Why is it not so easy to talk about a “new left turn” in Latin America?

Latin America, already facing many difficulties since the end of the commodity cycle, is going through a tough crisis in these post-pandemic 2020s. What was described as a “turn to the left” in the 2000s has been exhausted and the left has experienced difficult times, being displaced from power in general, except in countries where it has adopted openly authoritarian regimes (Venezuela and Nicaragua). Today many speak of the return of the left as if a new turn had begun. The situation, however, is more complicated.

The shift to the left in the late 1990s and 2000s was partial. Not all countries in the region were part of it. However, with the coming to power of many left-wing parties, there was a more or less clear and unprecedented trend in the region. Although their discourse often bordered revolution, there was much Jacobinism and the prospect of perpetuating themselves in power, they were very moderate in their concrete proposals, with poverty at the center of their social policies and limited developmentalism. If there are continuities between that cycle and the current period, there are also many differences. It is above all a different left, especially in Chile and Colombia, emerging in Ecuador (unlike Peru, where its conquest of the presidency seems rather fortuitous, despite a certain social base).

Limitations

The limitations of liberal democracy are at the heart of what has happened in Chile. Undoubtedly, the issue of neoliberalism and the restriction of social policies have centrality in the political outburst that began in 2019 with the increase in subway fares.

The very structure of the political system has been called into question. Professional parties and politicians have entered the crosshairs of popular mobilizations, distinct parties have gained prominence, and lists of independent candidates have emerged for the constituent elections, although the new Constitution does not incorporate significant institutional modifications.

In Colombia, renewed with the end of the armed conflict, and partly in post-Correa Ecuador, the huge social mobilizations, with the issue of democracy back on the agenda, point to a different approach to politics, with decentralized social movements autonomous from the parties. The subject of nature is gaining prominence as it did only in the best moments of Lula da Silva’s government in Brazil, while the Colombian “tasty living”, following the example of the Andean “good living”, does not point to solutions for the major part of the population.

Even if it is likely, at least currently, that Lula will win against the current far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, this can hardly be classified as the return of the left to power. The conjuncture is very different from that of the 2000s. Should this victory occur, it will be more the result of unity against Bolsonaro’s open authoritarianism than real support for Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT), even if a consistent democratic front has not been constituted and mass mobilizations have been ruled out (at least until August 11, with the reading of the letter for democracy and the demonstrations).

In Argentina, the situation of the government of Alberto Fernandez is complicated, with Vice-President Cristina Kirchner as almost the main opponent, and the risk of an electoral defeat on the horizon for next year. In Bolivia, despite the dominance of MAS, Evo Morales’ eagerness to return to power, as always by any means, may lead to a new political crisis, now in his own party. Uruguay is governed by the center-right.

Threats to liberal democracy

In short, today, the Latin American political panorama seems much closer to the situation of alternation of parties in liberal democracy stabilized in most parts of the world. The problems are very different from the assumptions of a left for which Leninism continues to appear as a strategic vector. What is obvious is the separation between the oligarchies – political, economic, and financial – and the commons, those who are and feel excluded from the exercise of political power.

Liberal democracy was democratized throughout the 20th century through the emergence of mass organizations, such as parties and unions, with the paradoxical control and closure of its main echelons to popular participation. Mechanisms of direct participation, such as councils and referendums, or the classic Greek lottery, which allowed anyone to participate in power, were rarely used (not to mention that the popular character of power soon became a mere simulacrum in “real socialism”).

The processes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have positioned Latin America in the contemporary world, together with the part of the world with which it has more similarities and political connections: Europe and the United States. Latin America shares the same problems, without clear solutions, in addition to having little money. However, we must be particularly attentive to political issues, actively addressing them, especially with regard to the democratization of democracy.

If state political systems (executive and legislative) are to operate, societal political systems, where the plebeian citizens of modernity actually move, must find new channels of influence, interference, and veto in relation to them. According to classical republicans, corruption corresponds to the very decadence of institutions. This is what is happening in liberal democracy.

It is on this horizon that the 2022 Brazilian elections must be placed. Defeating Bolsonaro and the threat of fascism adapted to the 21st century is a crucial and absolute priority. But this far right does not gain support out of nowhere. If there are those in contemporary societies who hold intrinsically reactionary values, it is a result of the dissatisfaction of the population, especially when they do not see in the left a transformative alternative.

This is what has happened in Brazil, since the 2013 demonstrations, rejected by the dominant forces of the left. The mistakes of Lula and the Workers’ Party were huge in government, including corruption, closed-mindedness to society, and the not positive period of Dilma Rousseff, as well as electoral embezzlement in 2014. 

In part, the party survived thanks to the president’s own impeachment. In defending itself, PT seems to have come to believe in her total innocence. But this is false, and this is not how the population sees it. Moreover, the neopatrimonialism that radically plagues the political system in Brazil – and which many ridiculously try to deny – will make life very difficult for Lula or anyone else committed to democracy. The temptation to make the same mistakes will always be present.

A democratic government as of January 2023 can only be transitional. But we should not imagine that the recovery of democracy can be reduced to resuming demoralized political formulas, complemented by social policies for the poor. The ground must be cleared for a return to democracy that will deepen it in the long term. Otherwise, the crisis and the far-right will always be lurking.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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