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A note on Latin American Elections

December 14, 2009

The past year has seen and upcoming year will see elections taking place in several Latin American countries.  Thus far there have been elections for the presidency in Uruguay, Honduras, Bolivia, and Chile.  The first resulted, surprisingly to some, in the election of the former guerrilla and left leaning Jose Mujica winning the office.  The second case had its legitimacy largely marred because it took place amidst the rule of a coup government and had categorically been rejected by most Latin American countries, although notably not by the US which has recognized the elections.  In any case the rightist candidate Porfirio Lobo Sosa won the election and it can be viewed as a victory for rightist forces in the country and region.  In the third instance Evo Morales won a resounding victory in Bolivia for the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party, both in the presidency and in the legislature.  This paves they wave for a deepening and strengthening of the processes of reform that have been initiated in that country over the past  3 years.  In the fourth instance the verdict is still up in the air with the first round of voting showing no clear winner (50% of the vote is needed to avoid a runoff in the Chilean system), although current polls are showing billionaire rightist candidate Sebastian Pinera as having captured 44% of the vote in the first round.  Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica and Brasil will all hold general election in 2010.  This ‘wave’ of elections is significant in a few regards.  First they are taking place in the atmosphere and context of the world economic crisis.  Secondly, they are the first series of elections to take place following the Bush II years in Washington and thus represent a kind of response to the change in leadership in the North.  Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, after a decade long and nearly uninterrupted  string of victories for center-left and left candidates in Latin America (Uribe in Colombia 2006, Garcia in Peru 2006 are on the political right) many of these leaders and parties find themselves in the role of incumbency this time around.  Voters tends to direct their frustration and grievances with the status quo at the incumbent party, regardless if the ruling party’s policies are at the root of discontent or not.  This tendency comes out more clearly at certain times than at others, but at the very least it is sure to be a major factor in the context of the global economic crisis.  A right-wing reactionary backlash is a very real possibility in a region that has historical been subject to the worst of global economic turbulence and has been hit hard by the recent downturn.  Fidel Castro has weighed in recently with his prediction that the region will have 6-8 rightist regimes allied to the empire by the end of Obama’s term.  While Castro’s ability to forecast trends in the region is not to be scoffed at, it will be easier to access the situation following The recent/upcoming elections should serve as some sort of guide to what the social barometer is reading at various locales in Latin America.  It is always difficult to make region-wide generalizations based on elections in different countries that are taking place under vastly different circumstances and with diverse historical backgrounds.  It has seemed like a safe analysis over the past decade, especially since 2006, to proclaim that Latin America is ‘swinging to the left’.  Indeed, in many respects the region has become the focal point of the anti-systemic movements challenging the hegemony of the dominate neoliberal world capitalism.  But this is a relatively new development, even if it has been building on long-standing socio-historical roots.  The movements have yet to consolidate their projects in many areas (although some are more advanced than others) and they risk being voted out before their developmental and social justice programs can be realized.  Many commentors have seen the possibility of a shift to the right in Latin America coupled with a return to world economic (and regional) growth that would in many ways validate the programs of the right.  See this article from Newsweek. What is lacking in this analysis of the situation is the fact that the peoples of Latin American have suffered under the system of neoliberalism for many years before the current economic crisis.  It was the perceived bankrupcy of that very system that lead to the left and center-left assent to power in the various countries.  The current crisis is widely understood in the region not only to be a product of the Northern countries reckless handling of the world economy, but also as a product of that neoliberalism itself.   This broad understanding reflects a consciousness on the part of Latin Americans about the exploitative nature of capitalism that is noticeably absent in the US on a similar scale.  To expect the voting populations to elect to office a right that is notable only for its lack of alternatives to the failed neoliberal orthodoxy of the past 30 years (even in the advanced capitalist countries the right has recognized the failure of the neoliberal creed and the need to move beyond it) is a naive expectation at best; one the denies the intelligence and committment of the Latin American peoples to move towards a more socially equitable world.  Although the reaction has and will score victories in the elections to come, the trend in the Latin America should continue to ‘swing to left’.  There is the very real possibility that regional antagonisms could result from this polarization process of right and left leadership and the subsequent social and economic variances that flow from them, as it has in the case of Colombia and Venezuela/Ecuador.  But this will be more a reflection of the ruling powers and their interests than the interests of the different peoples, which in many respects one and the same.  Prejudice and growing nationalism fueled by populists on both sides of the political divide will only help to serve to blur this common interest inherent to the peoples of Latin America and hence play into the hands of the right.  The left must be prepared to recognize this real danger and truly assume the mantel of defenders of the people, and hence the peoples of Latin America.  It is through this internationalist perspective that the debate must be shifted successfully in order to counter a rising wave of reaction.  The history and consciousness of the Latin American peoples has prepared them well for this task and way forward lies wholly in the hands of left at this point.  The real debate to come will be which path the people, and hence their leadership, choose to take, the one that leads to reform or the one that leads to revolution.

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