Beyond Ideological Labels in Latin America

With next Sunday’s Chilean election, and conservative Sebastian Pinera the expected winner, it is not surprising that some international media and analysts are referring to a possible move to the “right” in Latin America. This would mark a reversal of what so many called a "shift to the left" in the region just a few years ago. Hugo Chavez is once again the bellwether of the proclaimed pendulum swings.  A decade ago he was seen as leading the leftist trend.  Today some view a rising conservative reaction to counter his influence.  Chavez, more than any other Latin American president, uses an ideological lens to shape his rhetoric and actions. But descriptions of a move to the right today are even more exaggerated than the previous, more popular, characterization of a leftist tide.  Although politics has cyclical features, and ideology is sometimes a factor in choices made by Latin American voters, the left-right labels obscure more than they illuminate. Beneath the surface, and beyond the labels, most Latin Americans are looking for precisely what they were looking for when a "shift to the left" was in vogue.  As the Latinobarometro surveys have shown since the mid-1990s, they tend to want governments that can solve problems and deliver results.  They want good performance -- efficiency and honesty -- in their leaders. The surveys also show that ideological orientations have held relatively constant. To be sure, starting with the election of Chavez in 1998, and continuing with others like Evo Morales in 2005 and Rafael Correa in 2006, the old political order was repudiated at the polls.  But even in these countries the outcomes reflected less the embrace of leftism than a desire for a new kind of politics. A review of the electoral calendar suggests that, increasingly, essentially national characteristics and developments -- more often than broad, regional, ideological trends -- determine outcomes.  The weight of different factors varies, depending on each particular situation.   Indeed, with the differential impact of globalization on Latin American societies, it is less and less productive to generalize about the region's politics.  There are many Latin Americas (there always were, but now even more so), and they are moving in different, often contradictory, directions. The upcoming elections in Chile, Brazil and Colombia illustrate the point.   In Chile, the main factor may be fatigue with two decades of Concertacion governments and a desire for change (in style and image, if not in substance), far more than any shift to conservative ideology.  There is no evidence that Chileans are moving to the right.  The incumbent, Socialist president Michele Bachelet, enjoys unprecedented popularity. In Brazil, after 16 years of successful presidential leadership, under Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula Inacio da Silva, the country in October will probably be choosing between Jose Serra of Cardoso’s centrist PSDB, and Dilma Rouseff of Lula’s leftist PT.   Brazil is doing well and Lula, like Bachelet, is very popular, so most voters will likely prefer policy continuity.   Though Serra now leads in the polls, the campaign will be decisive and may well improve Rouseff’s prospects.  Whatever the result, it is best not interpreted mainly through an ideological lens. Colombia’s May presidential elections are fast approaching, yet uncertainty persists.  The big question that awaits a Constitutional Court ruling is whether president Uribe, still very popular, can run for another term.  Other candidates, some who support Uribe’s policies and others who oppose them, are positioning themselves.  Colombians are notably pragmatic.  This election, like others, will be determined by a variety of factors, including who is viewed as most able to solve the problems of insecurity and economic and social distress. Latin America’s growing diversity and political fragmentation have implications for the Obama administration.  Now more than ever it is essential for Washington to develop some region-wide strategic concepts that are sensitive to national differences and that can help guide sound policies based on common interests.

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