The “New” Politics of Latin America

By Zavi Engles

In recent years, major media outlets have proclaimed a rebirth of the Leftist movement within Latin American governments. Various Latin American presidents have emerged as new leaders in the Leftist progressive movement, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez who famously compared the former neoliberal U.S. President George Bush to a donkey. Other new darlings of the Left include Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Brazilian President Luiz Inàsio Lula de Silva (commonly referred to as President Lula), Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner, and Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay. Many of these presidents hail from extremely humble beginnings and their unlikely rise to power signaled to many that the tragic story of capitalistic exploitation and political turmoil as a result from foreign intervention may finally be coming to a close. But are these new Latin American governmental regimes truly enacting policies that match their progressive images and rhetoric?

Take Bolivian President Evo Morales. To many, his electoral victory symbolized a change in the sociocultural landscape of Bolivia for the indigenous people who were historically exploited and considered inferior to the mestizos and the high class Bolivian elite who are often of mixed Bolivian/European descent. Morales also initially gained national attention for organizing coca farmer unions around the country and politically he claims to identify as a socialist. Given his background and political ideals, Morales represents an extreme ideological shift and has been recognized by Leftist leaders and activists as a beacon of hope in the area. But does the image truly match the policies?

Recently Morales’ administration has begun implementing a plan to build oil wells in protected indigenous lands as well as in areas that are ecologically fragile, including the Amazonian jungle. In late 2010, Morales, in conjunction with other supposedly leftist leaders such as Brazilian President Lula, unveiled ambitious plans to build a superhighway connecting Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. This highway will cut directly through a nature reserve that is also protected land for three indigenous nations. The plans clearly ignore the laws that protect indigenous peoples as well as nature reserves from such damaging projects and yet there have been few protests, mainly limited to fringe groups and the indigenous people who are in danger of losing their land.

Other Latin American presidents are similarly failing to live up to their promises for a Latin America characterized by equality and justice. Venezuelan President Chavez, a famous ideological enemy of neo-liberals, has enacted quite a few policies that are eerily similar to those of his opponents. For example, though he is painted by the US media as a socialist tyrant with a penchant for nationalization of all Venezuelan industries, Venezuela’s richest oil reserves are still owned by foreign capital. The only policy that Chavez has enacted towards “nationalizing” these oil fields is a tax and royalty increase of about 15% which is still far below what is paid by oil companies in Canada, the Middle East, and many African countries. President Chavez’s surprisingly moderate policies in regards to Venezuela’s valuable oil reserves certainly do not fit with his image as a socialist radical, and this disparity between image and policy applies to many other of the so-called progressive Latin American Presidents today.

How devastating it must be for Latin American citizens, after such a brutal history of unrelenting exploitation, to finally be able to vote in politicians free of foreign influence and voicing a rhetoric of “for the people, by the people”—only to realize that the words are no more than the same veiled political propaganda that has been used for centuries to cover up the extractionist and neo-capitalist policies that have always been enacted. A big reason why there have been so few protests in Latin America, as well as so little media attention uncovering the true nature of Latin American progressivism, is that the current governmental regimes have so successfully co-opted the struggles of the Left. President Morales’ meteoric rise to power (unprecedented given his background), as well as the successes of various other Latin American presidents have lulled many into a state of delusive comfort. However, this bubble of supposed progressivism in Latin America is bound to burst as people continue to struggle with issues of exploitation and extreme poverty. Environmental degradation, economic instability, wealth gaps—these issues will continue to worsen rather than abate as Latin American authorities continue to dodge implementing concrete, revolutionary change. If these issues are to be dealt with, the Latin American people must push to get their so-called progressive presidents to either begin enacting policies that reflect their wishes or vote them out.

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