Social Democracy Lives in Latin America

MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY – Amongst the different leftist governments in Latin America, there are new and rather strident populist regimes (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador), which seem to grab all the attention.  But there is also a social-democratic strain to Latin American politics – a historical novelty in the region – that is gaining strength. In Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, social democracy is proving that it can work.

What distinguishes these social democratic governments from their populist counterparts is that they are composed of a left that is integrated into competitive, multi-party democracies. These social democrats were once part of a socialist, revolutionary, or reformist left, tightly allied with labor unions.  But they ultimately accepted the market economy, and came to lean toward ideological moderation and to compete for votes in the political center.  At the same time, motivated by their political competition and their own leftist ideology, these social democratic governments emphasize both economic growth and social inclusion.

These governments’ potential to innovate depends on the political resources and power at their disposal.  The first government of the left in Uruguayan history has comparative advantages in this respect, for, unlike in Brazil and Chile, Uruguay’s social democrats have ruled as a one-party majority government. The Frente Amplio (FA) brings together nearly all the country’s left-wing groups and has the loyal support of labor unions. 

Moreover, Uruguay’s president, Tabaré Vázquez won his office five years ago in the first round and, by uniting the posts of head of state and party leader, was able to forge a strong presidential leadership and popularity.  As a result, during the cycle of economic prosperity that lasted until 2008, with rising commodity prices and internal dynamism, the Vázquez government insured macroeconomic stability, fiscal balance, and an open market, encouraging competitiveness as well as domestic and foreign private investment.