The Fight for the Latin Left's Soul
Written by Alvaro Vargas Llosa on 03 Jan 2021
Twelve general elections were held in Latin America and the Caribbean in the last 12 months, if we exclude Guyana, which belongs to the English-speaking club, and we include Haiti, an ambidextrous French-speaking country that sometimes sides with the Latins and sometimes with the Anglos. Three of those 12 elections were won by the center-right (Honduras, Colombia, Mexico), while nine were won by various shades of the left. So the tilt to the left is not in question. The important matter is who is winning the fight for the soul of the left. The answer is by no means obvious. Strictly speaking, the far left won four elections (Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Venezuela) and the moderate left won five (Chile, Haiti, Costa Rica, Peru, and Brazil.) If we take Haiti out of the equation, the overall result is a draw between the radical populists, or the "carnivores," and the moderates, or the "vegetarians." If we measure the relative strength of the two lefts that won elections according to demographic or economic weight, the "vegetarians" are well ahead because of Brazil. If we measure it in terms of political projection, the "carnivores" are looking more assertive, also because of Brazil: President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has decided to pander to rather than confront Hugo Chavez. It may well be that some of the radicals turn out to be moderates. Daniel Ortega has sent mixed signals since he was elected in Nicaragua; he campaigned as a moderate in a country still scarred by its experience with Marxism. And the fact that populist radicals such as the president-elect of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, are as comfortable with leaders such as Lula da Silva as they are with their own kind occasionally obscures the dividing line between the two camps. If we judge the elected governments by their domestic policies, we will find that the moderate left has more in common with the center-right than with the loony left. Lula da Silva caused an outcry a few days ago when, reflecting on his 60th birthday, he declared that he no longer considers himself a man of the left and now prefers the term ``social-democrat.'' That would mean that the Chavez crowd is losing as far as domestic policy is concerned. But in foreign policy, at least in hemispheric matters, the governments of the moderate left tend to be a lot closer to the radical left than to the center-right, with the exception of Chile (left) and Colombia (right), whose governments recently signed a comprehensive trade agreement. Again, the overall result is a tie. Two factors give the populist radicals a disproportionate projection on the international stage. One is Lula's reluctance to be a counterweight to Chavez even though he leads a nation six times larger in economic terms. The other is the fact that many of the moderate leftists use their friendship with Chavez to keep their domestic radicals content or to offset their responsible fiscal and monetary policies. Will next year bring a change to the balance of power that seems to exist between the carnivores and the vegetarians? One factor could alter this balance of power: Cuba after Fidel. With the Maximo Lider on his way out, Chavez will assume, probably next year, the definitive leadership of the carnivores. But it is by no means a foregone conclusion that he will dictate the terms of the new Cuba. His relationship with Raul Castro is tense. Yes, he has important allies, notably Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, who hinted sometime ago at creating a confederation of the two countries with Chavez as president. But other "apparatchiks" resent his intrusion and are beginning to develop nationalistic sentiments that could well limit Venezuela's influence after Fidel dies. Castro "made" Chavez by anointing him his continental heir and helping him set up a powerful political structure a well as the foundations of the social aid network through which the Venezuelan government has made itself indispensable for large numbers of poor people. The symbolism of Cuba turning away from Venezuela would be powerful enough to do what three severe setbacks Chavez suffered in 2006 -- the Peruvian elections, the Mexican elections, and Venezuela's failure to win the Latin American seat at the U.N. Security Council -- did not quite achieve: bringing his regional projection back to modest proportions.