Why Outsiders Are In in Latin America
Voters have set aside ideology in their desire for a higher standard of living. But populist campaign promises may be hard to keep.
By T. Christian Miller and Hector Tobar
Times Staff Writers
QUITO, Ecuador -- Across Latin America, people are trading in the old
for the new. In country after country, voters are rejecting political parties
party bosses who have long dominated the economic and social landscape in favor of outsiders.
It's a trend rooted less in ideology than in a desire for change. Voters
do not seem to care whether candidates are of the left or right, but whether
they are likely to
deliver a better standard of living.
As a result, they are turning to anti-establishment leftists such as
Ecuador's newly elected president, Col. Lucio Gutierrez, who has never
before held political office,
or Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who spent a lifetime outside mainstream politics as a committed leftist.
At the same time, they have supported conservatives such as Colombia's
new President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner who ran as an independent, and
President Vicente Fox, who shattered the decades-long dominance of the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party.
"There's a discontent that has manifested itself as a desire for people
outside the system," said Pablo Franky, a political analyst at Javeriana
University in Bogota, the
Colombian capital. "The traditional parties have not been able to solve the problems of poverty, corruption and inequality."
Many of the traditional parties had embraced the so-called Washington
consensus, pursuing open markets and free trade. Few of the new generation
anti-establishment leaders have rejected outright the drive toward globalization. But many of them have expressed the desire to soften its effects on the poor and
Politicians of both types have made extravagant populist promises to
put a chicken in every pot. Gutierrez's opponent pledged to build 200,000
homes that could be
purchased for $48 a month. Gutierrez responded by promising 200,000 homes for $37 apiece.
Neither man explained exactly how he would pay for such a program. Ecuador
faces $2 billion in payments on its $13-billion foreign debt next year,
an amount equal
to nearly half the country's budget.
It is also unclear whether there is a genuine surge in anti-American
feeling, or whether voters are simply rejecting discredited U.S.-backed
elites and the U.S.
prescription for their economies.
None of the outsiders seems particularly ideological. Uribe, perhaps
the most conservative president in the region, won partly on his promises
to crack down on
leftist rebels, but also pledged to vastly increase the number of schools in the country.
South America's most leftist leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,
has been careful to maintain close economic ties with the U.S., his country's
And Lula has promised to honor Brazil's payments to the International Monetary Fund.
"This turn toward the left in Latin America is very peculiar," said
Fausto Maso, a radio talk show host in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital,
and columnist for the El
Nacional daily. The left "doesn't have Russia anymore and ... this limits them. During the campaign they say one thing, but when they get elected they end up talking
to Washington, and later end as failures."
Not all Latin American governments are distancing themselves from Washington.
In Central America, memories of failed ideological experiments in countries
Nicaragua have left the region firmly committed to deeper economic and social integration with the U.S. Leaders are rushing to take advantage of a possible free
trade agreement with the Bush administration. Recent elections in Honduras and Nicaragua saw the return of conservative politicians.
In South America, most countries remain committed to the hemisphere-wide
free trade agreement scheduled to be completed by 2004, though Ecuador
have expressed reservations.
"There is still an enormous push to achieve some kind of more productive
economic relationship with the United States," said Peter Hakim, president
Inter-American Dialogue, a left-center think tank in Washington, D.C.
More than anything, the region's continued poverty explains the rise
of unorthodox, outsider and messianic leaders. A recent U.N. report indicated
that after a
decade of decline, poverty rates have begun increasing in some Latin American countries, especially Argentina.
The region's growing number of poor still face shortages in health care,
education and pensions. Many have seen the success of Asian competitors,
some of which
are taking jobs away from South America, and wonder why they have not benefited from the globalization boom. Continuing problems with corruption also have left
"What we are seeing is the result of the failure of all the models that
have been tried up to now. All of them -- left and right, populist and
neoliberal -- have failed to
deliver the goods," said Anibal Romero, a political analyst in Caracas. "People in Latin America are looking for some kind of hope in the future. They want freedom,
prosperity, a better life. If that can be delivered by the left, very well. If it can be delivered by the right, just as good."
The new leaders are men and women of widely varying ideological stripe, but most of whom share one characteristic: charisma.
In troubled Paraguay, one of the poorest countries in South America,
politics is dominated by the shadow of a leader who shares much in common
Chavez and Ecuador's Gutierrez. Like both those men, Lino Oviedo is a military leader who led a coup against his country's elected government.
Oviedo now lives in exile in Brazil, where he rails against the endemic
corruption in Paraguay, ruled for decades by the dictator Alfredo Stroessner
and then later by
the Colorado Party.
President Luis Gonzalez Macchi declared a state of siege in September
when Oviedo supporters marched in Asuncion, the capital, demanding the
resignation. Recent polls have shown that a third of Paraguayan voters would back an Oviedo presidency, even though he is barred from running.
"People want a strongman, someone who can provide security and jobs
in the middle of this chaos," said Carlos Martini, a sociologist and journalist
at the Catholic
University in Asuncion. "His support points to a longing for the Stroessner era. For me, Oviedo is just the symptom of a failed political model."
In Argentina, one of the front-runners in polls leading up to elections
scheduled for early next year is a figure who just months ago would have
been considered a
long shot at best.
Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, a Peronist governor, was president for a week
last December following the fall of Fernando de la Rua in a wave of protests
budget cuts and the crash of the nation's banking system.
Elected by Congress as an interim president, Rodriguez Saa delivered
an inauguration speech that was a model of Peronist populism. Even though
Argentina was --
and still is -- nearly bankrupt, he promised an ambitious government jobs program.
Rodriguez Saa was driven from office by his fellow Peronists who would
not support his radical prescription for the Argentine economy. Now he's
to break Argentina's dependency on the International Monetary Fund.
"These victories are clearly the consequence of an economic model that
isn't working anymore for the people of Latin America," said Gustavo Valenzuela,
spokesman for Rodriguez Saa, reflecting on the recent elections in Brazil and Ecuador. "People talk about globalization and neoliberalism. Whatever you want to call
it, it isn't working."
Venezuela is perhaps the oldest example of the Latin Americans' experiment with anti-establishment figures -- and the most disastrous.
Chavez triumphed over corrupt political parties when he ran for office
in 1998 and enjoyed the support of more than 90% of the population in a
poll taken at the
beginning of his term.
He moved quickly to realize his ill-defined "Bolivarian" revolution,
an attempt to improve the lives of the country's poor by rejecting free
trade policies. He pushed
through laws to require greater state ownership in oil ventures and to permit the seizure of privately owned land. Four years later, the economy of the world's
fifth-largest oil producer is worse than ever, with unemployment on the rise and the national currency falling.
Politically, the outlook is also grim. Chavez was briefly felled by
a coup in April. His return to power has been marked by increasing bitterness
that has left society
Just last week, Chavez seized control of Caracas' police force, which
had been under the control of a political opponent. The move led to violent
protests and a call
for the country's fourth nationwide strike in 12 months.
Opposition leaders are pushing for early elections, perhaps the clearest sign that Venezuelans care more about results than about ideology.
"The people will inevitably vote against Chavez. They will vote for
the person who has the best chance of beating Chavez, it's that simple,"
said Maso, the radio talk
show host. "It doesn't matter what political tendency the person has."
Miller reported from Quito and Tobar from Buenos Aires. Special correspondents
Christopher Toothaker in Caracas and Paula Gobbi in Rio de Janeiro
contributed to this report.