´The Two Lefts´ in Latin America: The Politics of Discourse

Midge Quandt

In recent decades, the Latin American Left has had a checkered history. Repressed by military regimes in the 1970s and early 1980s, it subsequently reemerged in the form of social movements and political parties. [1] In the last 10 years, it has undergone a further resurgence as left- leaning governments have come to power: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998; "Lula" in Brazil in 2002; Argentina´s Nestor Kirchner in 2003; Tabaré Vasquez of Uruguay in 2004; Michele Bachelet of Chile and Evo Morales of Bolivia, both elected in 2005; more recently Daniel Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua and Rafael Correa became president of Ecuador.

Alongside these developments have come debates about the differences among leftist regimes and the threat posed by the more radical ones. Many observers now divide these governments into a left that is moderate and modern (good) and a left that is demagogic, backward-looking and anti-American (bad). [2]

The penchant for quarantining the "disastrous and irresponsible" left, especially Chavez, is characteristic of mainstream academia in the U.S. An example is the recent conference on "Globalization and the Rise of the Left in Latin America" held in December of last year at Princeton University. One of the conference organizers told me that no one from the radical left had been invited. [3] (This in contrast to the NACLA-sponsored conference at Yale in April, 2006. With regard to policing the unorthodox, I was reminded of a panel discussion in the mid-1990s on the Contra War where someone asked about Noam Chomsky´s views. "He doesn´t count" was the reply.)

The conference participants, moreover, sided with the managed capitalism and pragmatic moderation of the region´s social democratic regimes. They also agreed that the future lies with "responsible" leaders who play by the rules of the game, like Vasquez and Bachelet. As for the populists or the "hyperactive left," the discussants noted that they clearly are not taking over Latin America — witness the defeat of Mexico´s Lopez- Obrador and Peru´s Humala — though unfortunately they get a lion´s share of the headlines.

An important contributor to the analysis of left-wing governments is the Mexican writer Jorge Casteñada, author of the influential Utopia Unarmed. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he distinguishes between two lefts: "one that is modern, open-minded, reformist and internationalist . . . . and the other, born of the great tradition in Latin American populism, [that] is nationalist, strident and close-minded." [4] The "good" left is comprised of market-friendly social democrats who came out of orthodox left parties and eventually saw the light. They include the leaders of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. The populist left refers to those in the caudillo tradition — Chavez, Kirchner and Morales. They are ostensibly more interested in personal power and in verbally lambasting the U.S. than in developing policies for the poor.

Some analysts have observed that this typology is too vague. They argue that there can be a conjunction of institutional power and a political style in which a leader relates directly to the people, as was the case for Argentina´s Carlos Menem. Likewise, state intervention on behalf of the marginalized, for example in Bachelet´s Chile and Ortega´s Nicaragua, can coexist with neo-liberal economies. And it has been observed that economic reality usually trumps ideology in so far as both moderate and radical governments have pursued similar policies with regard to nationalization of resources. [5] Such refinements of the schema have the result, if not the intent, of qualifying the usual harsh condemnation of populism.

A very different approach is taken by sociologist and historian Carlos Vilas, currently at the National University of Lanús in Buenos Aires. Vilas contends that the commonalities among governments are more striking than the differences, and they tell us more about what is significant in Latin American politics today. The national-popular regimes espouse a national capitalism rather than a systematic transformation of the social order. (Conventional left-right definitions have always been unsatisfactory as applied to the region, he argues. Nicaraguan journalist, William Grigsby, agrees that orthodox characterizations, common in the North, are not useful and that "more than a left, Latin America needs at this moment nationalist projects because it is being absorbed by the U.S. at the economic, cultural and political level." [6]) In Vilas´ account, national-popular governments have similar political commitments: meeting social needs within a democratic framework; creating regional economic integration (the most recent example of which is the January 2008 agreement to set up a regional bank to fund development projects); and promoting national autonomy while avoiding open conflict with the U.S. The exception is Hugo Chavez, whom he calls a "radical reformer" from outside the traditional political system, and one whose reforms have been the most far- reaching. [7] (Steve Ellner, who has written extensively on Venezuela, asserts that his "self-proclaimed socialism for the 21st century" is a misnomer: Venezuela puts social needs first, not nationalization of any sector of the economy. This in contrast to what opposition leaders there call a move toward "Castro-communism".) [8]

The term "radical populism" was first used by U.S. academics with some sympathy toward this political project. It was then taken up by members of the Bush administration who trumpeted it as a threat to regional stability and as a precursor to terrorism. [9] And the presidential candidates, as director and publisher of Report on the Americas Christy Thornton notes, typically refer to Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba as "rogue states." [10] Sharing the neo-liberal model with the U.S. establishment, conservative Latin American think tanks, such as the influential Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies, call "revolutionary populism" and "radical indigenists" enemies of the West. [11]

Among the opposition leaders in Venezuela, the accusation of "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" is a not uncommon way to characterize the Chavez regime. [12] Such exaggeration is made possible by the fact that, as even sympathizers with his political agenda acknowledge, such labels have some, if limited, basis in reality. [13] A parallel form of distortion exists on the U.S. left where solidarity activists tend to defend Chavez uncritically. [14] This reaction is partly a response to the mainstream media´s demonizing tactics. Because of those attacks, however, many on the left do not know what to believe. [15]

Populism can be autocratic or democratic. In either case, a charismatic leader takes on the mantle of the people´s savior. In the eyes of some analysts, this redeemer role tends to undermine institutionality and democracy, because the leader is "above institutions, he embodies the people´s will." This is especially true where participatory democracy is prominent, for example, in Venezuela. [16] Analysis of this sort has the advantage of taking us beyond a focus on leadership style and rhetoric. Yet such a definitional critique needs to be supplemented by empirical evidence about specific regimes lest it just add ammunition to populist-bashing.

If authoritarianism is one possible, though not inevitable, accompaniment to populism, elitist rule can and often does characterize representative democracy, social democracy included. The concepts "freedom" and "democracy" are always contested terms: conflicts over definitions are also struggles over who controls the discourse and, by implication, who wields political power. In the mainstream democratic theory of the 1980s and 1990s, democracy was defined as procedural: free and fair elections, free speech, and so on. (Participatory democracy not included. Recent democratic theory takes issue with the idea that participatory or direct democracy invariably contains the germ of an undemocratic populism. [17] ) In the procedural definition, the political realm is separated from questions of who has the power to dominate the political field and who benefits from the prevailing economic model (typically dominant groups). [18]

Nicaragua´s left, Ortega wing of the FSLN in the mid-1990s, criticized the view that procedural democracy should be the first priority. It took to task the Center Current of the party for assigning primary importance to legislative work and negotiation in the service of a reformist politics and a neo-liberal agenda. (Critics of Ortega, then and now, object to the label "social democrat." Former FSLN leader, Monica Baltodano for one, refuses to limit the opposition´s goal to a well-administered capitalist order.) The Left Current argued, moreover, that the endorsement of negotiation should not be used to delegitimize mass mobilization with the spurious notion that popular militance invariably threatens representative institutions. Former Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry and spokesman for the Left, Alejandro Bendaña, insisted that "democratic institutions . . . should be nourished from outside political society [the grass roots] . . . where social movements are in action . . .. The danger is that we, as ´new moderate revolutionaries´ could abandon our commitment to structural transformation and limit ourselves to putting a progressive mask on welfare-state reformism." [19]

In Nicaragua today, a similar dynamic is playing itself out on the left. The Sandinista opposition to Ortega, represented by the Movement for Sandinista Renovation (MRS), while saying that the current government is personalist and non-democratic, gives center stage to fortifying Nicaragua´s fragile democratic institutions. [20] Defending the Ortega regime, Orlando Nuñez, creator of the Government?s Zero Hunger program, suggests that an ongoing tension exists between social justice and democracy, and that it is misguided to automatically and uncritically support institutionality as the greatest good. [21]

Looking at the array of governments in Latin America, it is notable that none, radical or not, has embarked on a socialist project. (Though it is debatable whether socialism, however defined, is still the litmus test for a radical social agenda. [22] ) They are known, instead, for their moderation. Pointing out the drawbacks of this stance, Carlos Vilas cautions: "A not-minor danger is that principles will be left by the wayside. The distance between pragmatism and opportunism can be short as well as abbreviated by the urgencies of electoral arithmetic." [23]

[1]The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika, ed. by Barry Carr and Steve Ellner, Westview Press, 1993, pp. 1-21. Return to text

[2]Revista Envio (Jan/Feb. 2006), 1-2. Return to text

[3]John Londregan, author interview, December 7, 2007. Return to text

[4]"Latin America´s Left Turn," Foreign Affairs, 85, No. 3 (May/June, 2006), 29. Return to text

[5]Patricio Novia, "Are There Two Lefts in Latin America", Paper presented at the conference "Globalization and the Rise of the Left in Latin America," Princeton University, December 7, 2007, Scott Morgenstern, "Rhetoric and Reality: Nationalization Schemes in Latin America," Ibid., December 8, 2007. Envio, 26, No. 317, (December, 2007), 7-8. Return to text

[6]William Grigsby, author interview, April 4, 2006. Return to text

[7]"The Left in South America and the Resurgence of National-Popular Regimes," Latin America After Neoliberalism, Eric Hersberg and Fred Rosen, eds. (The New Press and NACLA, 2006), 232-251. Return to text

[8]Steve Ellner, "Venezuela: Defying Globalization´s Logic," NACLA, Report on the Americas, 39, No. 2 (September-October 2005), 24.Gregory Wilpert presents a sympathetic yet reasonably balanced account of that issue in "Venezuela: Participatory Democracy or Government as Usual", Socialism and Democracy, 19, No.1 (March, 2005), 17-32. Return to text

[9]Vilas, "The Left in South America," p. 343. See also Adolfo Gilly, "The Emerging Threat of Radical Populism," Report on the Americas, 39, No. 2 (September/October 2005), 37-40. Return to text

[10]Report on the Americas, 41, No. 8 (January/February 2007), 3,44. Return to text

[11]Ibid., pp. 12-14. Return to text

[12]The social democratic founder of the Movimiento al Socialismo, Theodoro Petkoff, planning minister under Rafael Caldera and part of the political class that was excluded from power after Chavez´s victory, used the epithet "totalitarian" and likened Chavez to Hitler. Comment by Petkoff, Princeton University, December 7, 2007. Return to text

[13]Wilpert, Socialism and Democracy, 19, No. 1, (March 2005), 26. Return to text

[14]Ibid., p. 7. Return to text

[15]Chuck Kaufman, Interim National Coordinator of the Venezuela Solidarity Network, author interview, January 20, 2008. Return to text

[16]Ignacio Walker, Seminar, "Democracy and Populism in Latin America," Princeton University, February 12, 2008. Walker was the former Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs. Return to text

[17]Peter Maier, "Partyless Democracy," New Left Review, II (March-April 2000), 26-33. Return to text

[18]William L. Robinson, "Democracy or Polyarchy", Report on the Americas, 40, No. 1 (January/February 2007), 32-38. Return to text

[19]Midge Quandt, The FSLN in Nicaragua: Conflict and Consensus (The Nicaragua Network, 1994), 11. Monica Baltodano, "We Must Expose Ortega´s Plans from the Left," Envio, 26, No. 317 (December 2007), 16-17. Return to text

[20]Dona Maria Tellez, "It´s up to Us to Curtail the Government´s Authoritarianism," Envio, 26, No. 313 (August 2007), 20-27; "El año de exorcismo," Perspectivas (CINCO, Enero 2008). Return to text

[21]Orlando Nuñez, "Navigating the Contradiction Between Democracy and Social Justice," Envio, 26, No. 309 (April 2007), 16. The Central American Regional Co-director of the Center for Global Education in Managua, Mark Lester, helped me understand Ortega´s position. E-mail from Mark Lester, dated January 6, 2008. Return to text

[22]Alex Callinicos,"Impossible Anti-Capitalism?,"New Left Review, II (March-April 2000), 117-124. Return to text

[23]Vilas, "The Left in South America," 250. Return to text