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Populists Can be Right

Does the rise of left-leaning governments in Latin America, particularly the election of Evo Morales as President of Bolivia, presage a shift to the hard left across the continent? Does it mark a repudiation of United States foreign policy in the region? Will it, for example, lead to a re-nationalization of Bolivia’s vast natural gas deposits?

These are vital questions, but they miss the larger significance of the rise of someone like Morales, for he is Bolivia’s first indigenous elected head of state. His victory marks a step forward in Latin America’s overall democratization, with positive long-term significance for economic and social development in the region.

To understand why, it is helpful to take a broad view of Latin America’s history and economic development. The societies of the Americas were forged by European conquests of indigenous populations, and by the racial and ethnic divisions that followed. Both the US and Latin America are still coming to terms with those historic divisions.

The Europeans who conquered and colonized the Americas after 1492 did not find vast empty lands, as they sometimes proclaimed, but rather lands populated by communities dating back thousands of years. A large portion of the indigenous populations quickly succumbed to diseases and hardships brought by the European colonizers, but many survived, often in dominant numbers, as in Bolivia and much of the highlands of the Andes mountain region.