Grading Latin America’s Left

BOGOTA–In January 2006, a few days after Evo Morales’ election as President of Bolivia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez predicted that a new wave of left-wing governments would sweep across Latin America. Five years later, it is time to ask how well Latin America’s left-wing administrations have done. Have they fulfilled their promises to bring about greater equality, reduce poverty, and strengthen democracy? In short, are the countries that turned left better off than they were before?

Although income inequality has not varied substantially in Chávez’s time, Venezuela is one of the six countries in Latin America, along with Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Argentina, with the greatest availability and widest distribution of basic services such as education and housing. The Chávez government has also been successful in its efforts to reduce poverty, as the World Bank has acknowledged: since 2000, the percentage of poor households has fallen from 40% to 21%, and the rate of extreme poverty has dropped from 20% to 8%.

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But the balance sheet with respect to strengthening democracy isn’t nearly as favorable. Socioeconomic advances have come at the cost of an erosion of the separation of powers and media independence. The armed forces are becoming increasingly politicized, and major civil-society organizations have been forced to close. The recent congressional elections, which strengthened the opposition, could be a sign of general discontent with Venezuela’s current institutional arrangements – and with the deterioration of its democracy.

The socioeconomic indicators for Ortega’s Nicaragua are much less flattering. Around 48% of Nicaragua’s population is mired in poverty, with 79.9% living on less than two dollars a day. The country survives on remittances and international economic aid.

Moreover, Nicaragua’s record on democratic consolidation is also poor: the 2008 municipal elections were criticized by observers and the opposition as fraudulent, and the separation of powers has been seriously weakened by Ortega’s desire to remain in power after his term expires in 2012.

Bolivia, too, has not improved socioeconomically with the left in power: it remains among the worst performers with respect to human development (ranked 104th out of 174 countries, according to the United Nations Development Program). The poverty rate is 59-61%, and almost 25% of the population lives in extreme poverty.

Indicators of equality have not improved substantially, either. A government that came to power promising to create national unity now seems disoriented in the face of the country’s deepening regional, racial, and economic divisions. But, unlike Venezuela and Nicaragua, where corruption scandals are a pox on political life, Morales has tried to govern “cleanly” and, for the most part, has succeeded.

It is difficult to generalize. Some analysts believe that oil has helped Chávez produce better socioeconomic results than Nicaragua and Bolivia have achieved. But several previous Venezuelan governments presided over similar bonanzas, and few – if any – invested the resources in public projects and social initiatives, as Chávez has. Whether this investment is sustainable in the long term, and how it might affect macroeconomic performance, should be analyzed technically rather than ideologically.

In this sense, these three cases – and Venezuela in particular – are a clear reflection of the Cuban model, which, despite substantially reducing poverty and providing basic health and education services, seems less sustainable than it did in the past. The model’s decadence is now so clear that Raúl Castro’s government has begun heavy cuts in Cuba’s enormous state bureaucracy and has allowed a limited number of private businesses. What Cuba is going through today will likely occur in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, a similar evaluation should be made of Latin America’s rightist governments. I suspect that the indicators in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, or Chile will not be any more hopeful, and that their governments’promises, too, have not been kept. Social objectives and the deepening of democracy in these countries – with the probable exception of Chile – have been sacrificed for higher levels of security.

Throughout Latin America, the poor and marginalized are growing in number. And yet it seems that at both ends of the ideological continuum, they remain far from being a priority of their governments.

Read more from our "The Return of Hugo Chávez?" Focal Point.