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Latin America’s Two Lefts

A perception has been growing over the last few years – and picking up strength in recent months – that Latin America is swinging back to the left. The unimpressive – and sometimes dismal – results of economic reform seem to have generated a backlash that has elected leftist presidents across the continent, starting with Hugo Chávez’s victory in Venezuela at the end of the 1990’s, and continuing with those of Ricardo Lagos in Chile and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, and more recently that of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay. More left-wing victories seem to be in store in Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia.

But while the premises underlying this broad trend are clear, Latin America’s voters are electing not one left, but two.

To be sure, although 2004 was one of the region’s better years in terms of economic growth, the outcome of two decades of so-called structural reform remains disappointing. Inequality has increased, poverty has been reduced only slightly at best, employment remains stubbornly low, corruption, violence, crime, and political gridlock continue unabated, and foreign investment and free-trade agreements with the US have yet to deliver the goods. In these circumstances, a strong ideological and policy reaction against the pro-market “Washington Consensus,” with its emphasis on liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, is anything but a surprise.

At the same time, however, that reaction is much less uniform and clear-cut than many observers believe. To begin with, those parties, leaders, and movements that have truly socialist and progressive roots – such as Lagos and his Socialist Party in Chile, Lula and the Workers’ Party in Brazil, and Vázquez in Uruguay – are following pragmatic, sensible and realistic paths.