Fri, Jun 09, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The old left versus the new left in Latin America

Conflating the new breed of leftist reformers with the populists of Latin America's past leads to the conclusion that the left is in retreat in the nations south of the US. The truth, however, is a lot more complicated

By Jorge Castaneda

There are two ways to interpret Latin America's recent election results.

First and most obviously, the supposed turn to the left is running out of steam, fast. In recent weeks, the hyper-nationalist Ollanta Humala, a clone of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was defeated in Peru, the conservative Alvaro Uribe won a landslide victory in Colombia, with 62 percent of the vote and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has fallen behind in the campaign for Mexico's July 2 presidential election. All of these isolated developments seemingly contradict the leftward trend in Latin America.

But there is another way of looking at these events. Yes, President Uribe won re-election, but the big surprise in Colombia was the end of the two-party system that had dominated the country for decades and the emergence of the left-wing Polo Democratico as the second largest political force in the nation.

Similarly, while Alan Garcia won in Peru, he does not come from a hard-left party that has finally seen the light -- like Lula da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay. His APRA party, founded by Victor Raul Haya de la Torre in the 1920s, is one of the region's oldest and most anachronistic populist organizations.

Like Chavez in Venezuela, Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Lopez Obrador in Mexico, President Garcia belongs to the unreconstructed left that springs from the great Latin American populist tradition. He may have learned many lessons from his disastrous presidency in the 1980s, but he is much closer to the wrong left than to the right one. In Mexico, Lopez Obrador has both begun picking up in the polls in recent days and showing his true colors, promising the stars and the moon to the Mexican electorate.

In fact, the more important recent developments within the Latin American left may lie not so much in the horse race results of elections, but in the growing differences between modernists and revanchists, between national interests and ideology. As Morales cozies up to Chavez and Fidel Castro more quickly than most people expected -- nationalizing Bolivia's natural gas, inviting large numbers of Cuban doctors and advisers to his country and signing myriad cooperation agreements with Venezuela -- he is also fueling increasing tensions with Brazil and Chile.

Both countries are his neighbors and, in theory at least, their leaders are his ideological soul mates. But the differences between the modern and archaic left and the three countries' contradictory national interests, seem to be trumping more superficial political affinities.

For example, Sao Paulo, Brazil's industrial powerhouse, now depends for most of its energy on Bolivian natural gas. As a result, Petrobras, the Brazilian energy company, has invested huge sums in Bolivia in everything from exploration to pipelines. Now, with the election of Evo Morales, the main source of Petrobras' natural gas has suddenly been nationalized.

Indeed, domestic royalties on Bolivian gas production are being increased by more than 50 percent and the price charged to Bolivia's foreign clients may well be doubled. Contracts are being respected only in the breach and technicians and lawyers from PDVESA, the Venezuelan oil giant, are auditing Petrobras installations in Bolivia. Lula wants to be nice to Morales, but he can't be nice to his expropriating neighbor and at the same time keep the industrialists and consumers of Sao Paulo happy.

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