How the Left won in Latin America

By: Aries A. Arugay is associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. For his PhD dissertation, he conducted fieldwork research on social protests and political change in Bolivia and Venezuela.


The commentary “Why not a presidential candidate from the Left?” by Eduardo C. Tadem (Opinion, 8/7/15) elicited responses ranging from outright cynicism to guarded inspiration. But it was widely shared in the social media, suggesting interest in a discussion of this possibility. Are there examples out there that could convince skeptics on this idea “whose time has come”? We only need to look at the other end of the Pacific Ocean and see how Left leaders from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela won power and captured the political imagination of nearly an entire continent.

Latin America shares many characteristics with the Philippines. Apart from once being part of the Iberian Empire, our shared experiences with brutal dictatorships, praetorian militaries, glaring socioeconomic inequalities, politically influential churches, neoliberal economic crises and undue interventions from the United States inexorably bind us to this region. But while formal democratic rule was restored in the 1980s in both places, the political trajectories and fortunes of Latin America and the Philippines unfortunately diverged in the last decade.

Latin America’s Left captured state power through democratic elections. How did it achieve these victories when it did not have the money, machinery, pedigree and state resources that many in the Philippine political class enjoy?

First, it campaigned on a platform of transformative change. This entailed reshaping the political system, its institutions, and constitutional framework that had long served the interests of the oligarchs to the detriment of the poor and marginalized majority.

Evo Morales, for one, sought to adopt a new constitution that better ensures the rights of the majority indigenous population in Bolivia. But he knew that he could not rely on the political elites for this important task. A directly-elected constituent assembly rewrote the charter. The 2009 Bolivian constitution has progressive provisions that increased state control over the country’s rich natural resources, guaranteed respect for indigenous rights and customs, and introduced new direct forms of political participation. Through such ventures, Latin America’s Left implemented a more social, participatory, progressive and popular version of democracy.

Second, the Left knew that, in order to be a credible force for social change, it had to distinguish itself from the traditional parties and the elite classes. Spurning a coalition with any of the established parties in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez relied on a small movement composed of his fellow retired military officers as his campaign machinery. Morales benefited mainly from the newly-awakened indigenous social movements in Bolivia. Both leaders also did not seek to coalesce with traditional leftist factions to form a united front. Avoiding personalistic electoral campaigns, they focused instead on fighting an entrenched and elitist political system that had long neglected the people’s needs. There was to be no compromise with oligarchs and political dynasties. Victory, however, did not come overnight; it took Brazil’s Lula da Silva three attempts before he won the presidency.

With no support from traditional parties and their extensive electoral networks, the Left turned to civil society and social movements. Despite not being normally engaged in partisan politics, these groups became the alternative vehicle for political organization and mobilization. Morales’ Movement for Socialism is an alliance of indigenous movements, peasants, informal economy workers, grassroots organizations and trade unions. Morales tapped into an existing political project that took decades in the making. He became the lighting rod to these previously disparate groups.

The democracies led by Latin America’s Left embarked on a rapid transformation that displaced the oligarchs from power, reduced poverty by redistributing wealth, empowered the poor, and crafted foreign policies that challenged US dominance. Da Silva’s programs featured a combination of redistributive economic transfers to the poor while opening the economy to foreign investments. Chávez spearheaded efforts to form new regional organizations aimed at challenging the influence of global superpowers and multilateral financial institutions.

The region’s left turn has been termed the “pink tide”—a reconciliation between its leftist ideology and a preference for electoral processes and market-friendly economic policies.

The Left-led governments have been criticized for using populist policies to garner electoral support from the poor and further polarizing society. But the redistributive projects, like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Missions, are far from being mere doles. Furthermore, these policies provided opportunities for social and political empowerment and relayed the message that the government has not forgotten the people’s needs.

In short, the Left expanded the possibilities for individual and collective empowerment. Bolivian trade union workers told me they recovered their self-dignity under the Morales government. Those living in urban poor communities in Caracas said Chávez made them proud to be Venezuelans again.

The question is whether these new ideas are currently espoused by those who claim to belong to the Philippine Left. Are they advocates of political transformation? Do they seek to dismantle the structures that protect the wealth of oligarchs? Do they have links with grassroots civil society? Do they have a principled commitment to democracy? Answers to these important questions will determine whether a leftist candidate can offer a genuine and meaningful alternative to the deplorable state of Philippine politics.

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