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  • Defining the Left in Latin America
  • Kathleen Bruhn (bio)
Latin America’s Left Turns: Politics, Policies, and Trajectories of Change. Edited by Maxwell A. Cameron and Eric Hershberg. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2010. Pp. ix + 289. $27.50 paper. ISBN: 9781588267399.
Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. xii + 398. $30.00 paper. ISBN: 9781421410098.
After Neoliberalism? The Left and Economic Reforms in Latin America. By Gustavo A. Flores-Macias. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii + 261. $27.95 paper. ISBN: 9780199891672.
The Resurgence of the Latin American Left. Edited by Steven Levitsky and Kenneth M. Roberts. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii + 480. $35.00 paper. ISBN: 9781421401102.
The Success of the Left in Latin America: Untainted Parties, Market Reforms, and Voting Behavior. By Rosario Queirolo. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. Pp. xviii + 205. $34.00 paper. ISBN: 9780268039790.

With the collapse of both the Soviet Union and the import substitution industrialization model, two of the great referents that once defined the Latin American Left fell into disgrace. What, many wondered, was left of the Left? What could, or should, the Left offer as an alternative to representative democracy and neoliberal capitalism? Writing early in this period of confusion, Jorge Castañeda described the Latin American Left as a “utopia desarmada” (the original Spanish title of 1993’s Utopia Unarmed), literally “disarmed” and “taken apart” (desarmada) into four ideological and two functional groups.1 He hoped at the time for the emergence of a social democratic Left that “formally and sincerely” accepts the logic of the market without relinquishing all state roles in the economy, though he also presciently warned, in response to proclamations of “the end of populisms in Latin America,”2 that populist programs “may well be resurrected.”3

Two decades later, the election of leftist and left-of-center presidents in two-thirds of Latin America’s largest countries resulted in a flurry of efforts to define [End Page 242] who counted as leftist and what kind of Left each president represented. Once again, the most influential and controversial definition came from Castañeda, who put the Left neatly into two categories: the “right” Left, which plays by the rules of the democratic game and accepts the constraints of market capitalism, and the “wrong” Left, “born of the great tradition of Latin American populism,” which is “nationalist, strident, and close-minded,” “loves power more than democracy,” and is “disastrous for Latin America.”4 Castañeda’s typology had the virtue of predicting economic and political outcomes associated with the two types but was roundly abused for its allegedly oversimplistic dichotomy and especially its moralistic tone. Some scholars responded by proposing an alternative typology with more categories; others only softened the terminology of the typology while keeping essentially the same two groups intact.5

The books reviewed here suggest that the definition of the Latin American Left through typologies may have reached the end of its usefulness. In attempting to explain the rise and significance of leftist governments in Latin America, these works engage the question of what the most relevant differences are within the Left—understood as that portion of the political spectrum that prioritizes equality and social justice—and why they matter. Yet typologies, because they divide the world into such large chunks, tend to tell us only so much about big-picture outcomes. Much unexplained variation remains that requires a more nuanced and multilevel approach.

Rosario Queirolo’s book The Success of the Left in Latin America focuses on why the Left came to dominate regional governments. She rejects the hypothesis that voting for the Left sprang from popular rejection of neoliberal reforms. Leftist parties came to power on the basis of a performance mandate rather than a policy mandate. Her analysis is sophisticated and thorough. She conducts not only a cross-national analysis of the Left’s presidential vote share but also three studies of individual-level vote choice using surveys from Mexico, Brazil, and Uruguay. She finds that...


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