In its most extreme form, Latin American politics conjures the image of Hugo Chavez on horse back, wielding a tiny copy copy of the Communist Manifesto to spread the joy of central planning and chic red berets. But, it is time to rethink this mental caricature. The region’s political climate should arouse not one, but several overly simplified stereotypes.
There are three types of leftist presidents throughout Latin America: the firebrand hardliners, the practical populists and the wannabe one-timers. Chavez and Raul Castro compose the far-left hardliners. They accept state planning as the preferred means of running an economy, and they actively oppose the private sector and its champions in the US. These leaders are willing to subvert the democratic process and personal freedoms, in the pursuit of collective equality.
The practical leftists are closely aligned with the hardliners, but act distinctly. This group includes Evo Morales of Bolivia, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. While often prone to diplomatic demagoguery and hostile to foreign interests, these presidents have maintained responsible fiscal and monetary policies, favorable to sustainable growth and macroeconomic stability. Meanwhile they have focused on empowering the state in the alleviation of poverty.
At the edge of the leftist spectrum stand the wannabe one-timers. These leaders are either reformed leftists or left-leaning moderates trying to act more like firebrands. Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and Ollanta Humala of Peru fall into this category. Fernandez has progressively asserted the role of the state over the private sector through nationalizing private enterprise and the provision of social services. Conversely Humala, who once campaigned as a leftist similar to Chavez, has negotiated more mining contracts with foreign companies in his first year, than his predecessor did throughout his entire term. Often these wannabe one-timers can be more radical than the true leftists or even conservatives, as they are always trying to prove their credentials.
Life-long leftists with a preference for the free market and progressive conservatives, form a middle ground throughout Latin America. On the center-left we find Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and José Mujica of Uruguay. As communist guerrillas, both of these leaders once battled military regimes during the 60s and 70s. However, as statesmen they have favored the middle road – strengthening the private sector while confronting poverty with responsible state spending.
To the right of the middle path is a collection of conservatives open to progressive alternatives. Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia both served as the defense ministers of previous administrations and Perez Molina fought as an officer in the special forces during Guatemala’s brutal 30-year civil war. While both leaders campaigned as hardline conservatives, willing to fight crime with an iron fist in cooperation with US forces, they have come to endorse a more progressive approach. This March, Pérez Molina spearheaded a debate on the legalization of narcotics. Meanwhile, Santos has been instrumental in bridging the gap between the left and right, thawing relations with Chavez, while maintaining Colombia’s close partnership with the US.
The leaders of most Latin American countries fall into the middle or the left, largely a product of the region’s growing independence from US interests and a backlash against a series of free market reforms enacted during the 1990s.
On the right, we find two types of leaders: the embattled hardliner and the post-coup president. Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Felipe Calderón of Mexico represent this first category. Piñera emerged as Chile’s first conservative president following the overthrow of Pinochet. Though his policies have been fiscally conservative and have continued to rely on copper as the country’s main export, he has faced extreme pressure from left-leaning student protests. In response, he has raised educational spending by nearly one billion dollars. Meanwhile Calderón has stuck to his guns – literally. Despite slow progress and horrendous violence, Calderón has continued to wage Mexico’s drug war as a military campaign.
In less glorious fashion, there sit two post-coup presidents. Federico Franco of Paraguay and Porfirio Lobo of Honduras preside over countries emerging from less than democratic power transitions. Franco once served as the Vice-President for the left-leaning Fernando Lugo. However, on June 21, he and congress deposed the president in a hasty 24-hour impeachment. Now he controls the executive until Lugo’s aborted term ends in 2013. If Franco wins Paraguay’s next elections he will be in the same situation as Lobo. Lobo’s presidency follows the military ouster of Manuel Zelaya, another leftist. So far Lobo has distanced himself from the progressive drug war alternative espoused by his Guatemalan neighbor, instead favoring good old-fashioned DEA led crackdowns.
Not all of Latin America’s leaders fit into these categories and regular elections continuously change the region’s political climate. However, hopefully these labels have diversified the singular stereotype into a few more colorful caricatures.