Mon, Mar 07, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Latin American leftists more `mature' in office

THEORY IN PRACTICE The socialist tide in the region was reinforced in Uruguay last week, but like other leftist governments, it faces tough economic realities


Decades ago, Latin American leftists talked of revolution and upending political systems. Today, many with ties to the revolutionary past have taken office -- pledging to help the poor, but leaving aside the rhetoric of the past.

Last week, thousands of jubilant Uruguayans filled the streets for the inauguration of new president Tabare Vazquez, the sixth leftist to come to power in the region, strengthening South America's tilt to the left.

From Venezuela to Brazil and Argentina, a new leftist tide has given rise to leaders sympathetic to the movement's struggles of the 1970s and 80s, but with significant changes in tone and politics.

"In a sense, they've all come in from the cold," said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Gone are US flag burnings and talk of nationalization and protectionism. While most blame the region's recent financial turmoil on Washington-backed prescriptions for free trade and open economies, each continues with pro-market policies.

In the twilight of the last decade, many South American countries -- pushed by Washington -- deepened free market reforms only to see their economies slip into recession.

Unemployment shot into the double digits amid a growing gap between the rich and poor. Millions tumbled into poverty as economies stalled, frequently leading to social unrest.

Chile's Ricardo Lagos and Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, both political activists during the military dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, seek an alternative path between the unbridled free-market policies of the 90s and the area's previous trend for a greater state role in the economy.

Still, few of the new leftists prescribe profound social or economic changes, instead touting increased social spending and deeper regional links and free trade initiatives to reinvigorate their economies.

This new, more mature left was spearheaded in part by Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former union boss who became his country's first elected leftist. He took office in 2003 amid expectations he would reduce the wide gap between rich and poor in a country with one of the world's most uneven wealth distributions.

Since then, he has adhered to conservative fiscal policy, pleasing bankers and attracting foreign investment, angering some of his more hard-core leftists supporters.

Social programs his government first touted -- among them a plan called Zero Hunger -- have largely gone ignored, his critics say. Silva, often called by his nickname "Lula," has come under fire for promoting more of the same economic neo-liberalism of his predecessors.

"As Lula is finding out, the real issue is governance. Many of these leaders were great in the opposition, but now the question is how do they handle governing?" said Roett.

Now Uruguay's Vazquez, a 65-year-old doctor, has vowed to keep up the country's orthodox economic policies while focusing on helping the poor. Hours after taking the presidency, he announced a US$100 million "social emergency program" to help Uruguay's neediest.

After a 2002 economic crisis, one out of three Uruguayans fell below the poverty line -- a blow to a country where generous social benefits had for years assured one of the region's highest living standards.

"Despite the riches that Latin America possesses, the level of poverty is frightening, which often inspires violence because of inhumane handling of the economy," Vazquez said.

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