Last week, in news that surprised few observers, Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, announced that he would seek re-election next year. With approval ratings well over 50 percent, the charismatic, controversial figure—you may remember him as the president who gave refuge to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, earlier this year—seems likely to be successful in his bid. If Correa does win reelection, he will merely help to cement the dominant role that leftist political forces have played in Latin America for much of the current century.
Since 1998, when Hugo Chavez was elected in Venezuela, democratic processes have brought leftist parties to power over as much as two-thirds of Latin America’s population. This would be remarkable in any region, but it’s especially so in one whose political history is riddled with oligarchical tendencies and right-wing military dictatorships. As recently as the 1980s, with Pinochet and other anti-Communist strongmen firmly in power, a leftist Latin America was unthinkable. For all intents and purposes, the region was Washington’s sandbox. Not anymore.
Often, commentators break down the leftist governments in Latin America into two types—a “good” left and a “bad” left, or, in the more savory terms of Alejandro Vargas Llosa, a “vegetarian” left and a “carnivorous” one. The first to coin this distinction was the Mexican politician and academic Jorge G. Castañeda in 2006, and it has dominated media representations of the region ever since. The recent scuffle over Assange serves as a perfect illustration of this, with news pieces darkly suggesting that ties between Chavez, Castro, and Correa motivated Ecuador’s actions.
On the one hand, the theory goes, we have anti-American, decidedly socialist regimes in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. On the other, we have more moderate, pragmatic, and friendly governments such as those of Brazil and Chile. This simplistic dichotomy carries dangerous implications, ignoring the vast differences between governments and conditions in ostensibly “similar” countries and conjuring enemies where none exist. The truth often proves to be far more nuanced. Just look to Ecuador, which uses as its currency the U.S. dollar.
Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Steven Levitsky, a government professor here at Harvard (you might know him from Government 20) and one of the world’s leading experts on Latin American politics. Levitsky has written extensively on the emergence of leftist governments in Latin America. His latest book “The Resurgence of the Latin American Left” presents a thoughtful categorization of governments in the region far closer to reality than Castañeda’s stark, black-and-white system.
During our conversation, Levitsky suggested that the concept of a homogenous socialist bloc in the Americas is much more smoke than substance. He referred to Bolivarianism, Chavez’s pan-American political doctrine. “At a time when Chavez was beginning to try to export Bolivarianism…what everybody, at least in the Beltway, overestimated was the capacity to do that. It’s really hard to influence political outcomes in other countries,” Levitsky reflected. “Chavez is not the main reason Evo Morales got elected in Bolivia. Chavez is not the main reason Correa got elected in Ecuador. For the most part, Chavez has failed…His impact has been very limited.”
During a conversation with Carlos E. Diaz Rosillo, a lecturer in government, I received a slightly more pessimistic outlook on the Latin American left. Diaz agrees that the region’s governments fall into a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, but, he says, “there is a lot of merit to [the dichotomy].” In Diaz’s view, “Chavez has been able to successfully export his revolution in places like Bolivia, Ecuador, [and] Nicaragua, but not anywhere else…people in other Latin American countries don’t want to see another Chavez.” Diaz likens this situation to a “draw,” with Chavez gaining influence in some places and suffering a backlash in others.
When I asked him about where he viewed the region in a few generations’ time, Diaz asserted, quite sensibly, that “politics goes in such waves, it’s such a pendulum…all over the world you see governments come in, try to implement a series of reforms, then there’s a reaction against them and they go the other way.” According to this view, it’s difficult at best and impossible at worst to make political predictions in the long term.
While I would have to agree, as a Latin American I hope Levitsky’s forecast wins the day. The professor predicts that the true, lasting impact of the left in Latin America will be felt in places like Brazil or Uruguay, where governments with solid institutional foundations have put in place, for the first time in history, the building blocks of welfare states. These policies may be redistributive, but in giving millions access to health care and education, they are “almost unambiguously positive.”
The wave of leftist governments that has rocked Latin America over the past 15 years or so, therefore, is not something to fear. If anything, we should welcome the enhanced democratic processes they’ve ushered in. Bearing in mind that distinctions are often more important than similarities, we should not see this wave, or even part of it, as an anti-American bloc. Rather, it’s an inspiring diversity of exercises in governance.
Jorge A. Araya ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.