Latin America’s Leftist Mirage

Ever since Deng Xiao Ping’s remark that “it’s not the color of the cat that matters, but whether it catches mice,” it has been clear that the old Cold War divisions of left and right, communism and democracy, were obsolete. Indeed, the China that Deng began to build in 1978 is now communist politically and capitalist economically. But the tendency to apply old labels remains strong, so that everyday we hear gross simplifications like the current one that holds that Latin America is now undergoing a powerful leftist wave.

The basis for this idea is that the rise to power of Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay, and, most recently, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile show a socialist trend . But are all of them old-style leftists? Or do they practice old style populism? Just what is happening in Latin America?

To start, we can rule out Chile from the supposed leftist surge, for it is a country ruled by a centrist coalition of Ricardo Lagos’s European-style socialists and the country’s historic Christian democrats. That President Bachelet comes from socialist roots does not change the nature of her government, which will follow the parameters of its predecessors, and will preside over the most open economy in the region, one integrated into the global market by free-trade agreements that extend from the United States to China.

Nor can one argue that Brazil’s government under President Lula has not been characterized by moderation, following a more orthodox economic policy even than that of its predecessor, one based on fiscal discipline, budget surpluses, and an anti-inflationary monetary policy. In contrast to old leftist slogans against repaying foreign debt, Lula’s government has hurried to settle all of its IMF obligations in advance.