Why the ‘Right Turn’ Is Not a Reversal: Valdai Experts Discuss the Future of Latin America’s Left

09.10.2017

On October 6, 2017, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion on the future of the Latin American left. Having discussed the reasons for the “right turn”, which is presently taking place in a number of Latin American countries, the participants emphasized that the socio-economic situation in the region contributes to the constant reproduction of the left political culture.

The loss of center-leftists in the presidential elections in Argentina, the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Roussef and the ongoing political confrontation in Venezuela are considered by many observers as the beginning of a “right-wing turn” in Latin America, where left forces had come to power in many countries in the last decade. What are its causes and how strong is this trend? These issues were discussed by participants in the expert discussion, titled “Lyudmila Okuneva,” which was held on October 6 at the Valdai Club Conference hall.

According to Professor Vladimir Davydov, Research Director of the Institute of Latin America of the Russian Academy of Sciences, what is happening in the region cannot be described as a return of the right. Indeed, the left forces have lost their positions in key Latin American countries – Brazil and Argentina, but remain in power in a number of states. In particular, in Uruguay, where, according to the scholar, the left regime is consolidating, in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales managed to find a modus vivendi with that part of the population which was categorically against his national project, and in Nicaragua, where the Sandinista regime unexpectedly managed to combine market mechanisms with the etatist approach and social orientations. The objective processes contribute to the consolidation and reproduction of the left political culture, the expert emphasized, and therefore “it is too early to dance on the lid of the coffin of the left.”

The most serious problem of all Latin American countries (with possible exception of Cuba) is social inequality, said Argentine political scientist Gonzalo Paz, visiting researcher at Georgetown University and senior lecturer at the University of Maryland. In his turn, Davydov said that social inequality only intensified during the years of the neo-liberal governments that preceded the “left turn.” “Two-thirds of Latin America turned to the left,” the scholar said. “Synchronously and unprecedentedly. Hence, neo-liberals objectively made a great contribution to this.”

The essence of policies of the Latin American left in the 2000s was explained by Lyudmila Okuneva, Director of the BRICS Centre, Professor of the Department of European and American Countries, MGIMO University. According to her, they put to the forefront the role of the state in solving social problems, while limiting its role in the economy. The social policies of Lula da Silva’s government in Brazil took dozens of millions of people out of poverty to the lower middle class, which, according to the expert, was a “revolutionary achievement.”

All these successes were achieved during the so-called “golden decade” (2003-2013), when the high price of natural resources allowed governments to implement large-scale social programs, Okuneva said. The decline of the left is partly due to the fall in commodity prices, but also to the growth of the state bureaucracy. Dr. Gonzalo Paz mentioned the achievements of the left governments in reducing inequality. The problem, he said, is how to preserve these achievements in the era of cheap oil. According to Vladimir Davydov, the answer to this question lies in optimization of redistribution of public spending and making more targeted allocations for social purposes.

What should the leftist forces of Latin America expect in the near future? According to Davydov, the positions of the left and right forces in the region, as well as in the whole world, are moving closer on a number of issues. An example is Mexico, where two parties of opposing political views managed to create a coalition for the 2018 presidential elections. The left actively defend market principles, while the right increasingly support social policies, Okuneva added.

Another important factor is historical memory. At present, the Brazilian government is destroying the achievements of the social policy of its predecessors: an amendment was adopted to reduce public spending until 2037, and a broad privatization program is being implemented. This is already affecting the living standards of those who recently entered the middle class. Okuneva said that, according to polls, former President Lula da Silva enjoys the support of 30% of voters today. According to Vladimir Davydov, it is the historical memory that the popular masses live in, and this is a “delayed-action mine” for the right.

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