Left Consolidates in Latin America

An Article by Ambassador R. Viswanathan published at Gateway House on December 12, 2014

The reelection of the Left in the Uruguayan election highlights a re-consolidation of the power of the Latin American Left. The pro-poor policies of the Leftist governments in much of South America have lifted millions out of poverty. The result: the creation of a middle class that has strengthened the region’s democratic stability and created more opportunities for business.

In the second round of elections held in Uruguay on November 20, the leftist candidate Tabare Vazquez won with 52.8 % of the votes, beating his centre-right rival Lacalle Pou. In the first round held on October 28, Vazquez’s Broad Front ( Frente Amplio) coalition of leftist parties, though it did not cross the required 50% mark, it won a majority in the Congress.

This is the third consecutive Presidential and Congressional election in Uruguay since 2005, where the Broad Front has emerged on top. The coalition includes Communists, Socialists, Trotskyites and ex-guerilla fighters including the outgoing President Jose Mujica, who spent 14 years in jail during the prior military dictatorship.

Vazquez, a 74-year old oncologist, ended his first term as President (2005-10) with a 70% approval rating, but was barred from contesting for consecutive reelection by the Uruguayan constitution. He established a stable foundation of pragmatic, balanced, pro-poor and business-friendly policies which were continued by his successor Mujica. In the 2014 campaign, Vazquez promised to eradicate poverty by maintaining social spending, which increased by 83% under Broad Front governments over the last decade.

The left’s recurrent win in Uruguay is significant for all of Latin America. Though a small country with just 3.4 million people, Uruguay has been a leader in the region, with innovative and progressive policies, including legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage. In 2013 it became the first country in the world to legalise consumption, production, distribution and sale of marijuana, and put all these under state control. The rest of the world is closely following this experiment – especially due to the failure of the ‘war on drugs’ waged by the U.S. and Europe, which have focused on eliminating production and ignored the reality of the drug business being driven by the demand from consumers in rich countries.

Previous President Mujica himself set a unique example for the world with his simple and austere life. He has been described by BBC* as the ”world’s poorest President”. He refused to move to the official residence and continued to stay in his ramshackle farmhouse, driving his own 1987 model Volkswagon Beetle, working on his field growing flowers and leading a simple and unostentatious life. He donated 90% of his salary to charity.

The Left’s victory in Uruguay has followed a winning streak of left parties and candidates in Brazil, Bolivia and El Salvador this year, and earlier in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The leftist wave which began a decade ago with the victory of Chavez in 1998, has reconfirmed its staying power in Latin America.  Unlike India’s left, which has not adapted to the changing times, and is stuck in an anachronistic ideological cocoon, the Latin American left has evolved, matured and transformed itself as a New Left. The region has decisively moved away from the disastrous ‘Washington Consensus’ which left the region poorer and more indebted. The New Left has embraced the ‘Brasilia Consensus’ – a balanced mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies.

Over the years, the Chavista model of ideological polarisation has given way to the Lula model of bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots with pragmatism and dialogue. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil was feted at meetings like the World Economic Forum by the rich, as well at the anti-rich World Social Forum held simultaneously every year.  President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and President Ollanta Humala of Peru are similarly respected and welcomed in the White House, as much as on the Leftist platforms of Latin America. The best example of pragmatism overriding ideology is the fact that the hardline leftist government of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua recognizes Taiwan and not Communist China. 

Today, Left governments are no longer perceived to be business-unfriendly (except now in Venezuela and Argentina). They understand that the state alone cannot find solutions to all the problems and so have been giving more space to the private sector to flourish, and create more wealth and jobs.

While initially feared – the right-wing local and foreign media apprehended that Lula’s victory would ruin business – the left soon disproved its critics. During Lula’s campaign in 2002, a school boy from a rich family wished him success enthusiastically. When a surprised Lula asked the reason for his support, the boy replied, “My father who is in business says if you win, he will shift the family to Miami which I love.” Lula became a darling of Brazilian and foreign investors. Using comprehensive welfare programmes, Lula’s pragmatic policies meant that business flourished and millions of the poor joined the middle class, becoming consumers. According to a UNDP report 56 million people have been lifted out of poverty in Latin America. Poverty reduction has increased from 42% of the population to 25% during the 2002-12 decade. 

The growth of the Latin middle class has become the best insurance for democratic stability and strength in the region in the long term.

Ambassador Viswanathan is Distinguished Fellow, Latin America Studies, Gateway House. He is the former Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, and Consul General in Sao Paulo.

Published at: http://www.gatewayhouse.in/left-consolidates-in-latin-america/