TCS Daily


Carnivores vs. Herbivores

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa - January 24, 2006 12:00 AM

The consensus is that Latin American is turning radically to the left. Analysts anticipate that they will win in Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, and Nicaragua -- and will be confirmed in Brazil and Venezuela -- this year. The only exception is Colombia, where they concede President Uribe will be reelected, and perhaps Costa Rica, where centrist Oscar Arias will probably carry the day. Add to this the fact that Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay are governed by the left and you have almost an entire continent moving away from the U.S., free markets and democratic values.

This take is a little simplistic and color-blind.

It would be silly to deny Latin America is moving to the left. The reasons have to do with a mixture of the historical and the immediate. Historical: the concentration of power in the hands of elites who hindered the kind of social mobility that only a free society can bring about. Immediate: the recent so-called free market reforms that did not go far enough, consisting of the transfer of government assets without recognizing property rights beyond the realm of government cronies. Add to this the cultural divide that still passes for "ethnic" conflict in some Andean countries, and you have a sense of what is happening.

However, it is simply not true that the continent is now unanimously anti-U.S., illiberal, and revolutionary. True, there are some perilous forces at work and it would have been much better if Latin Americans had chosen to correct the mistakes of the 1990s without restoring their old faith in the kind of big-government, authoritarian populism that is responsible for much of the frustration in the first place. But given the situation, it is better to assess events with a serene mind.

To begin with, the divide is not between "pro-U.S." and "anti-U.S." governments. If that is the standard, Latin America is pro-U.S. because twenty-nine governments want free trade with Washington. The divide is not between free-marketeers and socialists either. By that standard, every government is socialist, including Chile's, where the state owns the country's main source of revenue, copper, and taxation is high. And the divide is not between left and right because -- with the exception of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and Mexico -- the right is out of power across the region, and the disputes among left-wing governments are a lot more intense than they ever were between democratic governments of the right and the left (for instance, in the 1980s).

The real divide is taking place within the ranks of the left, which is going through an earth-shattering identity crisis, much like Spain's, Britain's and New Zealand's Labor Parties in the 1980s. The struggle is between what Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner calls "carnivores" (radical left) and "herbivores" (moderate left). So far, herbivores are well ahead.

Only Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez are proven carnivores. The rest have turned out to be herbivores even though the rhetoric is sometimes meaty. It is still an open question whether Bolivia's carnivorous new President, Evo Morales, will be able to eat much flesh in power. Of the three, only Venezuela is able to exercise some influence because of petrodollars.

There is no united front among the Latin American left. Chile's Socialists signed FTAs with the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, the United States and South Korea, and are now in talks with Japan, India, and China. In Uruguay, President Tabaré Vázquez is flirting with the idea of an FTA with the United States in open defiance of the South American Common Market. Vázquez is also backing European investors who are setting up two pulp mills in the Uruguayan side of the border with Argentina despite the latter's fury and the outcry by the environmentalist left. Not to mention the open war between Argentina and Brazil -- due to Brazil's exporting almost twice as many goods and services as it is buying from Argentina. Bolivia's Evo Morales, for his part, is the man responsible for bringing down a project that sought to export natural gas to Mexico and California through Chilean ports. All of these wars are taking place among governments of the left.

What countries are close allies of Chávez today? Apart from Cuba, whose government Caracas is subsidizing with 100,000 barrels of oil a day, the Venezuelan demagogue has no close allies. In a recent world tour, even Evo Morales said he wants good relations with the United States!

None of this means Latin America is becoming a stable, rule-of-law environment and that free trade is the name of the game. It simply means there is no radical left tide. And elections this year are unlikely to produce one. In Mexico, public opinion has forced front-runner López Obrador to repeatedly distance himself from Chávez (70 percent of Mexico's new jobs are related to trade with the United States). In Nicaragua, herbivore Herty Lewites, is trouncing Daniel Ortega in the polls. In Brazil, Lula's ongoing corruption scandal may hand over victory to Sao Paulo mayor Jose Serra, a populist -- but Serra is an erratic herbivore. In Ecuador, no candidate is looking strong. In Peru, there is a real danger that Ollanta Humala, a nationalist-populist former military officer, will win and tie the political knot with Chávez. But that still leaves South America -- mostly a herbivore's territory.

Herbivores do not intend to pursue further free-market reform and will therefore pay the price for their conformity once the high prices of commodities fall, but that is an entirely different issue. When that happens, people will seek alternatives. It is by no means inconceivable that Latin America will give free market reform and the rule of law another chance, perhaps early in the next decade.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute and the author of Liberty for Latin America.

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3 Comments

Wishful thinking. Latin America is going socialist. Open your eyes so is the USA eom

Left v. Right? Who cares?
To my mind, the left is in ideological disarray. The reasons: Nothing the left has predicted has come true, and nothing the left has promised the masses has proved free of charge (as in, "There is such thing as a free lunch") or sustainable in the long run. For example, the workers of the world have not united but rather have continuously attempted to screw each other over via their national governments and rent-seeking protectionist measures. If anything, this is business as usual pre Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx, but certainly nothing revolutionary.

The right, on the other hand, seeks to conserve societies that no longer exist, all the while remaining willfully ignorant to an indispensable core truth: The law reflects social norms and values, not vice versa. The right comes off clownish to the pragmatic masses when it attempts to utilize legislation like a time machine with only one setting - backwards.

No matter which direction one travels along today's political continuum, it eventually leads nowhere most people want to go. True believers in yesterday's ideologies constitute the minority of voters in any democracy. What the majority of voters want is honesty and common sense - two commodities neither ideologues nor politicans can afford. Perhaps this why they inevitably end up bedfellows.

The President's Analysts
" Analysts anticipate that they will win in Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, and Nicaragua -- and will be confirmed in Brazil and Venezuela -- this year. The only exception is Colombia, where they concede President Uribe will be reelected,"

Once the Analysts have freed South America from the scourge of Presidency, they can set about making " Eats shoots and leaves" the basis of its NeoVegetarian constitution.

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