Academic journal article Military Review

The Rise of Leftist Populism-A Challenge to Democracy?

Academic journal article Military Review

The Rise of Leftist Populism-A Challenge to Democracy?

Article excerpt

Over the last seventeen years, the number of democracies that have turned to the "left" or "center-left" has increased significantly throughout Latin America. In the early 1990s, 64 percent of Latin American presidents were from a "right" or "right-center" political party. However, by the beginning of 2009, 71 percent--fifteen out of twenty-one countries--had changed to a president from a left or center-left political party. (1) After more than thirty years of varying types of conservative leadership styles, this trend of political change has affected a large majority of the countries in North, Central, and South America. (2) This has caused many scholars and international relations experts to wonder if Latin America is in danger of trending away from democracy and reverting to governments of authoritarian rule.

After reviewing the causal reasons, however, it appears the rise of "leftist" populism in Latin America does not present a serious challenge to democracy in Latin America with the exceptions of those states that substantially changed their constitutions such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Instead, the rise of democratically elected left-wing populist leaders can be attributed to several related issues that permeate Latin America including historical social inequality and class-based injustice, a desire for political reversal from previously failed conservative administrations, and widespread displeasure with national economic policies. This article will briefly analyze the impacts these factors had on recent elections and possible strategies for U.S. foreign policy adjustments.

Impacts of the Trend to the Left

The future impacts of democratically elected leftist governments in the region will place more focus on investment in domestic and social programs and less on military expenditures. Unlike the old regimes, the new governments will concentrate on solutions to the domestic issues highlighted by their campaign platforms. While this is happening, the United States will likely feel continued political backlash from newly elected governments because of the anti-imperialist rhetoric commonly used by leaders throughout the region to galvanize public support for their policies by exploiting pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment. Much of this anti-U.S. sentiment is predicated on the perceived intrusion into Latin American internal affairs by the United States throughout the twentieth century, especially during the Cold War. However, the United States can minimize the lasting impact of such backlash and adjust politically to the rise of new left populist governments by effectively using its foreign policy soft-power tools. (3)

Renowned international relations scholar Joseph Nye describes soft power as "carrots" in the form of payments and its opposite, hard power, as "sticks" in the form of threats. (4) Nye postulates that soft power is essentially "a soft or indirect way to exercise power ... getting others to want what you want." (5) Soft power can be exercised through the following:

* practice of diplomacy

* effective use of international institutions

* adherence to international law and other binding and nonbinding agreements such as treaties and trade pacts

* promotion of American entrepreneurship and the American way of life

* espousal of democratic values and human rights

* contribution of foreign aid

* accentuation of the substantial remittances by U.S. immigrants back to their native countries

* proliferation of U.S. information and communication technology around the globe

However, foremost among the diplomatic tools at its disposal to ensure it maintains credibility and influence in the region is U.S. observance of policy that respects the democratic decisions of the voters and a true commitment to continue to work with their newly elected, left-of-center governments on areas of common interest. …

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