Foreign Affairs, July/Aug. 2006
To the Editor:
Foreign Affairs has recently published three essays that sought to explain Latin America's leftward shift. Let me offer another explanation: over the last 25 years, Latin America has experienced a disastrous economic failure. From 1960 to 1980, the region's real per capita income grew by 82 percent; from 1980 to 2000, it grew by only 9 percent; and in the last five years, it grew by just 4 percent.
It is thus not surprising that winning presidential candidates in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela have all campaigned against the neoliberal reforms of the past quarter century. Since these reforms were backed by Washington, sometimes with considerable pressure, it should not be surprising that anti-Americanism has accompanied the voters' rebellion.
To support their Cold War perspective, the writers present a particularly distorted picture of Venezuela. Michael Shifter ("In Search of Hugo Chávez," May/June 2006) writes of "credible anecdotal evidence of the existence of lists of individuals' votes that have been used to deny Chávez's opponents jobs and services." There are no such lists. Voting is by secret ballot, and there is no evidence that this secrecy has been violated -- international election observers have said as much. Peter Hakim's claim that "Venezuela today barely qualifies as a democracy" ("Is Washington Losing Latin America?" January/February 2006) would also surprise nonpartisan observers: by the criteria he is using -- whatever they may be -- few if any countries in the region could be called democracies.
Jorge Castañeda ("Latin America's Left Turn," May/June 2006) goes to further extremes to misrepresent Venezuela's economic performance under Chávez. Castañeda lops off the last two years (when the country's GDP grew by a total of 28 percent) and includes two years before Chávez took office in presenting data on Venezuela's economic growth. He also distorts the poverty numbers (as does Shifter), concluding that "Chávez does very little for the poor of his own country" -- an absurd claim that even many of Chávez's harshest opponents have abandoned.
Castañeda distinguishes between what he calls a "right left" and a "wrong left." But it is the "wrong left" that is delivering on its promises: Argentina's rapid growth under President Néstor Kirchner (three years of increases of more than 9 percent of GDP) has pulled six million people above the poverty line. And Kirchner has pursued unorthodox economic policies (for example, on exchange rates and monetary policy) and confronted powerful interests, including foreign creditors and the International Monetary Fund. Chávez has infuriated Washington and Venezuela's upper classes but has reversed the country's long-term economic decline and brought free health care and subsidized food to its poor. By contrast, Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom Castañeda places on the "right left," gets rave reviews from international media and the international elite for sticking to the policies of his predecessor (including maintaining extremely high interest rates and an overvalued currency), but the results have been sluggish growth and little improvement for Brazil's poor.
Maybe we should all show a little more respect for democracy in Latin America and start asking what has caused the unprecedented 25-year economic failure that is prompting voters there to look for new ways to make capitalism work.