The last fifteen years or so has seen a major shift in Latin America’s political orientation. In a large number of countries, left parties have come to power. Their programs have emphasized redistribution of resources to aid the poorer segments of the population. They have also sought to create and strengthen those regional structures that included all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean but excluded the United States and Canada.
Initially, these parties succeeded in bringing together multiple groups and movements that sought a change from the traditional parties that were oriented to right politics and close ties with the United States. They sought to prove, in the slogan of the World Social Forum, that “another world is possible.”
The initial collective enthusiasms began to fade on multiple fronts. Middle-class elements became increasingly disturbed not only by the rampant corruption in the left governments but by the increasingly harsh ways which these governments used to treat opposition forces. This shift rightward of some initial supporters of a leftward “change” was normal in the sense that it usually happens everywhere.
There was however a much more important problem facing these countries. There are, and have always been, essentially two Latin American lefts, not one. One is composed of those persons and movements that wish to overcome the lower standards of living in the countries of the South by using state power to “modernize” the economy and thereby “catch up” with the countries of the North.
The second, quite different, is composed of those underclasses who fear that such “modernization” will make things not better but worse for them, increasing the internal gaps between the better-off and the poorest strata of the country.
In Latin America, this latter group includes the indigenista populations, that is, those whose presence dates from before the time that various European powers sent their troops and settlers into the Western Hemisphere. It also includes the afrodescendentes, that is, those who were brought in from Africa by the Europeans as slaves.
These groups began to speak of promoting a civilizational change based on buen vivir – a translation from Incan languages meaning “living well.” They argued for a maintenance of traditional modes of living under the control of local populations.
The two visions – that of the modernizing left and that of the proponents of buen vivir – soon began to clash, and clash seriously. Whereas, in the first elections that the left won, the left forces had the support of the movements of the underclasses, that was no longer as true in the subsequent elections. Quite to the contrary ! As time went on, the two groups spoke more and more angrily and uncompromisingly about each other.
The net result of this split is that both groups – the left parties and the underclasses – moved rightward. The representatives of the underclasses found themselves allied de facto with rightist forces. Their main demand began to be the overthrow of the left parties, and particularly its leader. This was something that would clearly result in rightist governments coming to power, parties that were no more interested in buen vivir than the left parties.
Meanwhile the left parties promoted developmentalist policies that ignored to a significant degree the negative ecological effects of their programs. In practice, their agricultural programs began to eliminate the small agricultural producers who had been the basis of internal consumption in favor of mega-corporate structures. Their programs began to resemble in many ways the programs of previous right governments.
In short, the progress of the Latin American left, so remarkable in recent years, is being undone by the bitter struggle between the two Latin American lefts. Those persons and groups that have tried to encourage a meaningful dialogue between the two lefts have been seen as very unwelcome by both sides. It is as though the two sides are saying that you are with us or against us, that there is no median path. It is very late, but it may not be too late for both sides to engage in intelligent reassessment of the situation and to rescue the Latin American left from self-destruction.