Latin American politics, from Chile to Venezuela

By Pablo Mieres (for Safe Democracy)

Pablo Mieres considers that the phrase a shift to the left, used to describe the political transformation of a good number of Latin American countries, is of little to no use. The complexity and variety of political situations in Latin America go beyond simple catch phrases; with Chile‘s exemplary experience at one extreme, and Chavez‘ Venezuelan regime on the other, while in between Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia can be situated. In Mieres‘ opinion, at least two criteria must be used in order to evaluate the manner in which Latin American governments exercise power: first, the role of the state and of the market in the economy; and second, the degree to which the state respects democratic institutions, and the rule of law. Following these criteria, the differences between Latin American nations are more than evident.

Pablo Mieres has a PhD in Law and Social Sciences and a Master’s degree in Sociology for Development. He is currently the Director of the Social Science department at the Catholic University of Uruguay, and a professor of graduate and postgraduate studies both there and at the University of the Republic of Montevideo. He served as a Member of Parliament in Uruguay from 2000-2005 and was a candidate in the 2004 Presidential elections for the Independent Party, over which he currently presides. He is a columnist for the newspaper El Observador in Montevideo.

IF YOU PICK UP A NEWSPAPER ON ANY GIVEN DAY, it is hard to ignore the numerous analyses about the shift to the left that many claim is taking place in the politics of a good number of Latin American countries. Yet, the idea of a uniform transformation in Latin American politics is confusing the profound diversity of experiences and situations on our continent. There should be no need to establish an artificial sense of homogeneity in order to analyze the political change.

The starting point of this analysis is that all of the governments currently being discussed are now defining themselves as representatives of the political left and are distancing themselves from neo-liberal proposals on economic issues.

However, the differences between the democratic coalition government of Chile and Chavez’ Venezuelan regime are enormous. And if Chile is on one extreme, and Venezuela is on the other, in between these two poles, countries like Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia would situate themselves.

But this perception is only a simple subjective observation if not backed up by analytic criteria. And it is not until these criteria are introduced into the analysis that it becomes clear that the so-called shift to the left does nothing more than obscure a much more complex and varied reality.

Two criteria can be introduced into the evaluation of these governments: first, is the role of the state and the market in the economy; and second, the degree of conformity to democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Of course, other criteria of equal importance, such as a country’s decisions in foreign policy, the democratic culture of the population, or the type of social policies being implemented, could be considered. But these two initial criteria will be enough to demonstrate that the similarities between the generically named leftist governments go no further than that of a shared denomination.

In Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, the economic policies carried forward are notoriously oriented towards non-interventionism, and allowing market forces to influence the economy, while reserving subsidized places of entry for state action. In Venezuela and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent in Argentina, the situation is quite distinct: the state is heavily interventionist, playing a protagonist role in the economy, breaking the laws of free trade, and altering the proper functioning of open markets.

Assuming that democracy still exists in all of the countries under inspection, strong tendencies can be observed in the manner in which power is exercised, and the respect that is given to institutionalism and democratic values.

Uruguay and Chile have established institutional models to contend with the democracies of Europe (despite certain authoritarian inheritances in the Chilean constitution). In Venezuela and Bolivia, on the other hand, democratic norms are constantly under threat.

In synthesis, we should work to study a group of analytical dimensions, and apply them systematically to these governments. Then, at least, we would avoid the generic categorization of countries, which serves for little, but to simplify an inherently complex and multifaceted reality.

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