Latin America Swings to the Left: Discontented Voters Send Message: 'Something Is Not Working'

By Fraser, Barbara | National Catholic Reporter, July 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

Latin America Swings to the Left: Discontented Voters Send Message: 'Something Is Not Working'


Fraser, Barbara, National Catholic Reporter


LIMA, PERU - The morning after Ollanta Humala won a photo-finish runoff for Peru's presidency, rumors flew--of a run on a grocery store in a high-end suburb, that the well-to-do would pull their money out of the country, that companies would pack up and take their investments elsewhere.

Even before official election results were announced, right-leaning media called for the left-leaning former army colonel to name his economy minister immediately, to calm fears.

Peru is the latest in a series of Latin American countries to swing to the left, driven by discontented voters who feel the neoliberal economic policies of the 1990s and the boom times of the past decade have passed them by.

Oddly, the trend toward leftist governments has come as the Catholic church, long associated with social justice causes in the region, has become more conservative, said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University who is in residence at Peru's Pontifical Catholic University in Lima this year.

The leftward shift--which swept Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and Chile until a right-wing candidate won the last election in that country--has taken different forms in different places.

"Countries that are governed by left-wing parties of some sort or another have not necessarily junked free-market economics, but have called into question and begun to revise the model," Levitsky said.

The spectrum ranges from Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez remains anchored in ideological revolutionary rhetoric and economic chaos, to Brazil, whose last president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, morphed from a firebrand labor activist into a respected politician who attacked hunger and positioned his country solidly as a leader among developing nations.

Taking a cue from events in the region, Humala slid from one end of the scale to the other in Peru. In 2006, when he lost the presidency to Alan Garcia, he ran on a platform reminiscent of Chavez's radical rhetoric. But by the time this year's June 5 runoff election came around, he had hired Brazilian advisers and was channeling da Silva.

Levitsky called Humala's victory "a punch in the gut" to Peru's political establishment, and a sign that despite economic growth ranging from 6 to 10 percent annually for most of the past decade, "something is not working"--a message voters in other countries had already delivered at the ballot box.

Humala's first battle may not be with his obvious political opponents, but with the poor, largely indigenous electorate that put him in office. Indigenous villagers in Peru's southern highlands, who are protesting mining and petroleum concessions, have said they will give the new president until the end of August to respond to their demands.

Humala will find himself walking the same tightrope as the chief executives of other Latin American countries, who are trying to respond to the demands of marginalized poor communities without antagonizing large businesses that keep revenue flowing into national coffers.

Extractive industries, especially oil and gas, are a flash point throughout the region. As they have since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors more than 500 years ago, many countries in the region depend on exports or raw materials--especially minerals and oil and gas--to drive economic growth.

Increasing demand for commodities, especially by China, buffered Latin America against the most recent global economic downturn. Economic growth in the region averaged 6 percent in 2010 and foreign direct investment totaled $112 billion, 40 percent ahead of 2009 levels, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. In Brazil alone, foreign direct investment rose from $25.9 billion in 2009 to nearly $48.5 billion in 2010.

In Mexico and Central America, foreign investment was mainly in manufacturing, while in South America, it targeted natural resources. …

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