Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Several lefts in Latin America

The problems with neoliberalism encouraged the turn to
the left among voters in Latin American countries, and
the record of populist and pragmatist leftwingers alike
has been impressive. Poverty and inequality have fallen
in nearly all left-led countries, according to a recent
UN report, with Venezuela narrowing the gap most, by
increasing the wealth of the poorest by 36 per cent.
Chile and Brazil's GDP has grown by 5 per cent annually
over the last couple of years, Argentina's by 7 per
cent; even desperately poor Bolivia has seen more than
4 per cent growth under Morales. Critics attribute
Venezuela's pace-setting 8 per cent yearly increase to
high oil prices, which makes one wonder why petroleum-
exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico
grew at only 3 per cent. The answer is that Chávez's
massive spending on public works, education,
healthcare, housing, co-operatives and small businesses
has worked as a scattershot stimulus package. Much of
this expenditure may be wasteful, chaotic or corrupt,
but the country's unemployment rate has fallen from
nearly 20 per cent in 2004 to 9 per cent, the fastest
drop in Latin America. As Keynes himself pointed out,
the waste involved in public works projects is
infinitely less of a vice than the waste of intractable
unemployment. `Two pyramids', he said, are `twice as
good as one'.

There is variation in style and policy among Latin
America's new leftists, but it has more to do with
regional history than ideology. In the southern cone,
civilian and military dirigisme from the 1930s to the
1970s created complex, relatively diverse societies.
The neoliberalism introduced in the 1980s deepened
inequality and generated new social organisations -
such as Brazil's landless workers movement - but there
wasn't a complete collapse of the old political order.
In Chile, Bachelet is the fourth civilian president
since Pinochet left power in 1990, and has continued
her predecessors' efforts to rebuild a social safety
net. Lula also rose within an established political
system, and now presides over Latin America's largest
economy, with successful financial, agricultural,
energy and financial sectors. In the Andes, especially
in Bolivia and Ecuador, where racism is more
entrenched, class power more extreme and foreign
control more barefaced, privatisation and deregulation
stripped the economy to its core and destroyed the
existing order. The region's new leaders have
established unapologetically fortified executive
branches held accountable by elections and a mobilised,
socially diverse rank-and-file. They are more willing
to challenge the rules of the global political economy,
to nationalise industries, push land reform and
negotiate higher royalties from petroleum and gas

Along with Venezuela, Brazil has played a key role in
establishing Latin America's growing independence from
Washington. When Brazil announced last September, after
Morales's right-wing opponents in Bolivia tried to
destabilise his government, that it would not accept a
coup in South America, it was an act of solidarity as
well as an assertion of its own regional doctrine;
Washington's silence was taken as a show of support for
the plotters but also an indication of the inattention
of a declining superpower. If Obama normalises
relations with Cuba, as Lula has been pushing him to
do, Brazilian and not US agro-industry is set to become
the major developer of the island's sugar economy, and
will gain access to US markets. Lula has advanced his
country's economic interests in Bolivia, Ecuador,
Paraguay and Uruguay - `Brazil's backyard', according
to the Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi - while at the
same time defending Morales, Correa and Chávez, not
just from Washington but from Brazilian investors
threatened by resource nationalism, land reform and
higher taxes. The Brazilian president is as popular
abroad as he is at home, becoming the Third World's
proxy at international financial summits like the G20,
a prominence just ratified by the International Olympic
Committee's decision to pick Rio over Chicago and
Madrid for the 2016 games. Washington will be paying
close attention to Brazil's 2010 presidential election,
hoping that whoever wins will share Lula's moderation
but not his charisma.

Whatever direction Latin America's new left takes, the
global economic meltdown might just bring about the
long-sought convergence between Latin America and the
United States, though not in the way that might have
been imagined: `On bad mornings,' Paul Krugman recently
remarked, `I wake up and think we are turning into a
Latin American country.' As to the election of the
first African American to the US presidency, Lula
called it an `extraordinary gesture', and hoped that
Obama would transform it from one exclusively for the
`US people into a gesture for Latin America . . .
respecting our sovereignty and an equitable

[*] All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation
in the Iberian Atlantic World (Yale, 352 pp., £30, July
2008, 978 0 300 12580 1).

Greg Grandin is the author of The Last Colonial
Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War and, most
recently, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's
Forgotten Jungle City

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