Political Upheaval

Right Versus Left?

It is somewhat simplistic to characterize the changes taking place in Latin America as purely right versus left, but it is undeniable that there is a general shift toward the left. However, in Latin America the political spectrum is relatively wide and what are considered left governments vary greatly from country to country. Their common thread is that they all support state involvement in pursuing economic and social policies focused on improving the lives of the poor.

For example, Bolivia’s Morales has pledged to regain national control of partially privatized state enterprises, like the energy industry. Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, campaigned on a platform of continuing her predecessor’s free market policies, but promising to increase social benefits in order to reduce the country’s gap between rich and poor. During her inaugural speech on March 12, Bachelet vowed to “reach the year 2010 with an extensive social welfare system.”

Both Venezuela’s Chávez and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez are self-proclaimed socialists, but Chávez is a far more aggressive opponent of U.S. trade and investment policies, once calling the proposed FTAA “the cauldron of hell itself.” He has also plowed massive amounts of government money into health and education programs, part of what he calls “socialism for the 21st century.” On the other hand, Vásquez has thus far kept fairly intact the Washington-friendly economic policies he inherited, and recently signed a bilateral investment deal with the Bush administration. Unlike oil-rich Venezuela, Uruguay is constrained by a massive debt burden, equivalent to roughly 90 percent of its gross domestic product. Likewise, Bolivia is the second poorest country in South America, and part of the World Bank’s highly indebted poor countries (HIPC) initiative to reduce external debt. Morales will likely face similar restraints in his choices for revenue allocation-whether to increase teachers’ salaries or make debt payments is not an uncommon choice for Latin American presidents.

The Wave of the Future

Nearly a dozen national elections are slated to take place this year in Latin America, and candidates of the left are leading contenders in many of them. Two elections in particular have important implications for the United States: Mexico and Brazil. Together, they are home to 60 percent of Latin America’s population and represent more than two-thirds of economic power in the region.

Mexico shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States and is the country’s largest trading partner in Latin America. This year’s presidential election, scheduled for July, is only the second since 2000, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was voted out after 71 years of undefeated rule. The candidate of the left, Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been the front-runner since the start of the official campaign season in January of this year and continues to lead in the polls.

According to David Brooks, U.S. bureau chief of the Mexican daily La Jornada, the election is particularly key for the United States since so many pressing issues on the U.S. domestic agenda, such as “agricultural trade, narco-trafficking, and energy policy, are really international issues, and have to do with Washington’s relationship with its southern neighbors, like Mexico.”

López Obrador has pledged to block attempts to open the oil and gas industry-which is state-owned-to private investment. This is a controversial issue for President Bush, whose pledge to shift the U.S. oil reliance away from the Middle East depends on Latin American exporters like Mexico remaining loyal to their number one client. Ensuring that American oil companies have access to Mexico’s huge reserves would make that job much easier.

It is also the first time in Mexican electoral history that citizens living outside the country will be able to vote from abroad. This adds a potential four million outside voters just this year, 85 percent of whom are living in the United States and have tremendous influence back home. Last year, Mexicans sent over $20 billion to their friends and families in Mexico.

“Depending on how you measure it, remittances are the second or third revenue stream for Mexico, after oil exports and tourism,” says Brooks. “Mexicans in the United States care about what happens at home.” This point has not been lost on Mexican political hopefuls, who have routinely campaigned in Chicago and other U.S. cities even before the large communities of Mexican immigrants there were allowed to vote.

When current Mexican President Vicente Fox came into office in 2001, he managed to get Bush to promise to overhaul the current immigration legislation, and to strike a deal with Mexico on special work programs and possible amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The Bush administration has failed to do either, which will likely have a high political cost for Fox’s party, the National Action Party (PAN), to the benefit of López Obrador.

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