TCS Daily


Negative-Sum Populism

By Ilya Shapiro - June 6, 2006 12:00 AM

SANTO DOMINGO -- You wouldn't know it from reading the New York Times or watching Fox News, but the Dominican Republic recently had its Congressional elections, halfway into President Leonel Fernández's first term.

Unlike the United States, midterm elections here almost always produce gains for the president's party; congressmen and senators don't run at the same time as presidential candidates, so Congress tends to lag popular opinion. This election was no different, with Fernández's center-right party making impressive gains throughout the country.

At first glance, such a result seems to buck the oft-cited spread of left-wing governments across Latin America. Where George Bush could once break ideological bread with leaders in almost every Latin nation, Colombia's Álvaro Uribe and Mexico's outgoing Vicente Fox remain the only "conservatives" of note in the region.

In the past two years alone, Uruguay elected its first socialist leader, Chile its first woman (also ostensibly a socialist), and Bolivia its first indigenous executive (a suit-refusing union boss). And just before those outcomes, Argentina's economic crisis yielded a little-known president from the left of the ideology-defying Peronist party and Brazil elected a semi-literate former labor leader. Now ex-Sandinista Daniel Ortega threatens to take control of Nicaragua and Andrés Manuel López Obrador ("AMLO") may in July become the first president from the reconstructed Mexican Communist Party. Overseeing it all from his Venezuelan petro-perch, Hugo Chávez gives hope to nationalistic masses and Ché-nostalgic elites alike.

Yet this "dangerous swing to the left" is both exaggerated and highly misunderstood -- and emblematic of a stubborn malignancy in Latin American political culture that sadly goes beyond shifts in power between right and left.

First, voting patterns are cyclical; ten years ago we had supposedly seen Latin America's massive, significant movement to the right, as country after country embraced the "Washington Consensus" of privatization, deregulation, and other market reforms. When many of these liberalizing governments proved as corrupt as their nationalizing, dirigiste predecessors -- or when electorates simply tired of a particular set of leaders -- the era came to a crashing halt. There is no reason to think the current trend is any different.

Second, there are leftists and there are leftists. Uruguay's Tabaré Vásquez, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, and, somewhat surprisingly, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are much more Bill Clinton and Tony Blair than Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. Reasonable people disagree but stay within certain "rules of the game," and nobody has turned out to be more reasonable than the commerce-promoting Lula. Where once businessmen feared that Latin America's largest economy would be paralyzed by labor regulations and inopportune fiscal management, Brazil now finds itself taking heat from Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales for being too "neo-liberal" (meaning pro-market, anti-state control of industry).

Which leads to another point: Despite all the talk about oil crises and enemy-of-my-enemy alliances, Hugo Chávez is not suddenly leading an existential assault against the American way of life. While hob-knobbing with Castro and Iran's Ahmadinejad, and making noise at exporting his "Bolivarian revolution," Chávez is at best a schoolyard bully who speaks loudly and carries a small stick.

The Venezuela that he is ruining -- think Mugabe with a mojito -- is but a country of 12 million people, with neither hopes nor desires (let alone ability) to attack the United States. Yes, he is using his oil money to buy sympathy from poor people and their beleaguered leaders in underdeveloped communities (like parts of Massachusetts), but he is only the latest in a sad string of bush-league demagogues pretending to the throne of the old Third World "non-aligned" movement.

And that's the larger issue. Latin America's history is plagued with a vicious cycle of negative-sum populism. Whether that populism comes from the military-supported right or the praise-the-comandante-and-pass-the-ammunition left, it stands for a certain kind of redistributive fascism (or to the proto-communist authoritarianism that, lacking Marx's utopian pre-conditions, is the same thing).

It's arithmetic. Economic mismanagement premised on command-and-control policies, coupled with an immature political culture that naturally looks to strong-men caudillos for salvation, leads to what President Reagan (taking a page from Plato) famously described as ochlocracy -- mob rule.

When I studied abroad in Buenos Aires nearly a decade ago, the syllabus for my Argentine history class -- taught by a dead ringer for the professorial patriarch in Andy Garcia's masterful paean to his Cuban roots, The Lost City (which was filmed in Santo Domingo) -- was divided into its most logical units: first coup d'état, second coup d'état, third coup d'état, etc. When one regime was unable to provide a critical mass of people what they were looking for, or when one or two key interest groups felt sufficiently threatened, out came the general strikes, Molotov cocktails, and emergency curfews.

Fortunately, things have changed -- not least in Argentina, where Nestor Kirchner, even as he aspires to the legacy of the Mussolini-esque Juan Perón (and taking radical steps such as refusing to repay the IMF), is threatened only by next year's reelection campaign.

Still, even with changes in government now mostly through the ballot instead of the bullet, plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Unfortunately, what has long been said about Brazil can be extrapolated to the entire region: Latin America is the continent of the future -- and always will be.

(For a deeper examination of the themes raised in this column, see Jorge Castañeda (Mexico's former foreign minister), "Latin America's Left Turn," Foreign Affairs May/June 2006.)

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatch from Purple America" surveyed the diverse pleasures of Lake Tahoe and Key West.

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3 Comments

Nice Article
Thanks Ilya. There is not enough news and analysis of the Americas to the South. Nice end note, the future could be very, very bright for them if there were fewer ideological detours.

You have forgotten terrorism
Of course, you won't ever see a regular army of Chavistas attacking the United States. They don't need it: they only need to hire a couple of Allah-crazy Iranians and disguise them as wetbacks. That is the real menace.

AMLO's Party
It pains me to speak in Lopez Obrador's defense but the article misstated AMLO's affiliation. He is from the PRD - the Revolutionary Democratic Party, which splintered from the once dominant PRI. PRD is not an unreconstructed Communist party. That being said Lopez Obrador's candidacy is also supported by the communist PT and the center left Convergencia.

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