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Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings edited by Kurt Weyland, Raúl L. Madrid and Wendy Hunter

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Latin American Left experienced an extraordinary revival, especially in South America. By 2009, eight South American countries and two Central American nations had elected left-wing governments. Is this revival a harbinger of a progressive renaissance or a throwback to failed experiments?

Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings attempts to answer this question by analyzing the extent to which these governments have improved the livelihoods of their citizens. The seven essays that make up the volume, written by distinguished U.S. and Brazil-based scholars, provide a sharp, scholarly comparison of the outcomes achieved by governments of the moderate left and what coeditor Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas at Austin calls the “contestatory” or more radical left, in an introduction that lays out the theoretical framework. This book,  which was also edited by Raúl L. Madrid and Wendy Hunter of the University of Texas, fills a critical gap in the burgeoning literature on the subject.

In his introduction, Weyland notes that both forms of leftist government accept capitalism and democracy as the best available models for development and, therefore, both are reformist rather than revolutionary. But they differ sharply in their approach to the degree of state involvement in the economy, their approach to social welfare, and their level of preference for liberal or participatory/majoritarian forms of democracy.

As he points out, moderate leftist governments such as Chile and Brazil consider market-oriented economic growth and macroeconomic stability not only the most efficient vehicles for development, but the foundation for achieving social equity. These governments zealously preserve the checks and balances on majority rule of liberal democracy, along with its emphasis on procedural rules, while cautiously negotiating incremental changes in the market economy and liberal welfare regimes with opposition groups. Radical leftist governments such as Venezuela and Bolivia, on the other hand, seek more rapid transformation. They experiment with policy instruments such as nationalization of private property, state-led industrial policy and agrarian reform. They also tend to push social welfare expenditures to limits that may test fiscal prudence. These countries lack patience with liberal democracy, gravitating instead toward “direct” democracy through plebiscites, referenda and constitutional assemblies to reinforce majority over minority interests.

The essays spell out the challenges both types of leftist governments have faced in reaching their desired goals. The three coauthors of the Chile chapter—Evelyne Huber and John D. Stephens of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jennifer Pribble of the University of Richmond—argue that further progress toward a more social democratic regime (presumably an ideal of Chilean leftists) depends on raising taxes—a virtually insurmountable hurdle. In one of two chapters on Brazil, Peter R. Kingstone of the University of Connecticut and Aldo F. Ponce of the University of Houston highlight how Brazil’s moderate left has abandoned participatory politics, opting instead to embrace Brazil’s traditional clientelist politics.

Meanwhile, in the chapter on Venezuela, Javier Corrales of Amherst College concludes that President Hugo Chávez has not moved his country toward the dream of a diversified economy with stable growth. He also details how Chávez has dismantled Venezuela’s liberal democratic regime, but stops short of classifying it as a dictatorship. The distinction is significant for the potential of the electoral opposition to defeat Chávez in the 2012 presidential election. Meanwhile, Bolivia has launched a drive for economic diversification and political and social inclusion. But, as George Gray Molina of Princeton University argues, an effective, alternative progressive policy agenda will “require dialogue, compromise, and a long-term view of democratic politics.”

Which left-wing approach has been more successful? The book concludes that moderate left governments systematically outperform radical left governments, especially in terms of economic and social welfare improvements. Market-based policies deliver higher sustained growth, lower inflation, greater private investment, stronger fiscal management, and better poverty and indigence reduction indicators. These policies in turn lead to increased international confidence. While political participation may be higher in contestatory leftist governments, adherence to the procedural rules and checks and balances of liberal democracy provide greater overall stability. This is more favorable for long-term development. Slow, steady and negotiated, say the editors, does better than more rapid and conflictive change: “As in the ancient fable, the tortoise once again ends up beating the hare.”

One weakness of the book may be that key, underemphasized characteristics of the countries being compared may have prejudged the conclusion. Chile and Brazil were already on a path to institutional consolidation and had stronger economies than either Venezuela or Bolivia when left-leaning governments took power. So moderate, incremental economic and social change could be expected in Chile and Brazil, given their institutionalized settings and more advanced economies. At the same time, more radical change could be expected where institutions are in flux. There is also little reason to expect strong policy performance in polarized political settings, or in countries like Bolivia with historically poor economic and social development tracks. Finally, compromise or capitulation may not end polarization or improve policy performance in conflicted societies, as is probably the case in the Andean countries.

Moreover, some of the assumptions that frame this volume are open to question. For instance, it strongly implies that leftist leaders have the freedom to choose moderate or contestatory policies. But this is not necessarily the case, especially in light of the conditions that brought them to power. Moderate left governments rose in highly institutionalized, stable democracies following successful “disciplining” by conservative military governments. In these situations, there was every incentive to be moderate, not the least because voters would not have elected radical left presidential candidates. Conversely, contestatory leftist regimes rose from the utter hollowing-out of political institutions in an already polarized polity. Under these circumstances, an electoral base that demanded more far-reaching change probably would have mobilized against a left government that reneged on its electoral mandate. This occurred in Ecuador under Lucio Gutiérrez and against Evo Morales during the gasolinazo in 2010—a popular revolt against increased fuel prices.

Leftist Governments in Latin America is a tremendous improvement over crude, politicized and normatively charged arguments that distinguished between “bad” old-time populism versus “good” contemporary, market-oriented social democracy. Although the editors’ conclusion that a “liberal” leftism generates better outcomes is sure to stir debate, their scholarly approach and careful arguments make the volume a solid contribution to that discussion.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.

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