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.

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.