TCS Daily

The Imaginary 'Pink Tide'

By Raphael C. Rosen - January 24, 2008 12:00 AM

The media's "socialist" label misunderstands Latin's America's new leaders; far more relevant than ideology are globalization, governmental incompetence, and populism.

Part I of this two-part series considers the irrelevance of right and left characterizations in Latin American politics and the rhetoric that reinforces these misconceptions. Part II will examine the region's economic realities and it exigencies.

Chávez. Lula. Kirchner. Morales. Vásquez. Correa. Bachelet. Ortega. Socialism sweeps Latin America as leftist presidents rise.

Reading the news today, one can be forgiven for believing that a near-revolution in Latin America is at hand, that the morning of equality for the marginalized masses speedily draws near. The truth is, the socialist "pink tide" washing ashore in Latin America is just foam that Western journalists have gulped down: it is far more rhetorical than real. Reporters equate a bloated but still capitalist state that thrives—and can only thrive—on mass handouts with a socialist one.

Don't be fooled.

Blue and red states cannot be readily colored on a political map south of the Rio Grande. Politics throughout Latin America does not reduce to laminated right-wing or left-wing labels. In the last hundred years, Latin American governments have officially shifted first right then left then right then left in a nauseating bout of air hockey, but governments' ideological oratory about either "socialism" or "development" is simply the air on which the puck momentarily glides. All along, far more relevant have been the players slapping the puck around: the insurmountable issues of globalization and its fallout, mass clientelism, and an enormous state edifice inefficient, corrupt, and deeply-entrenched.

To be certain, the rise of numerous leftist presidents has resulted in some socialist programs. New initiatives, including important state-run efforts in education and health care, have sprouted. Some three million Bolivians, who previously had only ever received decrepit health care, have received quality treatment []. So too have multitudes of indigent Venezuelans obtained quality medical attention for the first time.

Chile's Bachelet has altered the national pension plan, providing a cushion for those who have never paid anything into retirement accounts.

Yet, Bachelet is a case in point: she dares not scrap her country's privatized pension system, because she knows well that the system increases Chile's appeal to foreign investors, thereby generating greater pension returns and keeping people happy. Competitive capitalism, the engine transforming the globe from North America to Australia, from Europe to East Asia, is more not less important than ever.

What is going on is that despite the implementation of certain socialist programs, the leftist moment in Latin America is not about socialism. The region's several socialist policies are the servants of populism, patronage, and power—not ideology.

The Cold War is long over, and Latin America does not come into focus when viewed through a Samos spy satellite lens. It never did. As political scientists here in Buenos Aires never fail to insist, "Latin America is a different logic." While each country requires its own special attention and considerations, some broad inferences can be drawn.

No Right Answer, No Left Answer

On central economic issues, Latin America's left and right (as they are labeled up North) have often joined hands together—or rather opened hands together. Most recently, as foreign competition expanded, labor leaders watched union ranks shrink while local businessmen saw their once black balance sheets incarnadine—a real red tide. With pounding palms both groups have demanded government protectionism. Globalization makes Latin American capital and labor clamor in unison for a new age of state-controlled industry.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez endeavors daily to delegitimize his opponents, disparaging them as enemies of his "Bolivarian Revolution," and yanquí-loving, money-grubbing capitalists. This is ludicrousness. And simple politics. He casts politics as a battle between left and right not because it is so, but because it is an effective strategy to marginalize his opposition. Charging the opposition as agents of Bush sells the public—at home and abroad—on the fallacy that Chávez's aim is social justice and equality while the opposition is (like America) selfish and arrogant.

He castigated opponents of a plan to build power lines in southeastern Venezuela as "traitors, spies and foreigners." These traitors were indigenous groups and environmentalists. Those crazy right-wingers.

His recent referendum had nothing to do with socialist enterprise and everything to do with aggrandizing his own name, legacy, and global leverage. Socialist reforms included in the referendum—such as a 36-hour workweek and greater funding of communal councils—could easily have been implemented by decree. After all, his legislature has already ceded to him the power to create new laws.

Chávez threw these items into the referendum to sweeten the smell of the voting booth and bribe the populace into rewarding him with lifelong power. The Venezuelans who barely defeated the referendum ran the gamut of political backgrounds and ideologies. Their cause was not capitalism, but opposition to dictatorship and national ruin.

Another illustration of the irrelevance of left and right labels can be found Argentina. It inherits the legacy of one of history's great political jackals, Juan Peron. Argentines love to be asked what Peronism is. "Nobody Knows!" the reply. On the left, organized labor lionizes Peron. On the right, so do thousands of Nazis whom he sheltered after the fall of the third Reich. Peron invested in public works a la FDR, he brought attention to the previously unseen working man, and then trampled the power of labor by replacing its leaders with his personal cronies.

Today, the "leftist" Peronist party lives strong, sweeping the last election on no platform at all. Yet, the Peronists domestic slogan was not a clarion call to socialism: "We will Nationalize Oil and Gas. We Will Distribute the Wealth," as a different party unhesitatingly pronounced. Instead, the Peronists proclaimed, "We Know what is Missing. We Know How to Do it." About as inscrutable a slogan as there ever was.

The absence of an ideological message in Argentina's particular case is partly a consequence of the caudillos, the strongmen who dominated the 19th century. People care not about their leaders' policies but their strength. The Kirchner couple, who rule Argentina, first Nestor, now his wife Cristina, will continue their term-switching tango for the next two terms, assuring the populace of a stable leadership. They will espouse a socialist message when that plays well and welcome foreign investment when that plays well. What counts is popular support, a pillar in otherwise unstable democracies.

Rhetorical Rhapsody

The most direct route to popular support is rhetoric. After all, though talk is cheap, that doesn't mean people aren't listening. In Latin America today, anti-capitalist calumnies prove especially effective. New governments come to power scapegoating capitalism and promising to reverse the "neoliberal excesses" of incumbents. Slamming America and its "globalization ruse" draws applause. Robin Hood themes play especially well.

The consequences of globalization have generated yearning for such rhetoric everywhere. Its satiation by politicians has followed.

Evo Morales of Bolivia charges that "the problem in Bolivia, is poor people looking for justice, and the rich accumulating capital." In Argentina, La Reina Cristina—as the well-educated deride her—proclaims, "We must create a kind of globalization that works for everyone and not just a few." At the Eva Peron Museum in the Palermo section of Buenos Aires, the exhibit and docents docilely serve as Evita's hagiographers, firmly asserting that Peronists are the only true Argentines. The remainder are pitiless thugs.

Then there's little, rotund Uruguay. When former Uruguayan president Julio María Sanguinetti gave way to leftist president Tabaré Vásquez in 2005, Sanguinetti predicted that Vásquez's administration would "follow a centrist economic policy with a traditional leftist rhetoric. [It will carry on] the same monetary policy and rigorous fiscal discipline. It will continue to service the debt, and it will continue to prioritize good relations with the US." The last three years have vindicated this prediction in its entirety.

In Chávez's final speech before the referendum, he did not condescend to describe his trampling of the separation of powers or even the ideas he hoped to implement. Instead, he inveighed against "our real enemy, the American empire," the CIA, CNN, and colonialism.

Amazingly, well-educated individuals both in Venezuela and especially outside of it believe the ploy. As Roger Cohen recently quipped in the NY Times [], "The thirst for utopian illusion seems undimmed by 20th-century cataclysm, and the appetite for an anti-Bush is so voracious that the Chávez-as-Che concoction resonates, empty as it is."

In the end, rhetoric masks reality. Governments do not fundamentally change course even if they promise to in a thousand and one sermons. Ignoring the ever-growing international capitalist order can only bring impoverishment to one's country. Despite endless threats to cut off oil to America, Chávez does not quit selling it. Economic reality is the mover. Ideology its mere puck.

The author gratefully acknowledges Eric Biewener in Caracas and Zachary Luck in Washington. All opinions are the author's alone.

Raphael Rosen lives in Buenos Aires. He holds degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, where he studied history.


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