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LATIN AMERICA’S “LEFT TURN”. Gustavo A. Flores-Macías Dept. of Government, Cornell University. Nine Latin American Countries Have Elected a Leftist President Since 1998. Venezuela (Hugo Chavez 1998, 2000, 2006) Chile (Ricardo Lagos 2000, Michelet Bachelet 2006) Brazil (Lula, 2002 and 2006)

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latin america s left turn


Gustavo A. Flores-Macías

Dept. of Government, Cornell University

nine latin american countries have elected a leftist president since 1998
Nine Latin American Countries Have Elected a Leftist President Since 1998
  • Venezuela (Hugo Chavez 1998, 2000, 2006)
  • Chile (Ricardo Lagos 2000, Michelet Bachelet 2006)
  • Brazil (Lula, 2002 and 2006)
  • Argentina (Néstor Kirchner 2003, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner 2007)
  • Uruguay (Tabaré Vásquez 2004, José Mújica 2009)
  • Bolivia (Evo Morales 2005, 2009)
  • Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega 2006)
  • Ecuador (Rafael Correa 2006, 2009)
  • Paraguay (Fernando Lugo 2008)
notable features of the left turn
Notable Features of the Left Turn
  • Unprecedented in its scope and duration

-- Historically, leftist victories have been rare and usually short in duration in Latin America

-- Nine countries account for 2/3 of Latin America’s population

-- Near misses in Mexico 2006 (leftist candidate Lopez Obrador lost by less than one percent of the vote) and Peru (Ollanta Humala won the first round of the presidential election but lost in the second round Alan Garcia)

-- Only one of the new leftist governments has been turned out of office (Chile); seven have achieved re-election

notable features of the left turn4
Notable Features of the Left Turn
  • Unexpected shift in the political landscape

-- Left thought to be politically vanquished in Latin America after the end of the Cold War, collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc

-- Leftist victories followed a decade of free market or “neoliberal” economic reform in the aftermath of the 1980s debt crisis– the so-called “Washington Consensus” for free trade, privatization, liberalization of capital and labor markets, etc.

how has the left come to power
How Has the Left Come to Power?
  • Not always a surge in electoral support for the Left; victory may result from a division of conservative forces (i.e., Nicaragua in 2006)
  • But in other cases leftist parties or movements have increased their electoral support
  • Argentina– leftist presidents (Kirchners) but not a leftist party
why growing electoral support
Why Growing Electoral Support?
  • No clear shift in ideological identities to the left in public opinion surveys

-- But growing anti-U.S. sentiments

-- New political opportunities with the end of the Cold War; no longer an automatic U.S. veto

  • Short-term financial crises of the late 1990s– produced anti-incumbent vote shifts that favored the Left
  • Revival of social mobilization and protest (led to the collapse of more conservative governments in Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia)
discontent with neoliberal model
Discontent with Neoliberal Model?
  • Market reforms succeeded at controlling inflation
  • But slow and erratic growth (outside the Chilean “showcase”)
  • Continuing vulnerability to financial crises
the achilles heel of the neoliberal model ongoing social deficits
The Achilles Heel of the Neoliberal Model: Ongoing “Social Deficits”

-- Continuing high levels of poverty (44% of the population)

-- Widespread underemployment (>50% of the regional workforce is in the informal sector, and 60% of new job creation)

-- Highest levels of inequality in the world


Inherent tensions between political democracy (founded on the principle of equal citizenship rights) and social reality of extreme inequality, marginalization

  • Public opinion surveys suggest that Latin Americans support both democracy and market economies, but they are dissatisfied with the performance of both
  • Turn to the Left reflects efforts to restore social citizenship, state protection against market insecurities
but no simple cause because left turn not a single phenomenon
But no simple cause– because “left turn” not a single phenomenon
  • Media often talks of distinctions between moderate “social democratic” left (i.e., Chile, Uruguay, Brazil) and more “radical” or “populist” left (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua)
  • Overly simplistic categories– but there are significant differences within the “left turn”
political differences
Political Differences
  • Very different levels of institutionalization

-- Established parties (Chile, Uruguay, Brazil) in institutionalized party systems vs. new political movements or independent personalities where party systems are in crisis (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay)

-- Govern within inherited constitution (Chile, Uruguay, Brazil) vs. rewrite the constitution and the rules of the game (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador)

the left and democracy
The Left and Democracy
  • None of the leftist governments has clearly broken with democratic procedures– but very different implications for democracy

-- victory of the left reflecting the consolidation of democracy, institutionalized pluralism (Chile, Uruguay, Brazil)– constrains what the left can do

-- victory of the left reflecting a crisis of democracy and party systems (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador– tension between democracy as popular sovereignty and democracy as institutionalized pluralism)

outliers to the left turn
Outliers to the Left Turn
  • Mexico, Colombia, most of Central America,

Peru (?)

-- very strong economic ties to the U.S.

-- recent periods of civil war/leftist insurgency and/or violence related to drug trafficking, with military/police dependence on U.S. aid

the mexican case
The Mexican Case
  • Post-revolutionary hegemony of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), 1929-2000
  • Strengthening of both conservative (PAN) and leftist (PRD) competitors starting in 1988 as economic crises and market liberalization eroded the PRI’s dominance
the mexican case23
The Mexican Case
  • Presidential victories by the PAN in 2000 and 2006
  • Narrow victory of the PAN’s Felipe Calderon over the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006 (35.9% vs. 35.3%)
  • PAN’s disappointing midterm elections in 2009
  • Opportunity for the left in 2012?
    • Diálogo por la Reconstrucción: PRD, PT, Convergencia
the mexican case24
The Mexican Case
  • Outbreaks of popular protest– Zapatista rebellion 1994, Oaxaca protests of 2006
  • Frequent allegations of electoral fraud
looking forward
Looking Forward
  • Earned a reputation of economic responsibility
  • Alienated historical base along the way
  • High commodity prices vs. economic downturn
  • Habituation to democracy