Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Steve Ellner, 2014, Lanham, Maryland, Roman and Littlefield, 291 pages, paperback.


Midge Quandt


          Most commentators and researchers on Latin America prefer moderate leftist governments, such as those of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, which are capitalism- and U.S.-friendly. These governments avoid the participatory democracy that guarantees popular input into decision-making. The radical left in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, by contrast, enshrines participatory democracy in their constitutions; and it rejects the state-centered strategy of the old left. It also repudiates neo-liberalism.

          Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Steve Ellner, a distinguished and prolific Venezuela scholar, is sympathetic to the radical left. Most of the essays appeared in Latin American Perspectives, May 13, 2014. An important article on Bolivia by Federico Fuentes was written for this volume. Ellner provides a sophisticated introduction to the book and  introductions to each section.

          Ellner’s introduction is masterful, covering theoretical and historical issues. “The term ‘twenty-first century Latin American radical left,’” he writes, “as used here applies primarily to the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and excludes more moderate movements both in power (as in the case of Brazil) and out of power . . . [These governments] are staunch critics of the capitalist system, if not advocates of socialism. In addition, radical leftists have taken advantage of their . . . political victories by moving quickly against adversaries and deepening the process of change.” The complexity of the task facing the radical left lies partly in a commitment to electoral democracy and partly in the stance of the right and the far left.

           Although the essays are wide ranging, I will focus on these three governments.Using the work of Ernesto Laclau, Ellner underlines the complexities of social heterogeneity for the radical left leaders of Venezuela (Chavez and Maduro), Bolivia (Morales) and Ecuador (Correa). They reject worker vanguardism in favor of non-privileged, multisector support. Their political base includes  the indigenous, the rural poor and the informal sector, as well as workers. Thus Ellner suggests that the historical situation of Latin America, as opposed to that of the Soviet Union or Europe, be taken into account when evaluating leftist governments in the region.

          Ellner also lays out and critiques the notion of the “bad left” versus the “good left” associated with Jorge Casteñada that refuses to die despite qualifications and criticism. This binary formulation is useful to Washington for pointing the finger at radical, unacceptable leaders: populist, demagogic and needlessly anti-American. Ellner concedes that the radical left bears some resemblance to the populism of the 1930s and 1940s, including an emphasis on charismatic leadership. But the whole argument fails to take  account of the diversity of the base and the complexity of government policies as it navigates the tricky waters of the opposition and the various sectors on the left. It also fails to acknowledge the pragmatic and trial-and-error approach to change. A critique of the division of bad left versus good left runs through many of the essays in the book.

          In addition to writing an introduction, Ellner has also contributed a piece on Venezuela, entitled “Social and Political Diversity and the Democratic Road to Change in Venezuela.” In it he discusses the long drawn-out conflict between the state and the private sector over, among other things, price controls. The result was the wave of expropriations taking place from 2009 to 2013. The process of expropriation illustrates how radical change takes place in a democracy. He also shows how government policies impacted the three sectors which Chavez, (and later Nicolás Maduro) counted on for support; workers, middle sectors and the “unincorporated,” which includes the informal sector. Thus divisions within the Chavista cause reveal  unity but more importantly, the heterogeneity which Ellner underlines in the introduction.

          Marcel Nelson has also written an essay on Venezuela. It examines the negotiations attendant on The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Here the complexity of change is emphasized as the negotiations moved from the hands of bureaucrats to Chavez’s special  Commission.

          Unlike Venezuela, in Bolivia the presidential election of the indigenous union leader, Evo Morales, was a triumph of the social movements.  They pushed for a new constitution which ensured a pluri-national state and indigenous autonomy. The movements also pressured Morales to nationalize the hydrocarbon sector. The state takes 80% of the profits and invests some of the revenue in productive enterprises at home. Thus the state rather than the market becomes the key player in the economic realm.

          Federico Fuentes points to these developments to refute the claim that Bolivia represents a “reconstituted neo-liberalism.” In the “‘Bad Left’ Government versus the ‘Good Left’ Social Movements,” he takes issue with the likes of ultra-leftist writer Jeffrey Webber. Webber sides with those social movements that are more radical than the government; he paints Morales as simply accommodating to business interests.

          In contrast to the ultra-left, Fuentes argues that socialism in the region requires a more hospitable international climate than the neo-liberal one provides. It is arguably unrealistic to expect Bolivia or any other Latin American country to make a complete break with capitalism.

          The picture in Ecuador and the position of President Rafael Correa is somewhat more ambiguous. All the radical left governments operate within a capitalist framework, but Correa’s actions frequently put him in the pro-business camp. Ecuador is often grouped with Venezuela and Bolivia as a radical left nation, and it is so here.

          Correa’s rhetoric is anti-capitalist; and he expropriated nearly 200 companies. Correa has done much for the poor majority. The popular classes have benefited from anti-oligarchic and anti-business reforms. Yet social movement activists accuse him, rightly, of hewing to a capitalist model of development which includes foreign corporations that figure in his plans for increasing oil production.

Correa has also tried to marginalize the social movements. In the case of indigenous groups, he represses protests against extractive enterprises. The indigenous often clash with the government over water policies. (Venezuela and Bolivia also have extractive industries, but have opened up spaces for popular organizations.) Even though the focus of the volume is radical left governments, I would like to have seen criticisms of extractivism by left activists not in power treated more systematically. Recently, considerable attention has been paid to critics of extractivism. (See the work of Raúl Zibechi and Gerardo Enriques.) For example, discussion of these critics appears in the Current issue of Z Magazine (March, 2015) and Nacla’s Report on the Americas (Winter, 2014/2015).

          In any event, Marc Becker concludes that Correa is less consistently radical than Chavez and Maduro and Morales, especially regarding social movements. In Correa’s defense, Becker observes that in this era of neo-liberal hegemony, no leader has broken with capitalism.

          This book is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on the left in Latin America. It reappraises the radical left: It redeems it from the marginalized status in the political science literature, and from critiques of it as simply populist and authoritarian.

          I have only one quarrel with the volume. I was disappointed by the essay on Nicaragua and El Salvador. On Nicaragua, Héctor Perla Jr. and Héctor M. Cruz-Feliciano do not do justice to the critique of the FSLN by the ex-Party opposition. Citing one remark by Dona Maria Tellez is not sufficient. The left opposition is concerned about ― elections aside ― the lack of democratic behavior exhibited by the FSLN and its leader, President Daniel Ortega. For example, it is widely believed that the Party controls the community councils. And Ortega marginalizes the social movements that he cannot control. (An interesting opportunity was missed by not exploring more fully the tension between radical left ends and political means.)

Yet the book overall represents a masterful and successful effort to analyze and defend the radical left.