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Across Latin America, the left is on the march, capturing the presidencies in Peru, Honduras and, on Sunday, Chile, adding to the ranks of other left-leaning governments already stretching from Mexico to Argentina. On the surface, it might seem like deja vu — a flashback to the “pink tide” of the 2000s that churned up globally known firebrands including the father of Venezuelan socialism, Hugo Chávez.
Take a closer look, though, and the new tide is different.
It is always dangerous to generalize a region populated by diverse nations with unique domestic dynamics. But compared to the 2000s, Latin America’s new crop of leftist leaders are, on average, less uniform and more measured. Their greatest commonality is their rise during the pandemic, which dealt Latin America the globe’s deepest economic blow and sent poverty rates soaring. A growing sense of inequality, festering government corruption and the failure of traditional political classes is punishing right-wing parties in power, giving room to disparate — if otherwise nontraditional — outsiders on the left.
As they score wins across the region, the new crop of leftists are more focused on domestic change than spreading the seed of global socialism. Unlike the socialist showmen of the past such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa — who scoffed at gay rights and opposed abortion even in cases of rape — at least some of the newcomers are social progressives and call strengthening democracy as vital as economic change. For now, the new entrants have shied away from demonizing the United States or alienating business interests in the manner of Chávez.
In Chile, the new president-elect is the bearded millennial Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist who carries a new generation’s dreams to La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. He tosses around the word “comrade” and has allied himself with the Communist Party, vowing to make Chile — the region’s most successful capitalist economy — the “grave” of “neoliberalism.” But he has also rejected old-school methods and has defied socialist decorum by calling out the left-wing authoritarians in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
His more nuanced positions set him up to be Latin America’s first woke president, a leader built for an age of gender-neutral pronouns and Greta Thunberg. He wants to build a new welfare state and foster social justice. But bucking the far-left’s tradition of machismo, he is also vowing to push LGBTQ causes, gender equality and indigenous rights while protecting the environment and battling climate change. He talks of making corporations and the rich pay more taxes, not seizing their lands or boardrooms. He lauds the notion of fiscal responsibility.
“Boric, I think, is unique in Latin America,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, told me. “He is really a postmodern leader who reflects generational change and combines great attention to the social agenda with equal rights, inclusion and diversity.”
Boric’s overwhelming victory marks a sharp turn from the politics that dominated Chile during the rule of its late right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet. Despite the atrocities of his era, Pinochet’s backers — including Boric’s right-wing challenger in the race — have long argued that he should be thanked for planting the seeds of Chile’s model free-market economy.
To preserve it, Boric will need to keep the aspects of the economy that work. But on Sunday, his youthful voters were rejecting a legacy that also corralled wealth and economic progress disproportionately for the country’s right-wing elites, and limited the upward mobility of an internet-savvy working class that now wants more than bread on the table.
“We are going to create a more just society for everyone,” Boric vowed in his victory speech.
Hondurans last month elected Xiomara Castro, a democratic socialist and the country’s first female leader, ending the 12-year rule of the conservative National Party. She replaces President Juan Orlando Hernández, a Trump administration ally whose tenure, as the Los Angeles Times put it, was “marked by human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, stolen public money, poverty and complicity in drug trafficking at the highest levels of government.”
The wife of former president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup after cultivating ties to Venezuela’s Chávez, Castro has pledged to bring change by rewriting the constitution to enshrine more freedom and social justice — a mountain observers say will be difficult for her to scale. She wants a United Nations commission to help root out corruption and bolster democracy, and wants to ease the country’s strict abortion ban. She has also moderated her tone since her unsuccessful run in 2013, reaching out to the business community and centrist parties.
But as a correspondent who covered Latin American politics during parts of the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s, I can say that dashed hope for lasting change has perhaps been its only constant. And despite high expectations from the leaders of the Class of 2021, this time may be no different — as Peru is already learning.
There, the electorate, by the narrowest margins, propelled an untested schoolteacher with Marxist allies to the presidency in June, bringing to power the most socially conservative of the region’s new leftist leaders. As allegations of corruption and incompetence swirl around Pedro Castillo’s young administration, his approval ratings have tanked. Lawmakers have already attempted to impeach him once. He survived, but analysts expect more efforts to unseat him.
Unlike the tightknit band of regional leaders in the 2000s — Chávez allegedly attempted to give Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner a suitcase of cash to help fund her 2007 election bid — few see the new left as rebooting the Latin American Socialists Club of yore.
“I don’t see that happening, you don’t have the leadership, and you don’t have the money that you had in the 2000s,” Shifter said.
Shifter agrees that things could change next year if Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — the elder statesman of the Latin American left — takes back the presidency in Brazil, as early polls suggest. In 2022, the left even has a shot in Colombia, where the right has long ruled the roost.
Still, the new crop of leaders will face steeper challenges than their peers in the 2000s and will need to sidestep their ample mistakes. Back then, Latin America was blessed with a historic commodities boom used to fuel social programs and reduce poverty. Hit by the pandemic, state coffers are leaner this time around. The leftists of 2000s also failed on multiple fronts — giving way, for instance, to a dictatorship in Venezuela and lingering corruption and economic malaise in Argentina and Ecuador, a nation that this year flipped to the right and elected a conservative former banker.
Already, there are signs that nervous investors and rich locals are voting with their pocketbooks, dumping stocks, buying dollars and transferring wealth abroad to buy more condos in Miami.
It will be up to newcomers like Boric to prove they can deliver on promises of economic progress — and avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors.
(c) 2021, The Washington Post