Peru Election 2006

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A false and damaging dichotomy

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Maxwell A. Cameron
June 21, 2006 05:05 PM
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The Guardian

A backlash against free market orthodoxy is gaining momentum in Latin America. As voters in the region turn against the status quo, some are looking for radical change while others are seeking more modest reforms.
Alan García Pérez narrowly won the run-off election in Peru on June 4 by offering a programme of “responsible change.” His competitor, the nationalist Ollanta Humala Tasso, promised a more radical transformation. The candidate most closely associated with the existing economic orthodoxy, Lourdes Flores Nano, did not even make it into the run-off.
A similar race is heating up in Mexico, where voters will choose their next president on July 2. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is neck and neck with the candidate of the incumbent National Action party (PAN), Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. Polls show the two candidates in a technical tie, with López Obrador gaining on his rival.
Calderón has tried to distance himself from incumbent president, Vicente Fox, by calling himself a “disobedient son” while portraying López Obrador as a dangerous radical and a protege of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. López Obrador denies any connection with Chávez, and has lashed back at Calderón with allegations of nepotism, corruption, and influence-peddling.
A broader scan of the region reveals a lot of diversity within the much-debated shift to the left. In countries including Chile and Uruguay, where democracy is strong, political parties are well organised and corruption is minimal, moderate socialists are advancing progressive social policy agendas.
After a rocky start in her first 100 days in office, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, has made 36 specific promises in areas such as education, healthcare, public security, pensions and labour rights. She redoubled her commitment to reform after surprisingly militant student protests placed her government on the defensive. Another moderate socialist, Tabaré Vásquez, was elected in Uruguay last year on promises to address poverty and unemployment.
In the Andean region, where indigenous peoples have suffered centuries of exclusion and discrimination, where party systems are fragmented and corruption is rife, the backlash against economic orthodoxy has resulted in more radical nationalist and populist movements.
On May Day, Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, fulfilled a major campaign promise by announcing the nationalisation of the gas and oil industry in Bolivia. He has also moved quickly to redistribute land belonging to the state. A national development strategy has been unveiled that seeks to dismantle the legacies of colonialism and the effects of neoliberal policies in recent decades. A major goal of the new government is to recognise Bolivia’s multicultural society in law and in the constitution, and to that end a constituent assembly has been convened.
A growing chorus of observers and policymakers, including the Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, The Economist, Mexico’s former minister of foreign affairs, Jorge Castañeda, and the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has argued or assumed that there are “two lefts” in Latin America, one social democratic and the other radical populist.
These labels are value-laden; in the words of Castañeda, there is a “right left” and a “wrong left.” This tendentious, simplistic, and misleading dichotomy is a hindrance to understanding both the backlash against economic orthodoxy and the various leftwing forces capitalising on it.
There are three good reasons for rejecting the right/wrong left shibboleth. First, the left typically reflects the society in which it emerges; one might as well argue there are right and wrong countries. Second, not all rights and wrongs come in coherent packages. Leftwing movements and parties often do some things wrong and some things right. Third, dichotomising the left leads to mistaken expectations about international alignments and conflicts. In general, radical postures disguise pragmatic intentions.
It is easier to be a moderate social democrat in stable and ethnically homogeneous countries such as Chile or Uruguay than in politically unstable and ethnically divided countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, or Peru. The constitutional separation of powers, the rule of law, and property rules evolve in diverse ways under different historical and structural conditions.
Evo Morales’ decision to nationalise Bolivia’s oil and gas industry may be a threat to private property and an economic error – it is probably unwise to nationalise an industry when the principal investor, in this case Brazil, is also the nation’s main customer – but the Bolivian leader is pursuing a vision of the national interest that is defensible on both constitutional and democratic grounds.
What is right on one policy dimension may be wrong on another. Chávez, with the unwitting assistance of a largely self-seeking and incompetent opposition, has created a political system with few real checks and balances. He has also attempted to provide basic health and educational services to people who were neglected under the corrupt power-sharing arrangement known as the pact of Punto Fijo (1961-1998).
Chávez should be neither deified nor demonized. He earns plaudits for his commitment to the poor, but, with the supreme court stacked, legislative elections uncontested by the opposition and the president rattling his sabre at the media, it remains unclear whether the Bolivarian revolution can secure for itself a viable political and constitutional framework in which fundamental rights and freedoms are guaranteed. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Venezuela will be able to hold competitive, transparent and fair elections at the end of this year.
Most of the leftwing movements and parties in the Latin American region fall far short of any ideal of social democracy or radical populism. Castañeda has difficulty deciding whether Alan García is part of the “right” or the “wrong” left. García’s APRA party, clearly “springs from the great Latin American populist tradition,” says Castañeda, but “Chavez’s unabashed meddling in the Peruvian elections may have so alienated Alan García that he actually becomes a European-style social democrat.”
As a causal argument, this is preposterous. Even if we leave aside the fact that García provoked and benefited from Chávez’s interference in the Peruvian election, the idea that the dispute will have a lasting effect on García’s political orientation is ludicrous. The main reason why García will not govern like a European social democrat is that Peru is not a European country. García’s main challenge is to overcome barriers to the inclusion of indigenous peoples in Peru’s apartheid-style society, not negotiate a European-style class compromise.
The absurdities inherent in the right/wrong left dichotomy are exposed when observers use such crude stereotypes to explain international alignments or conflicts. For those who imagine a “serpent” stretching from Havana through Caracas to La Paz, Evo Morales’s radicalism is a product of the dark machinations of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.
Morales, however, is nobody’s puppet. In last week’s summit of presidents from the Andean Community of Nations, he proved to be a consummate pragmatist. Not only did he reject Chávez’s option of pulling out of the Andean Community, he used his leadership to support closer relations with the European Union and to push for an extension of trade preferences and drug cooperation with the US. Bolivia’s behaviour was neither strident nor nostalgic, but perfectly consistent with national interests.
The presumption that there will be a growing rift between Latin America’s radical populists and responsible social democrats is belied by Brazil’s measured response to the Bolivian nationalisation of oil and gas, as well as the courteous diplomatic relations between Morales and Bachelet.
Brazil may be pleased that Chávez’s meddling in the Peruvian election backfired and helped García. At the same time, Brazil is leaning toward backing Venezuela’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Tensions between South American countries may intensify, but they are likely to have more to do with national interests than ideological divisions between the so-called modern and archaic lefts.
There is a familiar ring to the distinction between the modern versus archaic lefts. Neoliberal reformers also saw themselves as imposing modernity on archaic societies. In their view, the “right policies” (the so-called Washington consensus, involving privatisation, deregulation, free trade, and the promotion of foreign investment) had to replace the “wrong policies” (protectionism, state ownership, subsidies, regulation of foreign investment). Those who resisted getting the policies right – peasants, unions, import-substituting industries, economists who had not read the “right” textbooks – belonged to the retrograde past. Arrogance and insensitivity got in the way of building sustainable and inclusive political coalitions.
How unfortunate, and how ironic, it would be for the left to make the same mistake.

Written by Michael Ha

June 21st, 2006 at 10:16 am

Posted in Analysis & Opinion

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