The Miami Herald
Mon, July 25, 2005

Anti-U.S. factions replacing old regimes across Latin America

Long-time ruling parties are losing their power throughout Latin America as small, often anti-U.S. factions take their place.


Their names are instantly recognizable as some of Latin America's long-time ruling political parties. Yet these days, they control no presidential palaces, no legislatures.

Across Latin America, voters are shunning traditional ruling parties that brought too little progress and too much corruption, and backing new factions that analysts fear may only add to the region's instability.

Venezuela's once-ruling COPEI, which held 58 congress seats in 1988, now holds six. Peru's APRA had 107 seats in 1985, and 28 today. And Uruguay, dominated by only two parties for most of the 20th century, is now ruled by a coalition of leftist parties that never held power before.

And as the old parties crumble, new factions -- often with populist, anti-U.S. agendas and so small that they call themselves ''movements'' rather than parties -- are offering to meet voters' demands for more jobs, higher salaries and better education systems.

Traditional parties 'failed to deliver peoples' basic demands,'' said Christopher Sabatini, a Latin American expert with the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. group that seeks to strengthen democracy around the world.

Sergio Calderon, a former secretary general of COPEI, which alternated power in Venezuela with Democratic Action from 1958 to 1998, agreed. ''The majority of leaders run the party for themselves and not for the people,'' Calderon said.


The picture is not all negative for either traditional or new parties. The Peronists still rule in Argentina, and in Mexico the Revolutionary Institutional Party, ousted in 2000 after 71 years in power, fared well in recent state elections. And former guerrilla factions in El Salvador and Colombia have morphed into political parties, adding to the stability there.

But the shift from the old to the new parties has been accompanied by much political instability, including violent street protests against the old order, high turnover of those in power and even breaks with the democratic system.

In Bolivia, street protests forced the resignation of two presidents in the last two years -- Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in April, both members of the dominant party, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, since 1952.

The crisis appears to have given added strength to relative newcomers like the Movement Towards Socialism headed by Evo Morales, a leftist who leads a coca growers' union and finished second in the 2002 presidential elections.

Traditional parties ''had a good long run . . . but now they are not in control of Bolivia's grass-roots movement,'' said John Walsh, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, a liberal think tank.

And in Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez and his Fifth Republic Movement, elected in 1998 on a vow to stop mismanagement and corruption by the COPEI and Democratic Action governments, has been accused of seizing control of the electoral and judicial systems and intimidating the media.

The small new political factions ''are creating an environment where elections are no longer the only legitimate route to power,'' said Howard Wiarda, a Latin American expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a moderate think tank in Washington.

The decline of the traditional parties began during a debt crisis that swept Latin America in the 1980s and 90s, academics say, as voters punished governments that did not handle the crises effectively.


In Venezuela, for example, the right-of-center COPEI and left-of-center Democratic Action alternated power since 1958 under a written agreement, the Pact of Punto Fijo, that offered political stability amid the oil boom of the 1970s but excluded other political factions.

But the country began a steep economic decline at the end of the oil boom in 1979. And when then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez and his Democratic Action party issued a draconian set of belt-tightening measures in 1989, massive street protests known as El Caracazo erupted and left an estimated 3,000 dead.

Chávez, then an army lieutenant colonel, led a failed coup attempt against Pérez in 1992, and since his election in 1998, both COPEI and Democratic Action have lost virtually all power through a combination of poor internal decisions and harsh pressures from the president.

''The Chávez government has created a scheme that does not consider political parties,'' said Pastor Heydra, a former information minister for Democratic Action.

The story is similar in Peru, where APRA, the country's most powerful party since 1924, began to lose support in the late 1980s after then-President Alan García initiated a populist program that devastated the Peruvian economy. Inflation soared to four-digit levels.


Riding the wave of discontent, a little-known political outsider named Alberto Fujimori defeated APRA's Mario Vargas Llosa in the 1990 elections -- and then systematically all but destroyed Peru's democratic institutions over the next decade.

''Fujimori is a consequence of García's government,'' said Guillermo Gonzáles, the former chief of staff for current Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo.

Not all setbacks for long-ruling parties have had such negative consequences.

In Mexico, President Vicente Fox and his relatively young National Action Party broke the hold on power that the PRI had since 1934. In Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his leftist Workers Party, three-time losers in presidential elections, finally won in 2002. Uruguayans, long ruled by the center-left Colorado and center-right Blanco parties, elected the leftist Tabaré Vasquez last year on his third try at the presidency.

And in Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe, a long-time stalwart in the Liberal party that alternated power with the Conservative Party for much of the 20th Century, chose to run in 2002 as an officially independent candidate to appeal across party lines.

Scholars and politicians have differing opinions on the impact of the breakdown of traditional parties and the rise of smaller new factions.

Traditional parties tended to be more ideological, either left or right, and left a big gap in the middle, Sabatini said. ''On the whole, this is better. There is reduced polarization between right and left,'' he added.

But traditional party leaders argue that their organizations can bring decades of experience and a preference for stability to government -- if voters return them to power.


''Political parties need to begin a process of reflection in response to this phenomenon,'' Heydra said. ``We need to develop an alternative message that is different from what we have expressed in the past.''