Why is it now that the Left has momentum in Latin America (and how long it will last)
The left is gaining more and more ground on the political map of Latin America, with the elections in Colombia as the most recent example. But what’s behind this pull to the left? Professor of Modern Latin American History Patricio Silva talks about the current political situation in the region.
To understand the current state of affairs, we have to delve into the history of Latin America. After decades of military dictatorships, in the 1980s democracy was restored almost everywhere in the region. ‘Authoritarian regimes were often replaced by democratically elected presidents of moderate political leanings. But starting with Hugo Chávez’s victory in Venezuela in 1999, a wave of left-wing governments swept across the region. In 2015, however, the political winds in Latin America began to shift: several left-wing governments were replaced by right-wing ones. This means that in the last 20 years, there has essentially been a pendulum swing between the political left and right in Latin America,’ Silva explains.
Right-wing promises and the coronavirus pandemic
Now, the pendulum is swinging to the left again. This shift to the left began with the appointment in 2018 of Manuel López Obrador as the Mexican president. Argentina, Honduras, Peru, Colombia and Chile soon followed Mexico’s example. But why is the shift happening precisely now? According to Silva, there are several factors that have led to this new wave. ‘First of all, most right-wing governments have not performed very well. The promised economic growth, foreign investments and employment opportunities have amounted to very little.’
‘Secondly, the corona pandemic showed up dramatically the enormous social inequality in the region. On the one hand, the rich and the middle classes could count on goodmedical facilities at private clinics, while the rest of society was confronted with the acute inability of the public health system to provide support to the many covid patients,’ he continues. ‘The left was able to utilise the overwhelming sense of discontent and promised a better and stronger social safety net, which was especially tempting to the millions of people who were struggling to keep their heads above water.’
Different shades of left
At the same time, you cannot lump all left-wing governments together. Silva identifies major differences between the countries in mainly three areas. ‘It’s especially noticeable in their attitude towards the United States, whether they observe fair electoral processes and how they respect human rights,’ he says. The last two points are especially sensitive issues in the region. ‘Take Nicolás Maduro. He’s not recognised as the legitimate president of Venezuela by many “western” governments as his re-election in 2018 was labelled fraudulent. The governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are also regularly criticised by various international institutions for their constant violation of human rights such as freedom of speech, an independent press and the arbitrary arrests of political opponents,’ Silva explains.
And these governments can also expect criticism from closer to home. ‘Certain left-wing leaders in Latin America take issue with the violation of human rights by other Latin American countries. Gabriel Boric was elected president of Chile in March this year and, despite sharing radical left-wing leanings, he has explicitly distanced himself from the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He chose not to send invitations for his inauguration to the presidents of those countries, for example. Furthermore, his Minister of Foreign Affairs has stated that respect for human rights and democratic principles will be a condition for the further development of diplomatic relations with other countries in the region.’
Major challenges: polarisation and confrontation
Silva thinks this is a positive development, because the rest of the current political landscape in Latin America causes him great concern. ‘Most countries in the region are plagued by a high degree of political polarisation and confrontation. This translates into growing divisions among the population, among other things. Moreover, any sense of trust in politicians the population had left has been completely eroded because of corruption and links with the drug trade.’ It remains to be seen how long the left-wing momentum in Latin America will last. Keeping the pendulum swing in mind, left-wing governments face a major challenge: they need to deliver on their promises.