Is the Latin American Left in Crisis?

By Jared Abbott

In the pages of the mainstream press, things look dire for the Latin American left. Although left-leaning governments in a number of countries are experiencing very serious political and economic crises, they may well pull through, if they can enact some profound but nonetheless achievable political and economic reforms.

Since the late 1990s, a number of left-leaning governments have come to power in Latin America during what has been described as the continent’s “left turn(s),” starting in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chávez Frías as president of Venezuela and followed by the elections of left-leaning presidents in Chile (2000), Brazil (2002), Argentina (2004), Uruguay (2004), Bolivia (2005), Chile (2005), Paraguay (2006), Ecuador (2006), Nicaragua (2006), and El Salvador (2009). Although each country has its own trajectory, it is safe to say that as a bloc these governments made impressive gains. In the economic sphere, they have decreased unemployment, the size of the informal labor sector, poverty, and inequality. A number of these countries have also taken steps to strengthen the rights of the urban poor and to enact pro-poor land-tenure legislation. Finally, a number of countries have enacted legislation to protect the rights of workers and to promote the development of worker cooperatives.

In the social sphere, these countries have increased redistributive programs, from increased spending on education, health, social security, and housing to the expansion of pension systems and unemployment insurance. They have also advanced toward greater recognition of indigenous cultures. For instance, the new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador enshrine the notion of plurinationality, which recognizes the legal status of a range of indigenous cultures and codifies (particularly in Bolivia) new forms of collective representation that indigenous communities use to develop their own forms of political organization.

Finally, in the political sphere, groups outside the formal labor sector have been repoliticized. These include indigenous groups, peasants, and the urban poor. One of the most exciting political developments has been widespread experimentation with direct and participatory democratic institutions that, in some cases, have increased the participation of poor citizens in political decision making.

Today, many of these successes are overshadowed by stalled economic growth, skyrocketing inflation, and increases in unemployment, poverty, and inequality. Much of this can be explained by the commodity boom of the mid-2000s and the short-sighted response of these governments. During this period the prices of many commodities, from soybeans and rice to oil and gas, reached unprecedented heights. Rather than plowing some of the revenue windfall into savings or measures to increase economic diversification, such as manufacturing, many left-led governments vastly expanded spending in other directions (often for very important social programs). When prices inevitably fell (crude oil, for instance, went from more than $140 a barrel in 2010 to around $30 today), budgets came up short, and governments had little in the way of long-term economic sustainability to show for their spending. This, combined with poor monetary planning and an increasingly valuable U.S. dollar, has produced high levels of debt and interest rates that have choked off economic growth.

Another serious problem is corruption. Perhaps the most prominent recent example is that of Brazil. Early in 2015, a huge corruption scandal erupted that involved (among others) officials from Dilma Rousseff’s Workers Party (PT) and top brass from the majority-state-owned oil company (PETROBRAS), though Rousseff was not implicated. Massive protests were organized across the country. Fallout from these protests, as well as another scandal alleging that Rousseff fudged government accounting records during her reelection campaign in 2014, have caused Rousseff’s approval rate to plummet. She faces impeachment charges before the Brazilian congress.

Finally, despite important gains, in many cases the gap between left-leaning governments and social movement/civil society organizations has widened. For instance, governments in countries such as Ecuador, Brazil, and to some extent Bolivia have paid lip service to participatory democracy but have, at best, taken only partial steps toward fulfilling this goal and, at worst, have actively worked to impede it. When we look at public opinion data on political mobilization and civic engagement levels in these countries, we see that they are down significantly compared with the period prior to the rise of left-leaning governments.

Clearly, some of these governments in Latin America (particularly in Venezuela and Brazil) need to make serious changes to their political and economic strategies. That said, the many epitaphs for the Pink Tide may be premature.

The Latin American average for presidential approval is around 47.5%, while the average among left-led countries is roughly 44%, with this figure being affected significantly by the particularly low approval ratings of Rousseff in Brazil and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. This is hardly a dramatic gap. In fact, left-leaning presidents such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Tabare Vázquez of Uruguay and Rafael Correa of Ecuador have among the higher approval ratings in the region.

Beyond presidential approval ratings, public opinion data on political partisanship and support for left-of-center policy positions suggest that left-leaning governments have not lost their base of support. In only one of these cases (Paraguay) do citizens report being more conservative today than in the period prior to the left-of-center government in their country. Indeed, some countries have seen quite significant shifts to the left. Citizens also express equal or higher levels of solidarity with the poor relative to the period before left governments came to power in all countries where data are available. Citizens in every country expressed higher levels of support for social security, and citizens in all countries but two (Chile and El Salvador) expressed higher levels of support for a just distribution of wealth, and the declines in those two countries were minimal. (All data come from Latinobarómetro, a public opinion research firm based in Chile.)

These data imply that in many of these countries, barring a military coup, traditional neoliberalism will not return soon. Indeed, leftward shifts in public opinion have been so significant that even most right-wing governments have increased social spending in key areas relative to the period before the Pink Tide.

Looking closely at GDP growth statistics, we can see that growth rates are not as serious a problem as some commentators have suggested. For instance, the 2014 growth rate among countries with left-led governments was slightly above 2%, which is significantly below the 3.09% average in the region (excluding the Caribbean). However, this figure is skewed by the anemic growth rates of Argentina and Brazil (0.5% and 0.1% respectively) and the negative growth of Venezuela (-4%). Bolivia and Ecuador had two of the highest growth rates in the region in 2014. Argentina and Brazil are relatively dynamic economies that are likely to return to healthy, if not impressive, rates of growth in the coming years. Nonetheless, the economic outlook for some left-led countries is still precarious, as this group is heavily overrepresented by export-dependent economies.

Is the Latin American left in trouble? Yes and no. For the most part, these governments still enjoy considerable popular support, and only a small number face serious economic and/or political crises. Even in those cases, however, crisis can be averted through more realistic fiscal and monetary policies, a focus on minimizing corruption, and a recommitment to participatory democracy.

Ultimately, these governments must push toward a radical democratization of the economic, political, social, and cultural spheres. Although countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia have engaged in interesting experiments to develop viable models of Latin American socialism for the 21st century, they have not yet developed workable solutions on a large scale. Developing such alternatives in the context of a highly interdependent and competitive capitalist global economy is a challenge faced by left-leaning governments across the globe, not just in Latin America. Whatever the ultimate solution, no such alternatives will be achievable in the absence of revitalized social movements, trade unions, left-wing political parties, and other radical actors in civil society that can pressure progressive governments to undertake transformative reforms that move their societies in the direction of a democratic socialist alternative.

Jared Abbott is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee and a Ph.D. student in political science at Harvard University.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.