Social Democracy Reborn? the Latin American Left in Government

By Muir, Rick | Renewal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Social Democracy Reborn? the Latin American Left in Government


Muir, Rick, Renewal


European social democratic parties are currently in crisis: trapped in opposition and struggling to reassemble the kind of electoral majorities they frequently enjoyed in the last century. By contrast, in Latin America left of centre governments have been in power in most of the region's major countries for almost a decade. How did the Latin American left win power after a century of political exclusion? What has it been able to do in office? Has it achieved its goals of deepening democracy, reducing poverty and shifting Latin America towards a more equitable model of economic development?

This article focuses on the three cases of social democratic government in the region: the governments led by the Workers' Party in Brazil (2002- ), the Socialist Party in Chile (2000-2010) and the Broad Front in Uruguay (2004- ). These form an identifiable 'social democratic bloc' of countries different in orientation to the other more radical left administrations in the region, such as those of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia. These cases are chosen because they are likely to provide more easily translatable lessons for the European left. The social, economic and political conditions that gave rise to the election of leftist governments in Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are much closer to those that exist in our own societies than those in countries like Venezuela or Bolivia. In those latter cases politics is more polarised, democratic institutions more fragile and the economic and social crises that led to the emergence of left-wing governments much more acute.

The article first justifies the use of the label 'social democratic' in relation to these administrations and places them within the historical context of leftist politics in Latin America. It then goes on to explore each case in turn. It finally seeks to explain why some of these governments were able to implement more radical reforms than others.

Social democracy and the left in Latin America

While Europe has a long tradition of parliamentary labour based parties successfully competing for office, social democratic politics is relatively new to Latin America. The reasons for this can be found in the region's distinctive social structures and the political conditions to which they gave rise.

Throughout the twentieth century Latin America lacked the kind of developed industrial base that spawned the powerful organised labour movements of Western Europe. The poor were predominantly rural or worked in the vast informal urban economy which made it difficult to organise cohesive class based movements. In general, the poor voted for populist politicians such as Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico, Juan Peron in Argentina and Getulio Vargas in Brazil. From the 1930s to the 1970s these personalist movements supported pro-poor protectionist development strategies, allowing them to capture the natural social constituency of the left (Roberts, 1998).

The Latin American left was also excluded from formal politics by legal proscription and military repression. Latin American politics was highly polarised and the ruling classes, as well as the United States in the context of the Cold War, lived in fear of communist inspired revolutions. As a result, the left was often not allowed to compete for political office. In the one case where the left did win a presidential election, in Chile in 1970, it was forced to govern under a state of permanent political and economic siege. Eventually, the 'Chilean Road to Socialism' was brought to a brutal end with the Pinochet coup of 1973.

Because of this there was no social democratic route available for the Latin American left: it remained ideologically Marxist and committed to armed revolution as the only tenable political strategy. Much of the left took inspiration from the Cuban Revolution of 1959 which showed that a socialist alternative was possible on the back of a popular revolt and a guerrilla war. …

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