The recent triumph of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Evo Morales’ election victory in Bolivia in December, and Ollanta Humala’s forceful rise in the polls in Peru complete the leftward shift that, with some exceptions, our region is making.

Everything has been done democratically, but to this observer that’s not enough to dispel the doubts regarding the chances of success of our present leadership. Democracy in Latin America is fragile and it doesn’t seem to us that the new leaders are up to the challenges of the 21st Century.

The opportunities for growth dissipate when political leaders embrace a leftist line, sometimes nationalist or populist, in a world that changes quickly and constitutes a much more competitive scenario than the previous century.

In the Chilean elections, Bachelet won the second round as a member of a moderate coalition that has governed the country for a decade and a half and has clearly understood that Chile’s economic progress cannot be maintained if the market economy built during the authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet is not retained.

Nothing should worry us, then, because the process of development in Chile has remained constant all this time and has produced the social fruits that—we know this well—always accompany political stability and economic growth: a perceptible reduction of poverty and inequality, greater opportunities for all, especially for the less well-off, and an increase in the quality of life indices. The latter is manifested by important indicators, such as the reduction in the rate of infant mortality, the increase in the number of years in school, and the boon in the material well-being of all inhabitants of that southernmost nation. Without any doubt, Chile is at the head of our region in all these important issues.

What worries us, then? Isn’t the presence of a woman in the presidency of Chile and an indigenous man in the presidency of Bolivia the best sign that we have advanced in our effort to overcome the prejudices of the past and that our countries are moving up the path of social equality? Isn’t it encouraging that everywhere there is talk about favoring the neediest, starting social programs and ending the poverty that burdens us still? Despite some positive signs, the answers—in our opinion—don’t leave much room for optimism.

The concern for the poor, on which our Latin American Left so loudly insists, is in fact nothing more than a declarative stance that, in practice, contributes little to those who live in the worst possible conditions. Government expenditure is increased and allocated—presumably—to the solution of social problems, but that social expenditure becomes a bureaucratic consumption that almost never reaches the social sectors it’s supposed to benefit. Leaders talk endlessly about poverty but don’t take the necessary steps to promote the economic growth that, in the end, is the only engine capable of overcoming this scourge. In countries of limited development like ours, the measures to redistribute income manage only to equalize downward the quality of life, as the Venezuelan example shows us today with absolute clarity. Poverty has risen in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez’s redistributive policies.

To make matters worse, those measures also threaten property rights and the free exchanges between private individuals, creating a climate of juridical insecurity that discourages investments and therefore retards growth.

We don’t believe that Dr. Bachelet will align herself with the 21st-century socialism promoted by Lieut. Col. Hugo Chávez and now courted ardently by Evo Morales in Bolivia. Chileans seem to remember that a free economy and a framework of juridical security are the basic elements that have allowed them to advance on the road to economic growth and social well-being.

Nevertheless, there are risks. The climate of political confrontation that pervades our continent, the temptation to engage in political revenge, and the widespread diffusion of socialist ideas that, despite their failure, continue to be accepted with enthusiasm, make us fear that Chile might halt its march toward progress and join, although partially, the wave of demagogical policies advocated by the Left throughout the region.

Perhaps the shift to socialism we are witnessing today is nothing more than a final settling of accounts with our dictatorial past and the rejection of the forms of mercantilist capitalism—plagued by privileges and devoid of incentives—that have harmed us so. Perhaps in a few years good sense will return and we shall reprise the road to the reforms we need.

Meanwhile, our region will remain stagnant, missing the opportunities that global growth can give it, a passive spectator to the spectacular advances made by countries like India, China, and even several African nations.