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'Latin America looks leftward again'

Chile is likely to elect a socialist leader in January. Bolivia just did. This NYT story talks about why Latin American is shifting leftward again.

An excerpt:

AT first glance, there's nothing cutting edge about this isolated highland town of mud-brick homes and cold mountain streams. The way of life is remarkably unchanged from what it was centuries ago. The Aymara Indian villagers have no hot water or telephones, and each day they slog into the fields to shear wool and grow potatoes.

But Tacamara and dozens of similar communities across the scrub grass of the Bolivian highlands are at the forefront of a new leftward tide now rising in Latin American politics. Tired of poverty and indifferent governments, villagers here are being urged by some of their more radical leaders to forget the promises of capitalism and install instead a community-based socialism in which products would be bartered. Some leaders even talk of forming an independent Indian state.

“What we really need is to transform this country,” said Rufo Yanarico, 45, a community leader. “We have to do away with the capitalist system.”

In the burgeoning cities of China, India and Southeast Asia, that might sound like a hopelessly outdated dream because global capitalism seems to be delivering on its promise to transform those poor societies into richer ones. But here, the appeal of rural socialism is a powerful reminder that much of South America has become disenchanted with the poor track record of similar promises made to Latin America.

So the region has begun turning leftward again.

That trend figures heavily in a presidential election being held today in Bolivia, in which the frontrunner is Evo Morales, a charismatic Aymara Indian and former coca farmer who promises to decriminalize coca production and roll back market reforms if he wins. Though he leads, he is unlikely to gain a clear majority; if he does not, Bolivia's Congress would decide the race.

Still, he is the most fascinating candidate, because he is anything but alone in Latin America. He considers himself a disciple of the region's self-appointed standard-bearer for the left, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a populist who has injected the state into the economy, showered the nation's oil profits on government projects aimed at the poor, and antagonized the Bush administration with constant invective.

“In recent years, social movements and leftist parties in Latin America have reappeared with a force that has no parallel in the recent history in the region,” says a new book on the trend, “The New Left in Latin America,” written by a diverse group of academic social scientists from across the Americas.

Peru also has a new and growing populist movement, led by a cashiered army officer, Ollanta Humala, who is ideologically close to Mr. Chávez. Argentina's president, Néstor Kirchner, who won office in 2003, announced last week that Argentina would sever all ties with the International Monetary Fund, which he blames for much of the country's long economic decline, by swiftly paying back its $9.9 billion debt to the fund.

The leftist movement that has taken hold in Latin America over the last seven years is diverse. Mr. Chávez is its most extreme example. Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, by contrast, is a former labor leader who emphasizes poverty reduction but also practices fiscal austerity and gets along with Wall Street. Uruguay has been pragmatic on economic matters, but has had increasingly warm relations with Venezuela. In Mexico, the leftist who is thought to have a good chance to be the next president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has distanced himself from Mr. Chávez.

What these leaders share is a strong emphasis on social egalitarianism and a determination to rely less on the approach known as the Washington Consensus, which emphasizes privatization, open markets, fiscal discipline and a follow-the-dollar impulse, and is favored by the I.M.F. and United States officials.

“You cannot throw them all in the same bag, but this is understood as a left with much more sensitivity toward the social,” said Augusto Ramírez Ocampo, a former Colombian government minister who last year helped write a United Nations report on the state of Latin American democracy. “The people believe these movements can resolve problems, since Latin American countries have seen that the Washington Consensus has not been able to deal with poverty.”

Mon, December 19 2005 » * Big Picture Stuff, Main Page