Who’s “Left” in Latin America?

Over at the Washington Post, Juan Forero has an article up declaring the “Radical Left at crossroads in Latin America.” It’s not a particularly innovative or informative article, using Argentina’s move to nationalize oil production as a platform say that the left has centralized power but is now falling apart. Naturally, in an article dealing with the “left” in the entire region, it  relies on a definition of “populism” that has become de rigueur but that effectively perpetuates anachronistic Cold War understandings of the region in which you’re either with the US, or you’re an existential threat to some obscure definition of democracy. Indeed, substitute “populism” for “communism,” and you pretty much get Cold War rhetoric on the region as one homogeneous unit: it’s decreasingly democratic; there’s limited freedom of expression; it’s economies are doomed. All of these characterizations gloss over major differences between countries’ international, economic policies, ignores regional competition and diplomacy, simplifies complex domestic processes, and disregards any cultural, social, or demographic variations that might prompt different responses from governments (“leftist” or otherwise) from one country to the next. Greg Weeks calls it “simplistic,” and that’s probably being charitable.

One of the biggest problems here is that, simply put, I don’t buy characterizations of people like Correa, Chávez, or Morales as “radical left,” for many reasons. First, a truly “radical” left, would seek truly revolutionary action that overthrew social, political, and economic structures suddenly and violently, both in terms of acts of violence and as a more abstract sudden and intense transformation. And that simply doesn’t apply to the “leftism” of Chávez, Correa, and Morales. Yes, they are trying to transform their societies in significant ways, and yes, they have the state institutions of violence (militaries, police forces, etc.) at their disposal (even if those forces aren’t always willing to work with them). But there is no real concerted effort at revolutionary struggle through armed violence; the Venezuelan elites or Ecuadoran journalists can complain that they are persecuted and limited in their freedoms, but any reasoned analysis of the situation on the ground makes clear that Chávez, Correa, Morales, or any other “radical left” leader is not the head of armed guerrilla movements or state officials who are just mowing down their revolutionary “enemies” in the way that, say, Che Guevara himself admitted to doing in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.

Additionally, the personalist politics of Chávez most obviously (and Morales and Correa to a lesser extent) aren’t exactly a feature only of leftist ideologies. One can certainly argue (rightly, I think) that power has become centralized to a degree uncharacteristic in the rest of the region, but I’m just not convinced that this is somehow automatically more “leftist” than governments in Argentina, Brazil, or elsewhere that have tried to effect very real social and economic transformations even while not relying on the degree of personalist authority present in a figure like Chavez.

This question of personalism and what might happen after the supposed “radical left” is out of office in Latin America led  Boz to express concern that

 To the extent you can talk about these leaders as a unified group (and there are plenty of reasons that they are different in spite of the nationalization discussion), one common factor is that after years in power, all of these allegedly leftist leaders appear to be more focused on their own personal power than improving their countries or advancing a specific agenda. It’s notable that not a single leader from this recent movement has groomed a successor who wasn’t a family relation.

However, I would ask in reply (and sincerely): where does Lula and Brazil fit? Yes, current President Dilma Rousseff was Lula’s chief of staff and his choice as the PT’s candidate, but the Lula-Dilma succession (and the case of Brazil more generally) would seem to be a major hole in this trend. Certainly, by many metrics, Lula and Dilma are not nearly as “leftist” as Morales, Correa, or Chávez, but I think one can pretty easily argue that they are certainly and significantly left of center in many regards, especially in terms of social and cultural policies. This is doubly true if we rely on the US’s metric of what constitutes “left” in Latin America, given that media outlets regularly refer to what today is one of Brazil’s most conservative parties, the Partido Social Democrático Brasileiro (PSDB) as “center-left.” If the PSDB is “center-left,” then the PT would certainly be “left.”

And if we’re not going to count the PT, or Lugo in Paraguay, or Mujica in Uruguay, or the Concertación in Chile (which was in power until 2010), why not? Again, I mean all of this sincerely, and it points towards the challenges scholars have in understanding and discussing the “left” in Latin America generally.

And these questions aren’t just germane to understanding the “left” in Latin America; they also matter in terms of defining and analyzing the “center” and “right” as well. I fully agree with Boz  that there is a real ideological uncertainty (if not emptiness) in both the Latin American lefts and rights. And the questions do not have any simple or definitive answers (though I hope to post on some possible ways to think about answers/definitions later this week). But one thing the Washington Post article does remind us is that many mainstream reports on politics and political leaders in Latin America continue to rely on simplistic and outdated narratives that only conceal the complexities at play in politics throughout the region.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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1 Response to Who’s “Left” in Latin America?

  1. Dave says:

    “First, a truly “radical” left, would seek truly revolutionary action that overthrew social, political, and economic structures suddenly and violently, both in terms of acts of violence and as a more abstract sudden and intense transformation.”

    That’s the stupidest thing I’ve read in a fair few days, and I’m on the internet a lot. You can’t be a ‘radical’ leftist unless you’re prepared to start butchering people? Fuck off.

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