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Ideas

The Latin American Left Is Back, But More Fractured Than Ever

The Left is constantly being hailed as the resurgent power in Latin America. But there is no unified Left in the region. The "movement" is diverse — and its divisions are growing.

Photo of a woman walking by a wall with street art of Venezuelan presidents Maduro and Chavez in Caracas

Street art of Venezuelan presidents Maduro and Chavez in Caracas

Farid Kahhat

-Analysis-

LIMA — Lula da Silva's reelection to the presidency in Brazil is the 25th consecutive democratic election in Latin America in which the ruling party has lost power. There appears to be general discontent with ruling parties, caused partly by external factors: the world's worst pandemic in a century, the worst recession since the 1990s, and sharpest inflation rate in 40 years.


Leftist forces in opposition generally benefit electorally when there is discontent with the ruling party, but suffer that same discontent when in government. So, left-leaning governments lost the presidential elections in El Salvador and Uruguay in 2019, and in Costa Rica in 2022. They lost legislative elections held in Argentina in 2021, a constitutional plebiscite in Chile, and regional elections in Peru in 2022.

The Venezuela question

It is not just a matter of the Left coming to power today in conditions quite different to, and worse than, the 2003-13 period (when the region saw a boom in its exports and commodity prices). And more to the point, there is no single "Left" in Latin America.

The movement has become more varied both in basic forms and its nuances since the last wave of socialist victories that hit the continent in the early 2000s. Just one proof of this is in the stark differences between the Left that ran Uruguay (between 2005 and 2020) and the socialist regime in Venezuela.

The NGO Transparency International's 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Venezuela as one of the world's most corrupt countries (168th out of 180). Similar listings by other agencies on justice, open government or press and economic freedoms yield similar results. Uruguay is always at or near the top in the region, and Venezuela at or near the bottom.

Photo of a man hanging up a portrait of President Boric in Santiago, Chile

Hanging up a portrait of President Gabriel Boric in Santiago, Chile

Matias Basualdo/ZUMA

Boric far from Correa

So while both governments were broadly speaking socialist, explanations are needed for the vast gap in their political and economic performances. One might cite the history and evolution of their institutions as more important than the viewpoints of sitting governments.

Venezuela had a mediocre evolution in this sense under various governments, though none have ever performed as badly as its socialist governments have since 2013. US sanctions in turn only began in 2018, which would not explain the country's degradation in recent years.

There is no unified left in this region

If leftist movements were always varied in Latin America, their differences have grown in recent years. Today, for example, they are more divided than 20 years ago by their relationship with feminism. While Chile's Gabriel Boric defines his foreign policy as feminist, Ecuador's former president, Rafael Correa, referred to efforts to give a gender perspective to educational curricula as "gender ideology."

That is a terminology used by the conservative Right and it shares its goal — to discredit these new ideas. Lula also changed his position on abortion rights in the second round of recent elections to reduce the opposition of evangelical voters.

So there is no unified Left in this region. Its differences have grown on a range of issues and have to be discussed separately.

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