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  • A “Left Turn” in Latin America

A series of recent victories or near-victories by left-of-center candidates has prompted a wave of inquiry into the contemporary character of democracy in Latin America. As the essays that follow clearly show, there is no single trend, even in countries where the left has won. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has resurrected a populist, anti-American style of leftist politics that harkens back to an earlier authoritarian era. Argentine president Néstor Kirchner and Bolivia's new president Evo Morales have also talked tough against the West and offered lavish populist pledges, yet they have governed more pragmatically than their rhetoric would indicate.

Chile recently inaugurated Michelle Bachelet as its second consecutive Socialist president, but as Arturo Valenzuela and Lucía Dammert show, Chile's Socialists are pragmatists who succeed politically because they "address issues of relevance to people's daily lives." In Peru, the radical populist candidate endorsed by Chávez lost in a hard-fought contest (analyzed here by Cynthia McClintock) to chastened former leftist president Alan García, who ran as a more sober and moderate figure. And in Colombia, right-of-center President Alvaro Uribe won reelection in a landslide victory, assessed in an essay by Eduardo Posada-Carbó.

Hector Schamis links the nature of the resurgent left to the character of party systems. In "institutionalized and well-functioning party systems," the left—like the right—tends to be moderate. In disjointed or collapsed ones, parties of both left and right veer toward more radical and even undemocratic postures. Matthew Cleary also stresses institutional factors, but points instead to the importance of "a historically mobilized labor sector" in enabling leftist political parties (however new) to organize effectively along class lines. Christopher Sabatini and Eric Farnsworth trace the populist resurgence to the "failure of labor markets to absorb unemployment," leaving the majority of urban workers economically marginal and politically rootless.

These essays present a mixed picture. Most Latin American democracies have yet to meet their citizens' expectations, particularly for broad improvements in well-being, reduced crime and corruption, and a diminution in extraordinarily high levels of inequality. Yet these democracies have now been in place for 15 to 25 years—the longest stretch of democracy in the region's history—and their average levels of freedom have continued to improve slightly. The question now is whether a new generation of Latin American leaders can come up with creative and pragmatic policies to relieve the economic and social dislocations that have historically generated the populist temptation.



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