And Again, We Have to Ask: Who’s “Left” in Latin America?

I’ve written on the problem of defining/understanding what constitutes “left” in Latin America before. It’s an ongoing debate, in no small part because of the insistence of US media across a variety of political viewpoints to lump leaders as diverse as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández Kirchner and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Chile’s Michele Bachelet and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and (until recently) Uruguay’s Pepe Mujica, as some sort of singular, homogeneous “left.” The homogenization of these politicians is highly problematic for any number of practical, theoretical, or ideological reasons, not the least of which is how such visions disregard significant differences each leader has on social policies, economic policies, visions of the role of the state, and vision for society, even while they ignore the ways domestic histories and contexts have led these leaders down different paths.

Over at Latin America Goes Global, Christopher Sabatini tackles this issue yet again, from the actual political/ideological angle:

Quick: when you think of a leftist or progressive movement or the ideology generally, what do you think of? As someone who considers himself of the left, I think of greater state involvement in the economy to better re-distribute wealth and improve social safety nets; I think of support for minority groups and the disenfranchised; and I think of greater protections for social rights and groups.

Yet, in the countries many like to label leftist or socialist—President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador—only the first really applies, and in Venezuela, increasingly less so.

So, why do observers and the media continue to label Maduro or Correa leftists? I suppose it’s because those leaders themselves call themselves that. But let’s look at the facts.

He then looks at the records of leaders like Maduro and Correa when it comes to social arenas like indigenous rights, LGBTQ rights, and redistribution of wealth to improve the lives of the poor, he finds that, as far as leftism goes, Maduro, Correa, and Morales are….wanting.

Lost in all the facile labeling of Maduro and Correa as leftists is a simple fact: simply pumping money to the poor doesn’t make you socialist or even a leftist. It makes you a populist (and profligate).

A credible, ideological metric, though, never seems apply to Latin America. So as a result, anyone who declares themselves a socialist gets labeled so in popular media, despite that they exhibit none of the characteristics of the modern progressive left.   Have they championed the rights of minorities and excluded groups? Have they helped improve the lives of the poor in terms of security and sustainable social mobility?

No? No problem, as long as you declare yourself a socialist.

This is a very real problem, for failure to understand, or to take at face value, the ideological claims of Latin American politicians sets the stage not just for a grand misunderstanding of Latin American politics and societies (which is significant), but also for failure in any number of diplomatic, social, cultural, or economic spheres, due to the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of Latin American politics.

Of course, complicit in these flawed narratives and understandings of politics, policy, and ideology is the frequent mis-portrayal of Latin American politicians and politics in much of the US media. Major outlets, be they print, television, or internet, accept that Maduro or Correa are “leftists” (or even “radical left”) because, well….because Maduro and Correa say so. There’s no real consideration of what it actually means to be “left;” rather, media portrayals of Latin American politicians so often accept such categorizations because they fit within the US’s own very narrow vision of a political spectrum, where the embrace of neoliberal policies like free trade combined with a limited program of social justice makes one a generalized “left,” while support for neoliberal policies like free trade combined with tax cuts makes one “right.” It’s all operating in a sphere in which neoliberalism dominates the political spectrum; while there are political voices outside of that spectrum in the population more generally, the media reflects the “beltway-bias” of political institutions in the US.

This isn’t just bashing on media narratives for the sake of complaining about a sometimes-easy target. It’s because these political representations of leaders, parties, and worldviews have a very real impact not just on understandings of the Lefts (rather than a singular “Left”) in Latin America, but of politics of the center and right, too. The fact that the US media can repeatedly refer to parties like Brazil’s PSDB (Partido Social Democrático Brasileiro, Brazilian Social Democratic Party) as “center-left” because it has the words “Social Democrat” in it is to disregard its platform that favors neoliberalism, free trade, tax cuts, cuts to social programs, and more recently, a reduction of the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, which would have a devastating impact on vulnerable youths. Why do so many outlets see the PSDB as “center-left,” when, by any thorough metric, its policies lean right? Because since its formation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the PSDB has claimed it is center-left, and too many, both in the US and elsewhere, accepted that claim without further consideration. Just as they do with Maduro when he claims he’s socialist.

Sabatini’s argument that we need to be more critical to those who characterize themselves as “left” is true, but it’s not limited to just them. Without a broader critical consideration of the actual policies that political leaders and political parties implement, the ability to actually understand not just Latin American politics or society, but politics and social relations more generally, will not just be wanting; it will be fatally flawed.

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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