The "New Left" and Democratic Governance in Latin America | Wilson Center

The "New Left" and Democratic Governance in Latin America

On November 6, 2006, the Latin American Program held the initial workshop of a three-year project on "The ‘New Left' and Democratic Governance in Latin America," a comparative project focusing on Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela. A group of distinguished scholars and practitioners from the United States, Latin America, and Europe discussed core definitions of what constitutes "the left" in Latin America and how it differs from earlier periods. Workshop participants also considered whether or not the left has a distinct approach to social and economic policy as well as to issues of human rights, political participation, institutional design and development, and foreign policy.

Historian Leslie Bethell of Oxford University noted that what it has meant to be a leftist has differed during various periods of the region's history. The history of the left in Latin America, he said, is predominantly that of communist parties, at various times persecuted, repressed, and ultimately marginalized. In the 1930s and 1940s populist parties and movements in Latin America occupied the political space taken over by social democratic parties in Europe; the revolutionary left, emphasizing the taking of state power through armed struggle, succeeded only in Cuba and later, for a time, in Nicaragua. Bethell highlighted the cases of Fujimori's Peru and Collor de Melo's Brazil to argue that populism, especially in its current manifestations, is not part of the left; indeed, the two have been quite antagonistic throughout the region's history. Meanwhile the left reinvented itself in such countries as Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, addressing social and distributional concerns while accepting the macroeconomic restructuring policies of the 1990s.

Kenneth Roberts, professor of political science at Cornell University, highlighted the importance of moving beyond the simplistic dichotomy of a social democratic left versus a populist left. Common attributes of today's left in Latin America, he said, include 1) a willingness to use state power to stimulate economic growth, correct for market failures, and reduce social inequalities; and 2) a commitment to the deepening of democracy through various forms of popular mobilization and participation. The different manifestations of left governments represent different things for democracy, he argued. Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil represent the maturation of democracy and the moderation of the left, while Bolivia and Venezuela reflect the failure of democracy and of representative institutions to articulate social needs and demands, and thus, the emergence of new leadership and new movements.

Woodrow Wilson Center fellow René Mayorga of the Centro Boliviano de Estudios Multidisciplinarios argued that that the rise of populism in the Andean region is the outcome of state failure in dealing with multiple crises. The collapse of the party system, together with state weakness, have created vacuums of political power filled by charismatic leaders and mass movements organized either top-down or bottom-up fashion. Mayorga argued that contemporary populism is defined not, as in the past, by its economic policies (particularly import substitution industrialization), but by its political core. The emergence of contemporary populism is due to the deepening of social and economic cleavages--exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies—and to low-intensity citizenship.

According to Robert Kaufman, professor of political science at Rutgers University, the social science literature is inconclusive and even contradictory as to whether progressive forms of social spending increase when left parties in Latin America control the government or legislature. Kaufman's own work, for example, shows that while spending on social security increased in many countries, spending on health and education actually went down. Equally paradoxical is that in a number of countries, the left has implemented some of the most ambitious programs of orthodox economic reform in the region. Kaufman identified three policy areas critical to understanding the social policies of left governments: 1) targeted anti-poverty programs, such as Brazil's Bolsa Familia, which began under the previous government; 2) taxation policies to generate the public resources to finance social programs; and 3) job creation and growth. While there is broad agreement on the need for macroeconomic stability and budget balances, there is little clarity on what else is needed for growth, or whether left governments have a distinct approach to achieving it.

Ariel Armony of Colby College said that it was an open question as to whether new left governments are promoting more effective citizen participation or more democratic forms of state-civil society relations. The accepted theory of civil society as independent of the state and involved in not-for-profit activity is being challenged by new forms of participation, in the market and in the provision of social services. Armony identified three key areas for further inquiry: the relationship between civil society and political society, particularly in countries where anti-politics is a model; the effectiveness of civil society and social movements in producing concrete policy outputs; and whether innovative forms of participation were enhancing representation and expanding access to policymaking. Armony also suggested examining the ways that government actions affect the organization of civil society itself.

According to Felipe Agüero of the University of Miami, questions of the institutional design of the state have not figured prominently among concerns of the left. Since the transitions to democracy in South America, the left has been largely reactive, focusing on undoing the structures put in place by military governments, but not on the kind of institutional design needed to carry out a transformative platform. New or modified constitutions in several Latin American countries offer opportunities for addressing these kinds of questions. The most important case is that of Brazil, which drafted a new constitution in 1988, just as democracy, the Worker's Party, and social movements were emerging or reemerging. Agüero faulted the left for failing to tackle the question of public order: even though Latin America has some of the highest crime rates in the world, developing an effective police force to function in a democratic context has not been a high priority.

Eric Hershberg, formerly of the Social Science Research Council and currently at Simon Fraser University, Canada, noted that the democratic transitions literature treated the military and issues of private property as untouchable. Nonetheless, due to the actions of judges and actors in civil society, left governments have not been successful in keeping issues of human rights and impunity for past abuses off the agenda. The push to reopen human rights cases, pursue prosecutions, and discuss symbolic as well as economic reparations may be a product of political democracy's maturation in the Southern Cone, or may simply reflect who is in office at any given time. In Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, left presidents have gone beyond their predecessors in pursuing accountability for human rights crimes. Hershberg suggested that whether or not left governments had a distinctive view of the role of the armed forces in society deserved further exploration. He noted that policies regarding how to approach the past intersected with current policies to address crime and violence.

Roberto Russell of the Universidad Torcuato di Tella, Argentina, argued that ideology and "left-right" distinctions are not helpful in identifying the most salient features of Latin American foreign policies. The division between a "northern" Latin America and a "southern" Latin America (a concept that first emerged in the 1970s) has never been more profound than it is today. "Northern" Latin America is defined by its geographical proximity to and the greater density of its ties with the United States, while "southern" Latin America, despite its many divisions, retains more space and flexibility to engage in autonomous foreign policies. According to Russell, Hugo Chávez's quest for regional power represents a factor of division and fragmentation in the hemisphere, in that Chávez's ambitions are predicated on confrontation with the United States. Historical experience demonstrates that when such figures emerge in Latin America, they generate serious divisions between and among countries, in the same way that complete alignment with the United States does.

Other participants in the Latin American Program's project on the New Left and Democratic Governance in Latin America are Javier Corrales, Amherst College; Eugenio Lahera, Chile XXI; Juan Pablo Luna (Uruguay), Universidad Católica, Chile; Cynthia McClintock, George Washington University; Ana María Sanjuán, Universidad Central de Venezuela; and Maria Herminia Tavares de Almeida, Universidade de São Paulo.

Prepared by Dr. Cynthia J. Arnson, Director, Latin American Program
with Jose Raul Perales, Senior Program Associate, Latin American Program


  • Leslie Bethell

    Board Member
    Currently serves on the International Advisory Councils of a number of Brazilian institutions, including the Centro Brasileiro de Relacoes Internacionais (CEBRI), Rio de Janeiro, and on the Editorial Boards of several Brazilian journals, including the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (IBRI, Universidade de Brasília).