Cleaving a False Divide in Latin America

As Latin America shifts further left on the political spectrum, U.S. pundits are frantically struggling to artificially partition the continent’s leftist leaders between so-called populist demagogues and sound pragmatists.

While most analysts wrongly see a Latin America torn between Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet—between ideological and pragmatic governance—the new wave of leftist leaders all blame the last 20 years of neo-liberal “reforms” for the continent’s present ills and agree on the need for new and alternative development models. What is surprising is that for all the praise of pragmatic thinking present in the debate, this dichotomy is itself ideological to the core.

Unfortunately, most analysts writing about the supposed clash between populism and pragmatism have failed to see through the rhetoric and assess the Latin left on the basis of its actual policies. Some prominent examples of this sensationalist punditry include Jorge Castañeda and Michael Shifter from Foreign Affairs and Alvaro Vargas Llosa from the Center on Global Prosperity. What is really fueling this debate is fear that Latin America’s newly found independence and alternative development models may prove Washington’s prescriptions wrong

First Shift to the Left

It has been over three decades since Latin America’s first brief shift to the left was swiftly crushed by U.S. backed military dictatorships. This September marked the 33rd anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup against Chile’s democratically elected socialist President, Salvador Allende. Allende was elected on a platform to create a more equitable and fair Chile no longer subservient to the interests and whims of U.S. corporations. President Richard Nixon responded by ordering the CIA to destabilize Allende’s government through industrial sabotage, bribery and terrorism. When these measures failed, the CIA fomented a military coup that took control of the country by force on September 11, 1973. Pinochet declared martial law and Allende’s supporters were either rounded up in the National Stadium or simply shot.

Thousands of Chilean leftists began disappearing off the streets or from their homes. Others sought refuge in friendly foreign embassies and went into exile abroad. My father was one of those exiles.

Budding photojournalists, my father, Marcelo Montecino, and his brother, Cristián Montecino, bravely documented the atrocities and injustices of the dictatorship’s early days. But then one day, soldiers abducted Cristián from his home and executed him for simply taking pictures. Devastated and fearing for his life, my father decided to leave the country and join the burgeoning Chilean exile community in the U.S. Because of these terrible events I was born in the U.S. and never met my uncle.

Right-wing U.S. policy makers were not willing to give up their hegemony over Latin America back then and they are not willing to do so now. Latin America is now once again embracing Allende’s vision and the U.S. foreign policy establishment is following an all too familiar path.

Cold War Rhetoric

Ever since the left started making steady progress in Latin American elections, starting with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, U.S. foreign policy circles—ranging from the Department of Defense, the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush himself—have pronounced grim forecasts for the region. But these forecasts haven’t materialized. Latin America is for the first time in decades charting an independent course towards development. So far it looks like it will be a successful one.

Critics have tried a variety of arguments to paint a negative picture of the change sweeping through Latin America. The first approach was a revival of Cold War rhetoric, inflating Chávez’ influence and resurrecting the perennial fight between western democracy and totalitarian communism. For example, Constantine C. Menges, a former national intelligence officer at the CIA, saw Venezuela as an example of the resurgence of “misguided, antidemocratic Marxist-Leninist groups.” Worse, Rumsfeld, supposedly concerned about the state of democracy in Venezuela, compared Chávez to Hitler, who also rose to power democratically. Then after 2002 when a U.S.-backed coup against Chávez failed and leftists with impeccable democratic credentials were subsequently elected in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, the approach took a new turn.

Populist Label Gets Popular

Suddenly the new word in everyone’s repertoire was “populism,” a vaguely defined term referring to political power through cheap and coercive appeals to the poor and common folk. Critics like Stephen Johnson, senior Latin America analyst for the Heritage Foundation, pointed to Chávez’s undisputable popularity and Bolivia’s indigenous movements as evidence of the instability of democracy in Latin America—ignoring, of course, Venezuela’s tremendously successful social programs and the corruption and failure of Bolivia’s government of the time.

For instance, last March, prior to Evo Morales’ landslide victory in the Bolivian presidential elections, an article in The Washington Post referred to Bolivia’s social movements as “a threat to Latin Democracy.” According to The Post: “Another Latin American democracy is on the verge of crumbling under pressure from leftist populism. The trouble comes this time in Bolivia, where a democratic president and Congress face a paralyzing mix of strikes and road blockades by a radical movement opposed to foreign investment and free-market capitalism.” Misleadingly, the article praises Bolivia’s terrible economic performance under free-market “reforms” and thanks private foreign investment for supposedly “significantly” increasing access to water for the poor.

However, the opposite is true. In the city of Cochabamba, for example, privatization led to a tripling of the price of water and a decline in quality and supply. As a consequence, many poor families found themselves devoting half their salaries to simply pay for water.

In April, Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Affairs and U.S. representative to the Organization of American States, writing for the Miami Herald, made the outrageous claim that political violence and drug cartels are behind Evo Morales’ tremendous popularity. According to Noriega, Morales is “doing the bidding of the cocaine traffickers.” Similarly, Johnson makes the same claim more explicitly. According to him Colombia’s violent guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as the FARC for its Spanish acronym) is behind Morales’ rise to power.

Also in April, The Economist warned of the “return of populism,” referring to Venezuela and Bolivia’s Constitutional Assemblies as totalitarian power grabs.

Good Left, Bad Left

Today criticism has recently taken a surprising and all the more misleading turn. Instead of condemning the entire Latin left, critics now distinguish between the “bad” left and the “good” left—i.e. between the populist and pragmatic or radical totalitarian and social democratic. This new version was popularized in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs by Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister and by The Economist but has resurfaced in several newspaper articles and op-eds.

According to Castañeda the Latin American left is divided between the “modern” and “pragmatic” Bachelet camp and the “anachronistic” and “reckless” Chávez camp. “One has radical roots but is now open-minded and modern; the other is closed-minded and stridently populist. Rather than fretting over the left’s rise in general, the rest of the world should focus on fostering the former rather than the latter — because it is exactly what Latin America needs.”

Alvaro Vargas Llosa, director of the right-wing Center for Global Prosperity, offers a similar albeit distilled version of Castañeda’s argument. He says the Latin left is divided between the “vegetarian” and the “carnivore” camps: “Modernizers as well as reactionaries are scattered across the Latin American political landscape today, belying the simplistic left-right dichotomy. The modernizers include both the center-right and what some fellow writers and I call the vegetarian left; meanwhile, the reactionaries make up the carnivore left.”

The “vegetarian left” includes Brazilian president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Uruguay’s Tábare Vazquez and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet while the “carnivore left,” predictably, contains Chávez, Morales and Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner. Writers endorsing this division—be it “pragmatists vs. populists” or “vegetarians vs. carnivores”—believe the Bachelet camp is more likely to succeed while the Chávez bloc is surely headed towards ruin.

But that is certainly not the case. When Kirchner was elected three years ago U.S. foreign policy circles raised alarm signals about Argentina’s future. Nevertheless Argentina now enjoys the highest growth rate in the region and has created millions of new jobs. Playing it safe, Argentina paid back all of its IMF debts ahead of schedule. Also, Kirchner has deepened democracy in Argentina by revoking the military’s impunity for the dirty war—the violent and repressive military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla that secretly murdered and tortured thousands of political dissidents. It is worth noting that Videla’s human rights abuses, like Pinochet’s, were sanctioned and supported by Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Fears Prove Unfounded

When Bolivia’s new indigenous president, Evo Morales, was elected last December with an absolute majority of 54% President George W. Bush nevertheless warned of the “erosion of democracy” in Bolivia—an odd appraisal for a country that has had five Presidents in the last four years. Since in office, Morales has taken steps to fulfill all of his campaign promises and enjoys excellent domestic and international support. Also, the fear of capital flight following the nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon resources on May 1 has proven unfounded. Nor is the move nearly as radical as critics would have one believe. The nationalization is actually nothing more than a return to constitutionality since the contracts currently under renegotiation were never ratified by the congress and no foreign property was expropriated.

Venezuela, supposedly the worst of the bunch, has grown its economy impressively in the last two years and the World Bank has found that some of the country’s poverty indicators have improved. Chávez has used Venezuela’s massive oil reserves, the fifth largest in the world, and the recent spike in world prices to pay for ambitious social programs, including subsidized food for the poor. Also, in order to avoid inflation from too much government spending, he has invested large parts of the windfall profits abroad, helping, for example, Argentina and Ecuador to pay their debt to the IMF.

While many critics argue that Chavez’ initiatives are too heavily dependent on high oil prices, Venezuela has actually maintained a fairly moderate fiscal policy in case oil prices suddenly drop. According to Mark Weisbrot, director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, Venezuela is budgeting at about half of last year’s oil price and has significantly increased tax collection to lower the state’s dependency on oil.

Progressive Leaders Work Together

While the populism vs. pragmatism thesis has falsely portrayed an internally divided left, Latin America’s progressive leaders have never been closer. Lula, Kirchner and Bachelet have all, on several occasions, defended Chávez against U.S. criticism. When the U.S. recently tried to convince Chile to block Venezuela’s election to the United Nations Security Council Bachelet rejected the idea outright; all this from the supposed leader of the anti-Chávez bloc.

Bolivia and Chile, for the first time in over a century, have reopened formal diplomatic relations and are pursuing an extensive bilateral agenda. In the late 1800s the war of the Pacific enriched Chile and left Bolivia landlocked. Now, Bachelet has vowed to give Bolivia economic aid and the two nations are finally discussing the controversial sea-access issue.

Even though Bolivia’s gas nationalization led to price increases for Brazil and Argentina, in May Morales, Kirchener and Lula made a joint statement defending Bolivia’s “sovereign right” to control its resources. The three countries currently enjoy excellent relations. Argentina is also giving Bolivia much needed financial aid to carry out its reforms.

Assessing the Latin left on the basis of its actual policies reveals an entirely different picture than the one painted by mainstream U.S. media outlets. U.S. policy makers should refrain from buying into such alarmist and paranoid rhetoric and judging the Latin left on ideological grounds alone. Latin America’s shift to the left is a symptom of the tremendous unpopularity and failure of U.S. policies in the region.

If my uncle’s death taught me anything, it is that unjust social and economic policies can only be perpetuated through violence and repression. Today, the people of Latin America are once again standing up against injustice and U.S. hegemony. Will U.S. policy makers ignore the lessons of the 1970s or will they for once concede guilt and reassess their approach to Latin America?

No More War of Words

On the diplomatic front, U.S. officials should end their war of words with Chávez and cease funding and openly supporting Venezuelan opposition groups tied to the 2002 failed coup. The U.S. should also stop trying to convince Latin American heads of state to block Venezuela’s election to the Security Council.

Where Bolivia is concerned, the U.S. has a strategic opportunity to renew relations with Evo Morales’ government on friendlier terms. The U.S. should take advantage of the upcoming arrival of a new Bolivian ambassador to Washington to reevaluate key policies towards Bolivia through a greater appreciation of Bolivian input. A good start would include an extension of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) which, set to expire in December, grants generous preferential access to U.S. markets for certain important Bolivian goods.

Instead of pressuring Bolivia to sign a Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. should renew the ATPDEA on a provisional basis and facilitate the creation of an alternative trade agreement based on mutually beneficial terms. The disastrous U.S. drug policy in Bolivia also needs reassessment. For years the U.S. has naively imposed the forced eradication of coca (the main ingredient of cocaine) leading to nothing but strife for poor Bolivian farmers and the virtual militarization of coca growing areas. The U.S. should respect Evo Morales’ voluntary coca eradication policy and efforts to institutionalize the use of the plant for ends other than cocaine. Finally, the Treasury Department should make serious efforts to grant Bolivia’s requests for full debt cancellation.

Such modest gestures would go a long way in strengthening U.S.-Latin American relations and ending the, often justified, Anti-American sentiments in the region. The U.S. owes quite a debt to Latin America. Maybe it’s time to start paying it back.

Juan Antonio Montecino, a former Institute for Policy Studies intern, is a student at the University of British Columbia and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org).