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Commentary

Nostalgia for the Left


     
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Now that the Cold War is a thing of the past, and coups d'état seem unthinkable in Latin American countries, the Left has returned to the region. This is a more-or-less authoritarian and populist Left that beguiles voters eager for change and proposes the same program of action that failed decades ago. Chávez in Venezuela has been joined by Evo Morales and his new administration in Bolivia, while Ollanta Humala recently won the first round of the presidential election in Peru. Other candidates with similar tendencies are expected to achieve excellent results in various other countries.

The Cold War imposed an implicit and often intense control over the political alternatives that Latin American countries could adopt. The formation of extreme-left governments, socialist in their objectives and tough on the opposition, could not be accomplished without awakening the open antagonism of the United States. If a leader wished to proceed along that road—as Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega did—he had to obtain the direct or indirect support of the Soviet Union, which at the time assumed a tutelary role and protected them from the other superpower.

The region's radical left also faced an internal threat that often put a stop to their ambitions: military officers, generally supported by a large proportion of the population (although some people today choose not to recall that fact), who breached the constitutional barriers and assumed political command by imposing a dictatorship.

The military established a dictatorship in Chile, to prevent the final consolidation of communism by Allende's government; it did so in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, to thwart the growth of insurrectional movements; and it did so, in a more indirect fashion, in several countries of Central America, where the communist threat was also imminent and very hard to halt. For a long time, then, the voters in these countries were not offered extreme-left alternatives.

Today, however, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, without a great power to shelter and encourage the extremisms of the Left, a paradoxical—and to a great degree surprising—situation has emerged. In the absence of any real pressure from or military intervention by the U.S. in the political life of our continent, leftist radicals have a chance to achieve power and try out—after a long wait—the authoritarian and socialist policies they have always cherished.

Clearly, this renaissance of the mostly anti-democratic Left has not occurred in a vacuum. New circumstances have allowed the Left to captivate voters who are confused and lack political maturity. The ineffectiveness and widespread corruption of democratic governments in recent decades, as well as the exaggerated and unfulfilled promises made by politicians have left voters seeking alternatives among non-traditional politicians.

After the failure of the interventionist model in the 1960s and '70s, which foundered in the big crisis of 1982-83, a series of free-market reforms, including monetary and fiscal restraint and privatization, was initiated that stabilized the situation and retake the path of growth in many countries in our continent. But the reforms—partial as they were, and always limited in their intention and objectives—could not furnish the rapid growth many citizens desired, or reduce the social inequalities that in reality had dragged on for several centuries.

The reaction of disgust this provoked in the voting population—fanned, of course, by the nuclei who survived the radical Left of the past, and exploited unscrupulously by political adventurers of every ilk—has brought us to the current wave of authoritarian populism we're experiencing, to new dynamics of confrontation and hatred that pose unsuspected risks of violence.

But not all is negative, we hasten to add; not everything is lost for the future of our extensive region. First, the new opportunistic caudillos have not emerged in all countries and will not be able to seize power everywhere.

Second, and no doubt most important, the populist, statist program they advocate (and have carried out, at least in Venezuela and Bolivia) is terribly obsolete, ineffective and doomed to fail. All it does is increase the numbers of poor people, retard growth, and isolate our region from the more positive currents of the contemporary world. It is, therefore, a program without a real future.

We can only hope that, after the present euphoria dies down, ways may be found to separate the new apprentice dictators from power, without violence and in an environment that will favor civil, political and economic freedoms. This will not be easy, we know, but we need to wait for developments, placing our trust on the moral reserves and democratic vocation that still exist in our peoples.


Carlos Sabino is an adjunct fellow with The Independent Institute, and a visiting professor and researcher at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín Foundation in Guatemala.






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