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Posted December 24, 2005 by I-taoist in Castro's Cuba

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Don’t buy those Latin American labels
By Michael Shifter
MICHAEL SHIFTER is vice president for policy at Washington’s Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University.

December 24, 2005

EVO MORALES’ resounding victory in Bolivia’s presidential vote on Sunday has, not surprisingly, buttressed the media’s conviction that Latin America is drifting decidedly leftward. Champion of his country’s downtrodden and advocate for the legalization of coca cultivation, Morales is portrayed as having joined other leaders ó especially such prominent U.S. adversaries as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez ó in resisting globalization, defying the United States and focusing on their nations’ poor and excluded.

The figures most often labeled leftist cover a wide gamut. In addition to Castro and Chavez, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, from the Workers’ Party, is seen as ideologically aligned with Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez and Argentina’s president, Nestor Kirchner. Outgoing Chilean Socialist President Ricardo Lagos is also seen as part of the new configuration. Some observers have admitted the presidents of Ecuador and the Dominican Republic to this club.

Looking ahead to Latin America’s crowded 2006 electoral calendar, two self-defined leftists, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Revolutionary Democratic Party and Nicaragua’s former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega are contenders for their countries’ top job.

Despite these labels, viewing Latin America through a strictly “left-right” lens doesn’t make sense today. It is too simplistic, and it obscures the region’s highly differentiated political landscape. Latin America is undergoing considerable social and political ferment. Street protests have forced a string of presidential resignations ó in Bolivia and Ecuador, for example. Economic and political reforms haven’t tamed the unrest. As poll after poll has shown, Latin Americans are disenchanted with politics of all colorations and with the lack of remedies for mediocre economic growth, scant job creation and stubborn poverty.

The political responses to this sour mood are far from monolithic. The prescriptions promoted are so varied as to render suspect any overarching, catch-all term ó including “leftist.” Politically, Latin America is, and will likely remain, a patchwork, marked by hybrid social, economic and foreign policies.

To illustrate: Chile under Lagos (his likely successor and fellow Socialist Michelle Bachelet is expected to continue his policies) reflects Latin America’s most successful model, one that blends reliance on free markets and trade with targeted progressive social policies. The results ó in terms of sustained growth and poverty reduction ó have been impressive.

Brazil’s Lula, like Lagos, has controlled spending, a policy not usually associated with the Latin American left. Unlike Lagos, however, Lula’s government has been critical of hemispheric free trade initiatives.

Argentina’s Kirchner, charting his own peculiar course, takes an anti-U.S. stance, pursues closer ties to Venezuela’s Chavez and consistently defies the international financial community. Neighboring Uruguay’s first “leftist” government (in office since March) has been distinguished chiefly by more conservative economic policies than its predecessors.

Even as celebrated a leftist as Chavez is trying to forge his own brand of 21st century socialism rather than following the old formula. He combines greater social spending in the barrios with a fiercely independent foreign policy. More important, Chavez’s strident anti-Americanism and autocratic rule are mixed with active courting of private investment, essential to Venezuela’s oil industry.

Besides Chavez, Morales is probably most deserving of the leftist label among the new crop of leaders (unless one counts Ortega, who is a hangover of the Cold War and whose prospects appear to be declining). Yet despite his affinity with Chavez’s populist rhetoric, Morales’ “revolutionary” options are more limited than those available to the Venezuelan president. Venezuela’s well-developed energy sector allows Chavez to rake in windfalls from record oil prices and to carry out his social programs. In return for 90,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan oil, Castro provides thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers to work in Venezuela’s poorest barrios. Bolivia, despite its natural gas reserves, has no such bargaining chip. The United States can help shape the overall political environment in the region to promote moderation in Bolivia and the rest of Latin America. Treating Morales as a threat, irredeemably allied with Chavez and Castro, would be unwise and could well become self-fulfilling. Instead, Washington should engage Morales and give him some time. And rather than blindly pushing a U.S. economic and anti-drug agenda, it should join with Bolivia and other Latin American nations to devise alternatives that address their problems and ours.

Trying to understand all of Latin America with blanket terms like “left” or “right” makes headlines, but it can lead to misguided, counterproductive policies. It ignores the complicated dilemmas all Latin American leaders must wrestle with, whatever their rhetoric and politics may be.

LA Times


  1. Follow up post #1 added on December 28, 2005 by GregoryHavana with 196 total posts

    Whereas I would agree with much of what Michael Shifter says, there is one fact that I think is very difficult to deny: the Reaganite neo-liberal model of a free-market society, otherwise known as the Washington concensus, has been a large failure in Latin America and, whether you want to call it Left or not, Latin American societies are turning towards a model where the State intervenes more actively in the economy to ensure greater social justice and equity. Anyone who want to propound Milton Friedman in Latin America is barking up the wrong tree.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on January 03, 2006 by ROLO

    Yes,you are right,BUT the problem is not so simple one,It is
    a multifactorial problem and unfortunaley for me and my fellows
    very longstanding problem.However is disappointed to see how
    little, the poverty reduction program ,has worked in Venezuela,
    in spite of being a very paradise of oil prices, and Venezuela
    be the 5 World Exporter,too much money has been embellezed or
    just has been stolen,but the poor are still very poor and the
    mid-class worse and the rich no more richer,so where are the
    billions of dollars from oil revenues? so you can see the supporter of Chavez have declined,Now(39%) on according to the
    very respectful polls,the opponents are the same 14%-15%,but
    the so called ni-ni(Ni chavez,Ni opositora)climbs
    to 46%-47%,and it becomes the most important political power
    in Venezuela,even in the boycot political participation,most of
    the people don’t want Chavez and don’t want the opposition leaders,and that means El Proyecto Bolivariano est fallando.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on January 03, 2006 by GregoryHavana with 196 total posts

    My understanding is that poverty alleviation is progressing in Venezuela, at least when we compare Venezuela to the kleptocracies of the past. One must keep in mind that the levels of poverty were so high before Chavez, that the country cannot be changed overnight. Moreover, what is the “very respectable” poll you are using to establish that Chavez is only at 39%? I would like to know your sources. By the way, my suegros are working in the slums of Venezuela as Cuban doctors, there there is definitely an impact in regards to health services for the poor. You cannot deny that…

  4. Follow up post #4 added on January 03, 2006 by ROLO

    Neither I nor anybody could deny that at least the Hope for
    the betterment of the have’ not in Venezuela which are the
    majority is since Chavez the highest one,as you said in comparaison with before rulers,BUT the achievment have been
    not so great,of course Poverty could never vanish overnight
    but the reducction is not equitable with the tremendous financial capabilities of Venezuela,in this time of very high
    price of oil,my sources,are not mine,by the way,I read in the
    Universal, a newspaper from Caracas,I have been to year ago,
    in the earliest year of Chavez government,I was in the Municipio Vargas,which is the one has the litoral caribe and also the Maiquetia airport and there was a middle-class,low and
    mid middle class,but in Caracas the gap was to me very harmful,
    I mean very big.However I think los pueblos latinoamericanos,
      have to find their ways out poverty,in some areas,extreme
    poverty and corruption hey!and it seems to me GOD Willing the
    reasonable unity of purpose and hard work will pay off.

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