R. Viswanathan

The Left that has come to power is essentially a broad spectrum blend of socialists, social democrat workers, and liberal parties.

THE LEFTIST President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez was re-elected on December 3. Three other leftist candidates were elected as Presidents in Latin America in the last two months: Rafael Correa in Ecuador on November 26, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua on November 5, and President Lula of Brazil was re-elected on October 29.

These four victories of the Left in the last three months have disproved those who predicted reversal of the "Pink Tide," after the defeat of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico in July 2006 and Ollanta Humala in Peru in June 2006.

The other Leftists who were elected as Presidents in the recent past are: Michelle Bachelet in Chile in January 2006, Evo Morales in Bolivia in December 2005, and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay in October 2004. Argentina has been under the Leftist government of President Nestor Kirchner since 2003. President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana, who was re-elected in August 2006, should also be counted in the leftist camp. In fact, even Peru's Alan Garcia should be considered part of the Left.

Of the 12 countries in South America, nine are ruled by Leftists. Only Colombia, Suriname, and Paraguay have non-Left governments. The tally of the Left in Latin America is 14 with the addition of Nicaragua and Cuba as well as Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica, which have left-of-centre Presidents.

This trend should be seen as a victory for the masses more than as an ideological shift. The millions of poor who were marginalised and excluded in the past have now started exercising their right electing those who have the agenda for their concerns and needs. It should be noted that 40 per cent of the total population of 570 million of the region are below the poverty line. The empowerment of these masses is a clear sign of the maturing of the region's new democracies that had suffered under military dictatorships in the past. Power has now shifted decisively and irreversibly to the masses who drive the political and economic agenda of the region.

The label of Left alone is not an insurance to reach or stay in power. There should be delivery on promises. If not, the masses will seek other options. For example, the same masses who elected the leftist Lucio Gutierrez as President of Ecuador in January 2003, rose against him and forced him out of power in April 2005, when he was perceived as abusing power. Mr. Ortega lost three successive elections in 1990, 1996, and 2001 after having been in power from 1985 to 1990.

There is no overarching homogeneous ideology or rigid dogma binding the Latin American Left. Except in Cuba, the Communist Party is marginal in other countries. The Left that has come to power is essentially a broad spectrum blend of socialists, social democrat workers, and liberal parties. Most of their leaders are nationalistic and pragmatic while a few are perceived as radicals. The latter group is lead by President Chavez whose approach is well-known. Mr. Morales, Mr. Ortega, and Mr. Correa are also portrayed as belonging to the radical camp. But in reality, they are constrained to be moderate and realistic, since they do not have sufficient Congressional majority and have to work with other parties. In Bolivia, the regional governments and Opposition parties put up strong opposition to the reforms of President Morales. In Nicaragua, Mr. Ortega has expressed his changed and new approach of moderation and willingness to work with the centre-right parties. Immediately after his election, he held a meeting with domestic and foreign businessmen and assured them of conditions favourable to investment.

Role models

President Bachelet and President Lula are hailed as the role models for the region with their pragmatic and balanced approach of market-friendly macroeconomic policies and mass-friendly "inclusive development."

The leftist governments of Latin America have a conducive economic environment to pursue their development agenda.

The macroeconomic fundamentals of the region are strong and healthy with low inflation (average around six per cent), stable currencies, reduced and manageable external debt, and booming exports. The last four years have seen consecutive growth of more than four per cent, a record in recent history.

With these leftist leaders, Latin America can be expected to take assertive and independent positions on foreign policy issues. They will focus on regional integration and diversification of political and economic relations. While seeking new partners they look at countries like India more seriously. This opens up opportunities for India to make new friends and increase business. In 2005, India's exports were $3.2 billion and cumulative investment in the region $3 billion. These can be easily doubled in the next three years.

(The writer is a Joint Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry. The views expressed are strictly personal and do not reflect those of the Government.)