By Henry Srebrnik
Many people remember the blustery late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, long a thorn in the side of the United States. A populist par excellence, Chavez, who died in March, referred to his ideology as Bolivarianismo (“Bolivarianism”), based on the ideals of the 19th century soldier who led the fight for South American independence from Spain, Simon Bolivar.
He was an exponent of anti-imperialism, national sovereignty, and grassroots political participation. His hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, who was his vice-president and minister of foreign affairs, is carrying on his legacy.
The National Assembly has granted Maduro decree powers that will allow him to create laws on his own without legislative approval. The president insists that he needs the powers to address the country’s grave economic difficulties, for which he blames an “economic war” being waged by the political opposition.
But Venezuela is not the only country in South America which has tilted to the left in recent years. In Bolivia, the left-wing Movement for Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) is now in power. Its leader, President Juan Evo Morales, was first elected in 2005 and re-elected four year later. This followed years of discontent with International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity measures instituted by his predecessors.
A member of the Aymara people, Morales has focused on issues affecting indigenous and poor communities. He has instituted land reform, redistribution of wealth from natural gas and petroleum extraction, and nationalization of key industries.
Peru has now elected two presidents of aboriginal Quechua descent, Alejandro Toledo and Ollanta Humala. This has been a breakthrough, in a country ruled for most of its history by a privileged ethnic Spanish oligarchy that owned most of the land and resources, and was protected by the country’s military. Native peoples were politically marginalized within a highly stratified society with a racial hierarchy.
After winning in 2001, Toledo brought together experts and indigenous leaders to discuss the needs of indigenous people throughout the country. His symbolic inauguration ceremony at the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu was attended by all the presidents of the neighboring Andean states, who joined him in signing the “Declaration of Machu Picchu,” promising to protect indigenous rights.
Humala, the current leader, in office since 2011, also came in as a left-wing reformer. He has created or bolstered some social programs, and poverty in Peru has been cut by more than half in recent years, falling from 59 per cent of the population in 2004 to 26 per cent last year, according to government figures. Political polarization has decreased.
Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president since 2007, is a popular leader who in 2008 declared the national debt “illegitimate,” having been contracted by corrupt and despotic prior regimes. His administration has reduced the high levels of poverty, indigence, and unemployment in Ecuador.
In Paraguay, Fernando Lugo won the presidency in 2008 but was removed four years later. A Roman Catholic priest, Lugo was ordained a bishop in 1994. He gained prominence by backing peasant claims for better land distribution. Resigning his Church position, he became the candidate of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, a coalition of parties on the left, and pledged to give land to the landless and fight corruption.
However, Lugo faced impeachment proceedings following a June 2012 incident in which police clashed with landless peasants, resulting in 17 deaths, and he was removed from office by a Paraguayan Congress controlled by his political enemies.
Lugo maintained that his presidency was targeted because he tried to help the country’s poor majority. Paraguay's powerful elite, long accustomed to getting their way during 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, had fought Lugo’s attempts to raise taxes on the country's major export, soybeans, and redistribute farmland to the poor majority.
The current president, Horacio Cartes, elected earlier this year, joined the Colorado Party in 2009 and said he wanted to counter the swing to the left in Latin American politics.
He’ll certainly face an uphill battle. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist who had ruled the country between 2006 and 2010, decisively beat rival candidate Evelyn Matthei to retake the office on Dec. 15.
After General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, Bachelet was arrested and tortured, before being allowed to leave the country in 1975. She finally returned to Chile in 1979 after four years in exile.
Now again president, she plans to push forward major social reforms and has vowed to raise corporate taxes to fund an education overhaul, expanding access to higher education, and to reduce the wealth gap.
- Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.