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CICIR LatAm Director on the rise and the prospect of the left-wing in Latin America
First in a three-part series on Latin America on the eve of another Lula Presidency in Brazil.
On January 1, 2023, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, will be inaugurated as president of Brazil.
Lula is expected to make official trips to the United States and China in his first three months in office, incoming Foreign Relations Minister Mauro Vieira has said.
Pekingnology will publish the translation of three articles on Latin America, starting today with an analysis by 杨首国 Shouguo Yang, 中国现代国际关系研究院拉美研究所所长 Director, Institute of Latin American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR).
CICIR is a premier Chinese state think tank. The piece was published on November 29, 2022, on CICIR’s official WeChat blog.
The rise and the prospect of the left-wing in Latin America
In recent years, the left wing has come to power in Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, and other countries. Also, Lula's successful election as president of Brazil has completed the most important piece of the puzzle that all major countries in Latin America are governed by the left wing. With Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which the left has governed for a long time, there are at least 11 left-wing countries in the region, accounting for about 90% of the total area and 85% of the total population and GDP.
In the first decade of this century, with Venezuela's Chavez, Brazil's Lula, Argentina's Kirchner and his wife, Ecuador's Correa, Bolivia's Morales, and others as the representative left-wing leaders set off a marea rosa "pink tide.” Ten years later, the left-wing has made a comeback, and the new leaders such as President Boric in Chile, Peruvian President Castillo, and Colombian President Petro are regarded as the representatives of the new generation of the left and are leading a new wave of a left turn.
[Pekingnology: Peru's President Pedro Castillo was impeached after the publication of this analysis.]
I. Background of the rise of the left-wing
This round of left turn is not only a reflection of the political tradition of cyclical change between left and right in Latin America but also a product of the impact of changes unseen in a century and COVID-19.
[Pekingnology: China officially maintains the world is amid changes unseen in a century.]
After the military returned political power to the people and democratization ensued, the forty-year history of political development in Latin America since the 1980s is dominated by frequent alternation between the left and the right. The two major political forces alternating in power become a political norm. The political “pendulum effect” is prominent. On the surface, it is a vivid interpretation of the "rotation of power" in the region, but in essence, a stubborn political problem of highly divided public opinion and lack of national consensus on development.
Over the past four decades, the left and the right have been in power twice, respectively. In the last two decades of the last century, most Latin American countries were governed by the right wing. Against the severe inflation and debt crisis, the right wing accepted the neo-liberal "prescriptions" tailor-made by the West for Latin America, including drastic cuts in public welfare spending, financial and trade liberalization, and privatization of state-owned enterprises. Although some success was once achieved, economic growth didn’t last, and the neglect of social justice led to worsening poverty, wealth disparity, corruption, security, and other problems, so public discontent was rising.
By the end of the 1990s, instead of bringing Latin America out of its predicament, neo-liberal reforms brought about a greater economic and social crisis. Against this background, left-wing forces that advocate abandoning neoliberalism, strengthening state intervention, and attaching importance to fairness and justice rose rapidly and replaced the right wing in power. The first decade of the new century became a golden period of left-wing development. At its peak, the left was in power in fifteen countries, accounting for more than 80% of the entire region in terms of area and population. After the left came to power, it took advantage of the prosperity of emerging markets and seized the opportunity of high commodity prices to promote sustained economic growth, achieving an average annual growth rate of 4.8% from 2003 to 2008. Poverty declined significantly, and the middle class began to grow.
In the second decade of the new century, as the effects of the 2008 financial crisis continued to emerge, economic development was hampered, and political and social conflicts intensified, with the left beginning to go downhill and the right-wing returning. With the loss of the left-wing in Argentina in 2015 as an important beginning, the left in Brazil, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and other countries have successively lost in the general election, and Latin America has entered a political cycle that the left declined and the right rose.
However, the right-wing did not reverse the economic decline after taking power, with negative economic growth for two consecutive years in 2015 and 2016 and only meager growth from 2017 to 2019. Hit by the huge impact of COVID-19 in 2020, the recession was as high as 6.8%, which was the worst record in 129 years of history. Unemployment, inflation, poverty, and other economic and social problems intertwined, and the poverty rate rose to 33%, regressing to 2010 levels. The poverty rate rose to 33%, backtracking to 2010 levels. The extreme poverty rate rose to 12.5%, backtracking to 2000 levels, and 1/3 of the middle-income group slipped into poverty. This was followed by despair among the poor and anger among the middle class, with many people casting "angry votes" and "punitive votes" against the governing right wing in the general elections. Then, the rise of the left wing in recent years came and started a new round of the left turn.
From the above, we can see that this round of left-wing rise is an alteration of the political pendulum effect and is inspired by the crisis and dilemma of a political rotation. Latin American politics and society have long been polarized, with the left and right enjoying their respective solid constituents. The left-wing is favored by the middle and lower classes, while the right wing is more popular among the business, intellectual and conservative classes. This determines that the left-right game is always the theme of Latin American politics. Once economic and social development encounters a crisis, the political pendulum effect will be accelerated, with one of the two forces - the governing and the opposition - rising and the other declining. The deeper the crisis, the greater the frequency and magnitude of the political transition. The deep-level reason is that Latin American countries have not been able to find an effective, stable, and sustainable path in development and have to swing between the left and the right repeatedly and fall into the development myth of long-term opposition and squandering.
II. The characteristics of this left-wing era
The new wave of left-wing is not only inheriting from and returning to the past, but also shows the philosophy and orientation in policies that are characterized by pluralism, freshness, flexibility, and pragmatism. That has some new characteristics and development trends compared with the traditional left wing.
The left in Latin America is regarded as a progressive force pursuing national autonomy and social justice in the region, and although the political ideas and tendencies of different periods and factions differ, they also have their historical heritage and common features.
In terms of the constituents, those supporting the left are basically the lower and middle classes. They advocate changes to the unjust social order and demand equitable redistribution.
On politics, the left is generally anti-elitist, advocates expanding popular political participation, and has strong nationalist and populist colors.
From the perspective of economic and social policies, the left tends to increase government intervention, expand public welfare, and guarantee social justice.
On foreign policy, the left emphasizes independence, opposes U.S. intervention, and advocates regional unity and integrated development.
In the new era, the left shows many new traits. It should be said that the reason for the resurgence of the left also has its own subjective factor of continuous efforts to adapt to the times.
In recent years, political and social trends in Latin America have seen new and complex changes. Due to worsening political and economic chaos, increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, and the downward social mobility, the public's distrust of the political system and institutions has increased. The middle-class, white-collar workers, young students, and other groups have begun to try to express their demands in non-institutional ways like mass movements.
They are unsatisfied with the traditional political forces of either the left or the right, and they have taken advantage of social media to launch non-traditional protest movements.
Also, they have no background in political parties, unclear leadership, and a lack of systematic platforms and demands, which makes the movement spread more rapidly and more destructively. For instance, the major unrest erupted simultaneously in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia in 2019 was a wake-up call for Latin America.
At the same time, some elites and the wealthy middle class influenced by Western "liberal" culture began to focus more on environmental protection, gender equality, and other ideas and expanded political influence.
Based on these changes, the emerging left-wing forces and even some traditional left-wing politicians have increasingly realized that relying on traditional constituents alone is not enough to ascend to political power, so while emphasizing social justice to hold on to the base, they are striving to break out of the "left-right political narrative" for more diverse support. This is a more obvious difference from the traditional left's focus on ideological struggle and tendency toward radical reform.
First, the ideology is more diverse and mixed. The new left wing in power generally focuses on integrating various political forces. The political spectrum within the ruling left-wing coalition is "colorful" and has a "variety of ideologies." For example, Castillo's Libre Party of Peru has nineteen guiding ideologies, including traditional Marxism-Leninism, regional integration, Mariáteguism (a fusion of Marxism-Leninism and Indigenismo), social democracy, environmentalism, and so on. Some countries have left-wing alliances with center-right parties, such as former Brazilian president Lula's selection of center-right Geraldo José Rodrigues Alckmin Filho as his deputy.
Second, their ideology is more progressive. The new generation of left-wing leaders is good at attracting young and cross-class voters with new ideas and new issues. President Boric in Chile has made environmental protection, women's rights, and indigenous rights a priority in his administration, with fifteen women in his 28-member cabinet, two of whom are homosexual. He also claims to be a "post-modern leader" who admits to having obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is happy to show his tattoos as a way to show that he is "on the same side" as the youth voters. Colombia's President Petro has followed the Western trend of "identity politics" by choosing Francia Elena Márquez Mina, a single mother and Afro-feminist and environmental activist, as his running mate, and advocated for the legalization of marijuana.
Third, the internal and external policies are more balanced and pragmatic. Unlike the traditional left-wing holding high the banner of "socialism" and advocating radical reforms, the new generation of left-wing no longer advocates seismic changes such as constitutional reform or full nationalization.
Colombian President Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, is aware of the strong right-wing conservative forces in his country, believes that only incremental improvements can be made, and proposes that “Colombia does not need socialism but democracy and peace.” He focused political reforms on pragmatic areas such as clearing corruption, increasing grassroots political participation, and promoting negotiations with anti-government guerrillas.
President Boric in Chile once pushed for a new constitution that included radical agenda such as the abolition of the Senate, autonomy for indigenous communities, and nationalization of the mining industry, but the referendum did not pass, so he adopted a more moderate proposal of constitutional amendment instead.
For economic and social policies, the new generation of the left generally emphasizes "making the cake bigger and sharing it well" and advocates promoting economic growth and strengthening people's social security simultaneously. They work on stimulating market demand, improving the business environment, and striving to boost economic growth.
In terms of external relations, the new generation of left-wing leaders is generally aware that Latin America, as an important segment of the Third World, can become a key "middle belt" in the context of increasing bloc politics internationally and that Latin American countries need to conduct their diplomacy in a coordinated, autonomous, and balanced manner to create the most favorable external development conditions for themselves.
On the attitude toward the U.S., the left-wing countries generally advocate developing cooperative relations with the U.S. on an equal footing while safeguarding their own interests.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador insisted on the principle of regional unity and took the lead in boycotting the Summit of the Americas because the U.S. had refused to invite Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. But he attached great importance to cooperative relations with the U.S. - the only country he visited three times during his term of office.
III. The uncertain future of the left wing
As long as the problems of poverty and injustice remain unsolved, the left has a strong innate vitality and appeal in Latin America. Its rapid return after a brief downturn highlights its natural constituents. Currently, most people are dissatisfied with their status quo and long for the country to change in the direction of fairness and justice, which the left advocates. This gives the left a relative advantage in competition with the right. Left-wing forces still have the potential to expand in some countries.
It should also be seen that the rise of the left in this round is largely due to the general public’s serious distaste of the right wing's lack of governing achievements. The left itself hasn’t been highly recognized by the public. It has a number of shortcomings of its own and generally lacks a clear governing philosophy and strong leadership, making it difficult to rally long-term support.
In addition, the left has not changed the basic political ecology of political fragmentation, polarization, and fragmentation in the region, so the political pattern of the long-term struggle between the left and right will persist.
At present, although the left wing has won the administrative branches in many countries, it is generally in a weak position in the parliaments. Also, its governing is constrained by the right wing, making it difficult to exert leadership, and the leaders of individual countries are under serious threat.
For example, Peru president Castillo’s Libre Party has only 16 of the 130 seats in Congress. With poor governing performance, its approval rate has dropped to 25%, and he is in frequent peril of impeachment.
[Pekingnology: Peru's President Pedro Castillo was impeached after the publication of this analysis.]
President Boric of Chile was only 36 years old and lacked experience in governing. The left-wing ruling coalition he led was constrained by the right-wing opposition in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. His referendum to amend the constitution suffered a heavy setback, and his approval rate has fallen to 27%.
Argentina's left-wing government was facing debt, inflation, and other difficulties. At the same time, public discontent increased, resulting in the loss of the 2021 congressional elections: the left only won 35 out of 72 seats - for the first time since 1983, the left wing has lost control of the Senate. Thus, the difficulty of re-election has increased in the next year's general election.
Lula, Brazil's President-elect, will take office on New Year's Day in the face of serious domestic political and social divisions. Leading the country out of the predicament is not an easy task.
If the left-wing government fails to improve the economy in the short term, it will be difficult to fulfill its political promises of improving people's livelihood and promoting fairness. Public opinion may gradually swing back to or even turn to the right. This will give the right wing, which has nearly half of the public support, a chance to regain power.
Faced with the severe and complicated economic and social situation, the left-wing government's urgent task is to produce results in fighting COVID-19, lowering inflation, stabilizing the economy, and protecting people's livelihoods as soon as possible, to lead their countries out of trouble. At the same time, in the face of divided public opinion and sharp political opposition, the left wing needs to rally more support and promote more consensus on reform and development. That would be a basic prerequisite for the left to sustain long-term governing. (Enditem)
The above is a translation of 《拉美左翼的崛起及其发展前景》The rise and the prospect of the left-wing in Latin America by 杨首国 Shouguo Yang, 中国现代国际关系研究院拉美研究所所长 Director, Institute of Latin American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). CICIR is a premier Chinese state think tank. The piece was published on November 29, 2022, on CICIR’s official WeChat blog.
Stay tuned for the other two articles on Latin America in the three-part series on the eve of another Lula Presidency. The finale will be especially interesting, I promise :)