Latin America – Two Lefts? – At Least – Perhaps It Should Be Considered That There Are Even More – 10 March 2013

It’s been about seven years now since former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, himself a former Communist who later in life decided he could serve as the foreign minister of the conservative president Vicente Fox, wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine called “Latin America’s Left Turn”.  In that article, Castañeda claimed that the left-oriented governments that took office during a certain period in the early 2000s in Latin America could be best described by appealing to a theory that Latin America has “two Lefts”.

The first Left, Castañeda argued, was a social democratic Left, and the best example of this Left was the movement led by Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil.  This Left played to ideological loyalties from the past, but largely adapted to the presumed realities of globalisation

The second Left, in Castañeda’s view, was a populist and nationalist Left, and the best example of this Left was the now recently deceased Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.  This Left tried to reignite ideological politics, to divide the world between Yanquis and bourgeois on the one side and the people on the other, and generally to rabble-rouse rather than negotiate.

Here’s a copy of Castañeda’s original article – – if you would like to compare it with what Doug Saunders has written about the death of Chávez in the Globe and Mail article I have linked.  I think you will find that Castañeda’s original argument is faithfully reproduced by Mr. Saunders.

Perhaps I should not fault a reporter for accepting without qualification an argument, made in sincerity by a Latin American foreign minister, without any professional qualification.  Reporters are, after all, still just people commenting on events, rather than those providing independent analysis.  Still, I prefer independent analysis for precisely this reason.  It seems like this argument has been digested whole, with scant concern for whether the argument is really completely reasonable.

The reason I suspect Castañeda’s argument of not being completely reasonable, however, is that he lumps in Argentina with Venezuela.  Those who read me often will know I don’t think that’s fair.  I consider Venezuela’s Chavista experiment to be dangerous, both to the development of democracy within Venezuela and to the world, because of Chávez’s support for some of the world’s ugliest anti-democrats (Mahmoud Ahmedinejad?  Moammar Gaddafi?  Saddam Hussein?  The Castro brothers?  Seriously, whom did he forget?)  By contrast, I have been warmly supportive of Argentina’s Kirchner/Fernández governments, and have strongly defended those governments in their fiscal and social policies.

Castañeda also lumped the Chávez and Kirchner/Fernández phenomena together as populist/nationalist Leftist (and therefore presumably bad) in contrast to social democratic Leftist (and therefore presumably good), so this is not a gloss that is entirely of the making of Doug Saunders.  Still, I think it’s completely unfair and misrepresents the tremendous achievements of Argentina’s economic policies, in comparison to the mere Yanqui-baiting provided by Chávez.

The Saunders article claims that the two Lefts in Latin America are the “social democratic” Left (Brazi, Chile, etc.) and the “democratic socialist” Left (Venezuela, Argentina, etc.)  The social democrats he portrays as adapting nicely and also reducing inequality while they’re at it, while the democratic socialists he portrays as not only failing to adapt but also, in truth, being hostile to democracy.

If Chávez is the poster boy for “democratic socialism”, it’s no wonder that he thinks “democratic socialism” harbours a hostility to democracy, as Chávez certainly did.  But making that charge stick to Argentina would be an incredible stretch.  Indeed, other Latin American governments broadly sympathetic to the “democratic socialist” trend, such as those of Correa in Ecuador or Morales in Bolivia, demonstrate no such hostility to democratic process.  Furthermore, if the claim is to be made that this might only be because thus far those governments have been popular with the voters – in order to suggest that this would change, as it did in Venezuela, when the popularity of Chavismo started to recede – it should be borne in mind that when a similar thing happened in Nicaragua in 1990, the Sandinistas stood down, rather than morph into a Cuban-style dictatorship.  The Sandinistas were in opposition, and now govern in Nicaragua again, because they accepted the democratic rules of the game more than anything else.  We have no reason to summarily conclude Ecuadorians, Bolivians or Argentineans could not have drawn the proper lesson from that, even if Chávez did not.

But the reason I’m upset about this portray of Argentina is that, pretty much alone in the world except for, perhaps, Iceland, Argentina has shown the way to resist the imposition of austerity by international economic elites.

It is true that Brazil’s economic numbers, even for its poorest citizens, are better, and it is something we may properly attribute to the leadership of Lula – and now, of Dilma Rousseff.  But the economic mess left by years of pro-Washington Consensus policies in Argentina was deeper.  Brazil had nothing like the full scale meltdown Argentina suffered in 1999-2002, and the policies aimed at reversing course were naturally going to take a lot more time to implement in Argentina.  I don’t see Brazil as having done the right thing to Argentina’s wrong thing at all…on the contrary, I see them as doing very similar things, and it’s just taking longer in Argentina due to a messier set of starting-gate circumstances.

Still, the economic situation in Argentina has been steadily improving since Néstor Kirchner’s first arrival on the scene in 2003, and Argentinians have been rewarding the “Kirchnerists” politically ever since for a reason.  (Also, it’s easy to call Kirchnerism a “Peronist” movement since Kirchner and Fernández are both members of the Partido Justicialista, Argentina’s Peronist party – but “Kirchnerism” is at this point more important in Argentina’s politics than Peronism.  Oppositionists cross party lines to support Kirchnerism (like the “Radicales K”, a group of members of the opposition Radical Civic Union, who stand with the Kirchner/Fernández socioeconomic policies), while Peronists break openly with Kirchnerists within their own party.

Where foreign policy is concerned, it should also be noted, virtually all the countries of Latin America are more interested to show themselves independent of Yanquis than they are partisans of social justice abroad.  Chávez may have warmly embraced Iran, but Lula and Rousseff merely provide Iran cover more tacitly in Brazil, and it is generally the case that Latin American leaders, remembering past US behaviour in their own countries, still fear even the most humanitarian intervention more than they fear the world’s dictators.  That’s true not only of the Chavistas but also of virtually all of the “social democratic” nations in Latin America.  (For full disclosure purposes, I should say, it’s also true of Argentina, however much I may be impressed by their stand against austerity.)

Anyway, I’ll just wrap this up by saying that there is nothing so worrisome as a half-digested article from Foreign Affairs.  I think I’d like to advance, for the consideration of Mr. Saunders and the Globe and Mail reporting staff, that there is properly a Phil Collins Corollary to the Jorge Castañeda Doctrine – namely, consider that there may be Two Sides To The Story.

At _least_ two.

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