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The Meaning of the Year of Elections in Latin America

by
Jennifer McCoy


6 December 2006

 

(Published in IPS as a column in several newspapers around the world)
 
Hugo Chávez' re-election on December 3 concludes a year of elections in Latin America in which nine countries chose candidates reportedly left of center; and three countries chose candidates reportedly right of center.  Commentators have also attempted to distinguish between the rise of the "pragmatic Left" in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, and the newly-elected "radical Left" in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
 
Yet, these countries, along with those further to the "right" of the ideological spectrum, have more in common than these labels imply.  The electoral debates essentially came down to two themes:  how much of a priority to put on fighting poverty, and how to define a country's relationship with the U.S. and the global economy.
 
 The debate over poverty centers on market-oriented strategies versus more statist –oriented ones, but both well within the capitalist camp.  This is, of course, tied to the international debate as candidates have taken pro and con positions vis-à-vis free trade agreements with the United States, and adopted or rejected the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Hugo Chávez.  But the absolute requisite to address the growing citizen frustration at stubborn poverty and rising income inequality was clear throughout this year of elections.
 
Even the "radical Leftists" may not be all that radical after all.  In Nicaragua, president-elect Daniel Ortega, who was vigorously opposed in the campaign by the United States and helped by Venezuela, has accepted the free trade agreement with the US and already met with the IMF, World Bank and U.S. government in the weeks after his November 4 victory to reassure his own private sector and international financiers of his goals.  He aims, in fact, to build a grand coalition to fight poverty in Nicaragua, after a decade of little progress under conservative governments. Ortega will most likely strive to balance a relationship with the U.S. on whom Nicaragua is economically dependent, and with Venezuela, who can provide the energy help it desperately needs.  
 
Bolivian President Evo Morales adopted strong language of nationalization of oil and gas resources, and strident criticism of the U.S.  But his "nationalization" strategy is actually the implementation of a law passed during the previous government that required renegotiation of foreign contracts giving the Bolivian state a majority share of mixed enterprises, and raising taxes and royalties.  Morales has vigorously sought to persuade coca-growers to reduce production, and has increased interdiction of illegal drugs in Bolivia.  He has also toned down his anti-U.S. language since his first-ever visit to the United States in September.
 
Even in Venezuela, where 1960s-era Marxist intellectuals are sprinkled throughout the government, Chávez has recognized that the old-style socialism is no longer viable and he is inventing a new model, which he calls "21st century socialism." His promises to deepen the revolution in 2007 must be played out before we can fully evaluate this vaguely-defined concept or his economic goals.  Thus far, 21st century socialism has included using oil revenues to redistribute resources to the poor through government subsidies, cash transfers, and welfare programs – not a new thing in Venezuela.  It has included some controversial rural and urban land reform, and the revival of state-owned enterprises in certain sectors competing with the private sector.  But it has not gone much beyond those limits in economic terms.
 
We are also witnessing a continent with countries that are seriously divided, demonstrated in the extremely close elections this past year in Costa Rica and Mexico, and run-offs in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador.  Polarization especially marks countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Mexico, where even geographic divides can be identified and deep political conflict sporadically threatens to erupt into ingovernability and violence. 
 
Much of Latin America also shares a deepening nationalism and abhorrence at U.S. unilateralism, from the Iraq War to the Mexican border wall. Does this mean that Chávez will become a regional leader with his renewed mandate?  Certainly he is influential due to Venezuela's oil wealth and Chávez' personal mission to combat U.S. global and regional dominance.  The U.S single-minded focus on Iraq and the Middle East since 2001 opened a vacuum in Latin America that Chavez was happy to fill.  His criticism of the U.S., though personalized and crude, resonates with people unhappy with U.S. arrogance, even while embarrassing others.   
 
The Bolivarian Revolution as a model, however, is not easily replicated or exported.  Based on extraordinary oil revenues, personal charisma, and a willingness to concentrate power, the conditions giving rise to and sustaining the Bolivarian Revolution are not all present in any other country.  These conditions include a near tripling of the poverty rate from the 1970s to the 1990s with its accompanying sense of exclusion and rage, the deinstitutionalization of a strong party system over the course of the 1990s, and a seven-fold increase in the price of the major commodity during the Chávez administration. 
 
What the new leaders across the board in Latin America face is the dilemma of meeting the high expectations of frustrated citizens, while facing the real constraints of economic globalization and weak state capacity and institutions.  These constraints, when present, tend to be equalizers and moderators.  They can draw a country together under strong leadership and well-organized interests with a national vision, or they can destabilize a country that is factionalized and lacks a sense of shared national identity and purpose.  The post-election year of 2007 will determine which direction each will go.

 

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McCoy is Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and Director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
 

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