Degrees of Latitude: Can US, Latin America Find Common Ground?

Date Published:

Jan 15, 2006


The map tells the story. Latin Americans are voting for leftist or center-left governments in record numbers. Only El Salvador and Colombia seem certain to end 2006 with conservative governments still in power.

While Latin America is moving to the left, the US government has moved to the right. The Bush administration is far more likely to oppose and far less interested in accommodating Latin American hopes for change than its predecessors.

Can a collision between the United States and Latin America be avoided? Why is Latin America moving to the left? Should (North) Americans worry or cheer?

Latin America freed itself from Spanish and Portuguese rule in the 1820s, but it took another half-century of civil strife to secure legal equality for indigenous citizens, end slavery, modernize institutions, and get economic growth started. But economic growth also made Latin America more unequal than ever before. With plenty of unskilled labor, wages stagnated while rents and profits rose rapidly. Worse yet, those at the top excluded others. Literacy and property requirements deprived most Latin American men and all women of the right to vote until well after World War II.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Latin America began to change. Old dictatorships collapsed and democratic elections brought new, reformist governments to power. The new democracies nurtured vibrant civil societies by legalizing labor unions and encouraging organizations representing farmers and farm workers, rural communities and city neighborhoods, women, and minorities. Among the organizers and participants in this democratic upsurge were socialists, anarchists, liberals, and progressive-minded church people—along with communists and other radicals. In Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, communists won wide support because of their role in supporting democratic movements.

Many in Latin America saw this as dangerous—especially wealthy elites, conservative politicians and military officers, and the influential hierarchy of the Catholic Church. When the Cold War began, the United States allied itself with these reliably anticommunist groups. Governments of the left and center-left that failed to confront and exclude communists and their followers soon became anathema in Washington. The United States encouraged and even directly aided its Latin American allies to overthrow such governments, even when they were freely elected. By the early 1950s, the dictators were back.

The Cuban Revolution formed part of a much larger wave of revolts against military dictatorships that brought democratic governments back to power in 10 Latin American countries between 1956 and 1960. Rather than work with this trend, the United States came to see it as potentially dangerous. The Castro regime fulfilled the prophecy when it sought Soviet aid to resist US efforts to destroy it. To prevent another Cuba, the United States called back the dictators again, despite the democratic rhetoric of the Alliance for Progress. By 1970, only Venezuela and Costa Rica were still holding open, competitive elections.

For more than 40 years, from 1948 to the early 1990s, the United States used its power and resources to make sure that Latin Americans had governments more conservative (and thus anticommunist) than Latin American voters were willing to elect. The human cost of this effort was immense. Between 1960, after the Soviets had dismantled most of their gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the number of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded that of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites.

Even when economic problems and protests drove the military from power in the 1980s, voters tended at first to elect conservative administrations to make sure the military would have no excuse to return to power.

By the 1990s, however, voters had lost their fear. Civilian governments had succeeded in downsizing and purging military establishments and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was no longer so obsessed with keeping the left out of power.

The conservative, mostly military governments of the Cold War had little interest in fixing inequality. Politicians and citizens who worried about inequality were the people these regimes jailed, tortured, and executed. Instead of overcoming inequality as their economies grew, the Latin American countries became more unequal. And then they stopped growing.

The 1982 debt crisis helped to push military regimes from power but undermined the new democratic governments that replaced them. The centrist and center-right political parties and politicians that won the first democratic elections usually lost re-election bids. Second-time elections often benefited centrist and populist parties anxious to jump start economic growth. Many opted for a package of reforms that came to be called the “Washington Consensus”—balanced budgets, freer trade, deregulation, and privatization.

With a few exceptions, such as Chile, these orthodox economic reforms did not generate sustained economic growth. Most countries experienced short spurts of growth followed by reversals, some linked to volatile capital outflows as investment fund managers in the United States and Europe panicked when slow growth undermined currencies and governments failed to raise the revenues they needed to pay off their debts. In the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, Latin America has barely grown at all—the worst quarter century in Latin American economic history since the civil wars after independence from the 1820s to the 1850s.

It is important not to forget, however, that despite its recent travails, most of Latin America ended the 20th century much better off than at the beginning. The per capita gross domestic product of the region's major economies averaged about 1.5 percent, roughly equal to the US economy. The fastest growing economy in the western hemisphere for the past hundred years was not the United States but Brazil. Living standards also improved.

Latin America is not the poorest region in the world, though some Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Haiti, and Honduras, rival the poverty of Africa and South Asia. In fact, Latin America has a large number of middle class voters impatient with the failure of the governments they elect to improve conditions for their poverty-stricken fellow citizens.

Political systems that seem rigged for wealthy elites, persistent and highly visible inequalities, and economies where living standards have not risen for 20 years have pushed Latin American voters back to the left. The only surprise is how long it has taken.

Some leftist and center-left governments have performed brilliantly. The best example is Chile, where a coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats has raised economic growth from less than 1.5 percent under the Pinochet dictatorship to over 5 percent since the restoration of democracy in 1990—and managed to reduce poverty dramatically at the same time. In fact, economic growth in countries with leftist or center-left governments was more than twice as fast in 2005 as in countries with conservative or center-right governments.

For US policy makers accustomed to having their way in the hemisphere, the temptation to intervene, overtly or covertly, to reverse Latin America's leftward drift will likely grow harder to resist in 2006. The likely strategy will be to look for ways to drive a wedge between the noisier anti-American, pro-Cuban regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia and the more moderate administrations elsewhere. This strategy will probably fail, because the United States has so little to offer even its conservative friends after essentially giving up on new free trade agreements.

Faced with few peaceful options, the United States may drift back to the Cold War policies of the 1960s and 1970s—or to the dollar diplomacy that preceded it. Between 1898 and 1994, the US government succeeded in overthrowing, or inducing friends to overthrow, no fewer than 41 Latin American governments (a dozen of them freely elected). That's one every 28 months. Before it goes that route again, the United States should probably consider modifying its ideologically driven hostility to such regimes. A little pragmatism, coupled with a ban on overthrowing elected governments, would make a good start.

John H. Coatsworth is a professor of Latin American affairs, director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.