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Assessing Latin America’s Leftism

by Efe Can Gürcan on September 21, 2017
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The left’s strategic setbacks in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina since 2015 have rekindled the debate about how leftist Latin America’s governments really have been. This debate has been dominated by two broadly defined positions: Traditional-Marxist and liberal-democratic. Traditional-Marxist observers tend to agree that Latin America’s left turn is but an illusion, because the left has failed to translate its radical discourse into practice (Hypothesis A) and instead facilitated regional integration into global capitalism through extractivism as a continuation of neoliberal policies. Perhaps the most ardent advocate of this view is William I. Robinson, who argues: “Many of the Pink Tide states were able to push forward a new wave of capitalist globalization with greater credibility than their orthodox and politically bankrupt neoliberal predecessors”. A main research puzzle that guides the course of our research is thus the so-called “authenticity” of Latin America’s left, which was disqualified from the outset by the derogatory epithet of the “pink tide”: To what extent have Latin America’s “new” leftist governments been successful in moving policy in a leftward direction?

Another central position on how to categorize the various strands of Latin America’s left was initiated by Jorge Castañeda’s dichotomy between the “good” and the “bad” left (Hypothesis B1). The “good” left is basically moderate and sticks to the neoliberal model, while the “bad” left engages in fiscal irresponsibility. This dichotomy resonates with other mainstream approaches, which are perhaps best represented by Kurt Weyland‘s branding of the radical left as “inefficient, imprudent, irresponsible” (Hypothesis B2). We raise another key research puzzle from these positions: how does variation in Latin America’s leftist governments from moderation to radicalism play out in reality?

In my joint research with Gerardo Otero, based on the extant literature, we use the term “left” to designate a broad array of political or social movements that rhetorically – if not substantively – prioritize social justice, equality and democracy so as to include both moderate reformers and revolutionaries. We contribute to the debate by offering an empirical-data-based comparative analysis by constructing a “democratic-socialism index” (DSI). The DSI consists of the geometric mean of a set of 9 variables derived from the literature on the Latin American left since the early 2000s: minimum real wages, central government tax revenues (% of GDP), social spending (% of GDP), gender equality (inverse of the Gender Inequality Index), income equality (inverse of the GINI coefficient), employment rates (inverse of unemployment), voice and accountability, control of corruption, and reduction of extractivist exports (i.e. the percentage share of exports other than agricultural raw materials, fuel, and ores and metals in total merchandise exports). Based on data availability, we thus combine basic working class demands with the Latin American left’s claim to wider issues of social justice and equality regarding gender equality, anti-imperialism, environment awareness and democracy (indirectly, the rights of indigenous peoples and other minorities). The sample of Latin American countries for which we have calculated the DSI includes: (1) Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Argentina as the so-called “radical left”; (2) Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay as the “moderate left”; and (3) Mexico and Colombia as a high contrast sub-sample of all-out adopters of neoliberal policies (i.e. the “non-left”). We look at data between 1998 (Hugo Chávez’s electoral victory and the earliest data available on corruption and accountability) and 2014 (latest available data).

Here we present a compressed summary of our research due to space considerations. Merely looking at latest DSI scores obtained in 2014 might lead to misleading interpretations, especially if the concerned countries inherited higher DSI scores prior to the leftist upsurge. Nevertheless, it is striking to observe that the “radical leftist” Argentina’s absolute DSI score in 2014 is on a similar footing with Brazil’s and outpaces Chile’s score. To better assess performance through time, we focus on percentage change in the DSI since the leftist electoral victory in each country. As expected, Mexico and Colombia – known as the staunchest adopters of the neoliberal agenda to the most extreme consequences – are the second and third worst performers, respectively. Regarding Hypothesis A, we infer that a number of leftist governments in Latin America have actually undergone radical leaps with substantial democratic-socialist achievements. For example, Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay have recorded a DSI increase of over 42%, 32% and 26%, respectively, since the electoral victory of their leftist governments. Percentage change scores also invalidate the liberal-democratic thesis (Hypothesis B2) that the so-called moderate left necessarily performs better than its “radical” counterpart. The best two performers are Argentina and Ecuador, which are associated with the so-called radical left. A closer look at the same percentage scores reveal that the radical-moderate left dichotomy does not offer an accurate picture of the Latin American left (Hypothesis B1). This picture is particularly striking when it comes to Argentina and Ecuador’s significantly increased DSI scores as compared to Bolivia and Nicaragua’s moderate performance. The same goes for Uruguay’s outstanding performance in comparison with Chile and Brazil’s moderate performance. Strikingly, Brazil is outpaced by the “radical leftist” Bolivia.

Finally, Venezuela is the worst performer in our sample. Its underperformance in the DSI score can be greatly attributed to its failure in corruption control, promoting accountability and reducing extractivist exports. This underperformance, however, might have to do less with the continuation of “neoliberal” policies than with pro-US interventions and the historical legacy of oil dependency. We observe that significant events such as 2002’s coup d’état attempt and fluctuations in global oil prices since 2008 have visibly affected Venezuela’s DSI scores. Yet, Venezuela stands as the third best performer in our sample regarding income equality, and top performer among the so-called radical leftist countries in 2014. It was also the largest social spender among “radical” leftist countries and the third top in our entire sample in 2014. Although social spending is also known to be used by governments to co-opt sectors of the population, low spending is seen as poor leftist performance by Traditional-Marxist observers, as shown in Jeffrey R. Webber’s work on Bolivia.

Conclusion

Our preliminary findings suggest that both the Traditional-Marxist and liberal-democratic positions fail to provide an accurate picture of Latin America’s left. Most of the countries in the so-called radical-left camp have had policy outcomes in a visibly democratic-socialist direction, notwithstanding that extractivism represents a substantiated concern. Meanwhile, the uneven distribution of DSI performance within the moderate and radical camps casts serious doubt on the homogeneity of these country groupings. The most important lesson from our findings is that, far from being futile, “dangerous” or merely “moderate”, most left-leaning governments have made significant inroads into ameliorating inequalities and advancing a democratic-socialist agenda.

Efe Can Gürcan

Efe Can Gürcan (M.A. in International Studies, University of Montréal) is a PhD student in sociology at Simon Fraser University, and holds a SSHRC-Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship. His research interests lie in the areas of Marxism, political sociology (social movements and the state), Latin America (Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina), food studies, and Turkish politics and society.

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