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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%.

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.