality and sociopolitical exclusion and view the “Andean left turn” as a genuine advance in democracy (and toward socialism) on the grounds that it places socioeconomic inequality front and center in those countries’ policy arenas and has begun to develop a more robust, participatory form of democracy in those countries.
This either/or analysis obscures more than it illuminates. Both models have attractive and unattractive components, and both models face similar crises that threaten their ultimate sustainability. To understand these realities and the future prospects of left-leaning governments in the region, let’s look at one country from the moderate, social-democratic left (Brazil) and one country from the radical, nominally socialist left (Venezuela).
Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution and now Nicolas Maduro, has decreased inequality among its citizens but has been characterized by government-sanctioned political discrimination, extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of the president, highly inefficient and non-transparent government spending, and dramatic increases in crime. Efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on oil income – which accounts for some 95% of exports and more than half the government’s budget – and to increase its domestic production have largely failed in the face of an overvalued Bolívar (which makes Venezuelan exports less competitive), strict currency controls, and high inflation (which reached more than 50% in 2013).
At the same time, poverty in Venezuela has plummeted from 54% in 2003 to 24% in 2012. Unemployment declined from 17% in 1998 to 6% in 2012. There has been a dramatic increase in per capita social spending, a marked decrease in illiteracy, and increased access to higher education and health services. Income inequality has decreased. The Venezuelan government has also undertaken significant, if not always highly effective, efforts to increase the scope of both participatory and economic democracy in the country. For instance, the government has pumped serious resources into the development of worker cooperatives and has encouraged and facilitated the transformation of small-to-medium-sized capitalist firms into worker-owned/managed enterprises. More than 30,000 local direct-democratic “communal councils” have been set up to give ordinary citizens the opportunity to participate in decisions about the allocation of funds for local development projects.
The Brazilian story is similarly mixed. Like Venezuela, it has made major advances in key social indicators: the administration of Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva expanded the Bolsa Familia (Family Purse) program, which provides small but very significant cash assistance to the poorest Brazilians. The program has reached 11.4 million households, helping to decrease poverty in Brazil by more than 30% between 2000 and 2010. The scope of Social Security has increased from 45% of workers in 2002 to 51% in 2010, and the minimum wage rose by 67% between 2003 and 2010. The increased minimum wage in turn raised wages throughout the economy, which led to a rise in payments to pensioners and unemployed Brazilians.
Brazil has also made advances in participatory democracy. Prior to Lula’s election as president, his Workers’ Party (PT) pioneered a process of mass citizen inclusion in decision-making processes around the allocation of municipal funds, known as participatory budgeting. Although their levels of success vary by city, and relatively few exist, studies have shown that these assemblies can lead to more equitable allocation of public resources and to higher levels of citizen participation in public decision-making processes, particularly among the most marginalized populations in Brazil. Lula’s government also introduced tens of thousands of public policy management councils for direct citizen input in government policy development.
Despite these promising trends, Lula and his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, embraced a “neo-developmentalist” strategy that awkwardly combines neoliberal monetary and fiscal policy with targeted conditional cash transfers. This strategy stalled much-needed reforms in tax policy and land rights, and it has limited the government’s capacity to provide adequate assistance to its badly underfunded public health and education systems. These problems signal a basic unwillingness on the part of the nominally social democratic PT to force the Brazilian super-rich to contribute their fair share in the construction of Brazilian social democracy. Finally, despite a proud history of opposition to corruption, the PT, which holds only 18% of the seats in Congress, resorted to vote-buying on a large scale to ensure legislative majorities.
Jared Abbott is a member of DSA’s national political committee, and a graduate student in Government at Harvard University.
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