Old Left Versus New Left in Latin America

There are two ways to interpret Latin America’s recent election results. First, and most obviously, the supposed turn to the left is running out of steam, fast. In recent weeks, the hyper-nationalist Ollanta Humala, a clone of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was defeated in Peru, the conservative Alvaro Uribe won a landslide victory in Colombia, with 62% of the vote, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador has fallen behind in Mexico’s July 2 presidential election. All of these isolated developments seemingly contradict the leftward trend in Latin America.

But there is another way of looking at these events. Yes, President Uribe won re-election, but the big surprise in Colombia was the end of the two-party system that had dominated the country for decades, and the emergence of the left-wing Polo Democrático as the second largest political force in the nation.

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Similarly, while Alan García won in Peru, he does not come from a hard-left party that has finally seen the light (like Lula da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay). His APRA party, founded by Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre in the 1920’s, is one of the region’s oldest and most anachronistic populist organizations.

Like Chávez in Venezuela, Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and López Obrador in Mexico, President García belongs to the unreconstructed left that springs from the great Latin American populist tradition. He may have learned many lessons from his disastrous presidency in the 1980’s, but he is much closer to the wrong left than to the right one. In Mexico, López Obrador has both begun picking up in the polls in recent days, and showing his true colors, promising the stars and the moon to the Mexican electorate.

In fact, the more important recent developments within the Latin American left may lie not so much in the horserace results of elections, but in the growing differences between modernists and revanchists, between national interests and ideology. As Morales cozies up to Chávez and Fidel Castro more quickly than most people expected – nationalizing Bolivia’s natural gas, inviting large numbers of Cuban doctors and advisers to his country, and signing myriad cooperation agreements with Venezuela – he is also fueling increasing tensions with Brazil and Chile.

Both countries are his neighbors, and in theory at least, their leaders are his ideological soul mates. But the differences between the modern and archaic left, and the three countries’ contradictory national interests, seem to be trumping more superficial political affinities.

For example, Saõ Paulo, Brazil’s industrial powerhouse, now depends for most of its energy on Bolivian natural gas. As a result, Petrobras, the Brazilian energy company, has invested huge sums in Bolivia in everything from exploration to pipelines. Now, with the election of Evo Morales, the main source of Petrobras’s natural gas has suddenly been nationalized.

Indeed, domestic royalties on Bolivian gas production are being increased by more than 50%, and the price charged to Bolivia’s foreign clients may well be doubled. Contracts are being respected only in the breach, and technicians and lawyers from PDVESA, the Venezuelan oil giant, are auditing Petrobras installations in Bolivia. Lula wants to be nice to Morales, but he can’t be nice to his expropriating neighbor and at the same time keep the industrialists and consumers of Saõ Paulo happy.

Similar frictions are arising with Chile. President Bachelet would like to solve the century-old problem of landlocked Bolivia’s access to the Pacific, but she is finding this task to be trickier than expected, as Morales increases gas prices and reduces gas exports to Argentina, Chile’s largest foreign supplier of energy. Nor does Morales’s rhetoric help: accusing the United States of attempting to assassinate him, as he did last week, does not endear him to the elites of a country that has signed a free-trade agreement with the US and whose president will be visiting Washington soon.

At the end of the day, Bolivia’s immediate national interests may be served by Morales’s strategic alliance with Cuba and Venezuela. On the other hand, Chávez’s unabashed meddling in the Peruvian elections may have so alienated Alan García that he actually becomes a European-style social democrat, and López Obrador may deliver on his promises to respect NAFTA, adhere to macro-economic orthodoxy, and pursue good relations with the US.

But the cleavage between the two lefts in Latin America is steadily deepening. This is inevitable, because that rupture is being fueled by the simple acknowledgement that responsible governments must place national interests ahead of nostalgia, grandstanding rhetoric, and strident ideology.