It’s Time to Re-Invent the Left in Latin America
Left-Wing Governments Need to Ask Themselves if the Means of Government is More Important Than the Ends of Equality
By Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo @EcuaMatt
As I sit in the mind-numbing traffic of Quito trying to drown out the incessant sound of self-defeating horns, I think to myself “the free market will never solve this problem.”
Indeed, the congestion that paralyzes cities like Quito is often the byproduct of our economic success. In Ecuador the middle class has expanded from 10% of the population to 35% during the past 10 years: a great achievement by anyone’s measure.
In that same time cars have become cheaper and access to credit more widely available, and the lure of owning a vehicle has left us elbowing each other in the face to squeeze through the door. Going to work each day is as tight as travelling through the birth canal, producing the same pain and tears with none of the euphoria. My physical and mental health yearn for the heavy hand of government to provide a solution.
As a left-leaning person who believes that markets, when properly designed and regulated, can assist in achieving the promise of equality of opportunity, I can’t help but feel the decade of Latin American governments sympathetic to my beliefs may have been lost.
In Chile the 20 years of supposedly left-leaning Concertación governments that ended with the election of Sebastian Piñera’s right-wing Renovación Nacional, served only to maintain Chile as the world’s most unequal country. With much fanfare Michelle Bachelet has returned, promising to solve all of the problems she overlooked during her first mandate. With all due respect to Madame Bachelet you’ll have to forgive my slight cynicism.
In Nicaragua the Sandanista revolution continues with Daniel Ortega as its head, though its recent incarnation as a strange brew of pro-business and uber-catholic doctrine should make anyone on the left feel uncomfortable. Besides, if the Sandanistas represent a true revolution of the people, why is it that in the 30 years I’ve been alive they’ve been unable to produce someone else to lead the popular movement forward?
In Brazil Lula appeared to show the way towards a third path and produced great strides in pulling millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Even Lula’s reign has been tainted by a corruption scandal that has grown like a vine through the Workers Party, capturing even ministers and the President’s former Chief of Staff and threatening to pull the old man in himself.
Then there is Venezuela, and how my heart aches for Venezuela. After initially supporting Chavez I watched how his government slowly decayed under the weight of uninterrupted and un-checked power. The cult of personality, the traditional caudillismo, took over. Chavez was the revolution and the revolution was Chavez. Rather than empowering the people he empowered himself on their behalf, confusing the two with masterful artistry.
From the corruption that has enriched both his family and his inner circle, to the economic mismanagement resulting in 1970’s style inflation that hurts the poor far more than the rich, to the politicization of the military and the judiciary, to the food shortages and unfettered crime that has made Caracas the most dangerous city in the world, Venezuela is an unequivocal mess.
Though many foreign supporters of the Chavez regime applaud the slim margin victory of his cover-band like successor Nicholas Maduro, who sings all of Chavez’s best numbers without hinting at any original material, I can’t bring myself to support someone whose words speak equality but whose actions speak incompetence. I wouldn’t accept 32% of my savings disappearing overnight as a sacrifice for the revolution, nor should any Venezuelan in my opinion.
And Argentina? Don’t even get me started on Argentina.
As a longtime observer and occassional resident of Latin America, I’ve always felt that the big mistake of the region’s right-wing parties has been to become apologists for an absurd social Darwinist status-quo where “free markets” formed from the mud and dust of feudalism have never been free for anyone except those privileged enough to start the race at the finish line.
Similarly, if these were supposed to be the twilight years of the left in Latin America, one of the biggest mistakes across the continent has been to assume that the left’s moral superiority over their predecessors was enough to prevent them from committing the same mistakes.
Instead of bringing about revolutions of transparency to nip corruption in the bud or revolutions of de-centralization to bring government closer to the people, the left in Latin America has squandered its opportunity. Though the rhetoric has remained present, the policy planning required to uproot the long-term endemic cycles of poverty remain absent.
Is it too much to ask then that our left-leaning governments also be democratic and value strengthening institutions rather than tearing them apart?
Can we not see that limiting the independence of the region’s judiciaries and militaries is not in our long term interest?
Can we not learn to value the left-leaning technocrat whose policy planning can correct for market failures without causing economic mayhem?
And finally, do we supporters of the left have to continue to support politicians who speak the language of ending historic injustices but pursue policies of an autocratic and absolutist nature with self-perpetuating ends?
Though it may come as a betrayal to those who give unquestionable support to left-wing candidates the way they root for a soccer team, I for one refuse to sacrifice critical thinking on the altar of self-gratifying rhetoric.
The moment a government’s behavior diverges from the goal of improving the quality of life of its citizens, as in Venezuela, one has to seriously question whether or not we have the right means to achieve the ends, even if no better alternative exists. The longer we on the left give legitimacy to governments who don’t deserve it, the longer we wait until an alternative proposing new and truly revolutionary ideas, such as transparency, comes into being.
By its very definition a revolution is meant to be a radical break from the past, yet too often the revolutionary governments of Latin America fall into the traps of their predecessors of both the left and right.
To move forward, we on the left need to reinvent what it is we want. We need to articulate our relationship with markets (even Cuba needs a black market to survive), and move beyond the desire for more government but also describe what type of government we want.
When drowning in traffic I think of the success of left-leaning mayors in places such as Bogotá and Mexico City, two cities that have brought about massive quality of life improvements over the past 10 years, and wonder why we don’t push for more decentralization, especially as our cities increasingly become the motors of non-extractive/knowledge-based economic activity.
Finally, if we wish to be truly revolutionary we need to embrace technologies that are truly empowering. We can then exploit the cracks in representative democracy and design people-centric governing systems, in other words bringing the government closer to the people. To achieve our revolutionary potential therefore we need to seek our evolutionary potential. When the means of production are no longer concentrated in the hands of the powerful, we need to modify our central operating tenants in order to put the goal of equality before the means by which it is achieved.
The question leftists in Latin America need to ask ourselves then is whether or not or loyalty rests with the means or the ends. If the means of government takes precedent over the ends of equality we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of left-leaning governments of the past. If, on the other hand, we can prioritize smart public policies that facilitate the achievement of equality through whatever means necessary, then maybe we can move beyond focusing on leaders and instead focus on people.