4: Differences between the new leaders
There are many differences between these leftist regimes. The biggest difference is perhaps seen between Brazil’s Lula and Venezuela’s Chávez. Lula has done everything to create a compromise between opposing political and economic forces both in Brazil and internationally. Chávez, on the other hand, has never gone out of his way to clarify the contradictions between “friends” and “enemies.”
He has probably done more than any of the other presidents to mobilize the country’s poor and give them political power in what he calls a “participatory democracy.” At the same time – and partly precisely because of this – the country’s traditional upper and middle class has hated him. Those who had power before have lost both power and privileges.
Thanks to record high oil prices, he was able for a long time to finance both large national welfare programs and subsidize large development programs in many other Latin American countries, through a cooperation program called ALBA (the Bolivarian alternative for America). The name comes from his great historical liberation hero Simón Bolívar. While giving Cuba cheap oil, he got thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers in return, who could offer people in the slums of Caracas and poor farmers a health and school system like Venezuela’s oil wealth had never done before.
Until recently, Chávez has based his power on constant elections and referendums, almost like a “popular consultation” as he calls it every year. Lately, he has begun to lose his overwhelming support among the majority of the people, and things may now indicate that he is thus resorting to more undemocratic means. He politicizes the judiciary, takes control of universities that have been independent so far, closes newspapers, websites and television stations that are critical of him. He governs to a large extent by means of emergency laws which mean that the newly elected National Assembly (convened in January) cannot control his political decisions. Relations with the United States are also at a freezing point.
The other country that challenges ordinary democratic rules of the game is Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has repeatedly received support from a clear majority of the population in elections and referendums. But Bolivia is divided into two, between a majority made up of Native American farmers in the highlands (including the real capital La Paz), and more traditional power groups in the lowlands to the east and north, with Santa Cruz as the center (including significant oil resources). The latter have threatened to break away from the Native American-dominated central government.
But neighboring countries have unequivocally sided with Morales and clearly prevented a division of the country. Morales has passed a new constitution that goes further than any other Latin American country in recognizing Native American rights . At the same time, it significantly sets aside liberal democratic traditions such as the rule of law and dialogue with the opposition. Large groups, including his former supporters, fear that the entire rule of law in Bolivia could be endangered.
5: The most radical
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has also adopted a completely new constitution and new political rules to end a political chaos that has ravaged the country for many years around the turn of the century. Ecuador has also become a polarized society. Correa, who has a doctorate in economics, has introduced strong restrictions on payments on foreign debt. He has also initiated important financial cooperation measures in South America, including the introduction of a common trading currency (sucre) and the establishment of a regional bank (BancoSur) as a step towards a monetary (monetary policy) union. But Correa has behaved so authoritarianly that he has gained large parts of his natural allies in the very well-organized Indian movement against him.
According to HISTORYAAH, Venezuela, Bolivia and partly Ecuador form the most radical part of the new South America and together with Cuba and Nicaragua (where former guerrilla and revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega is back as president) form the core of ALBA. The first three countries have in common that they have adopted new constitutions that have turned the political power upside down. They have also been in strong conflict with the United States and America’s foremost ally in South America throughout this period, Colombia. Relations between Colombia and its neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador have repeatedly been on the verge of direct military confrontation.
Argentina and Chile have also for large parts of the decade had governments and presidents who have been clearly on the left, with Mr. and Mrs. Kirschner succeeding each other as presidents of Argentina (Néstor Kirchner died suddenly at the end of 2010 when he was expected to come back as president), and the very popular socialist leader Michelle Bachelet in Chile. The smaller countries of Uruguay and Paraguay have had socialist presidents for the first time in history, without going as far in societal change as the other countries.