Latin America’s Left Gets Cozy


By Antonio Lecuna

Venezuela plays a leading role in the convergence of Latin American countries governed by left-leaning political movements. In July 2012, Venezuela became a full member of the Mercado Común del Sur (Southern Common Market, or MERCOSUR). By allowing the founder of the political ideology known as “Socialism of the 21st Century” to join the trading block, MERCOSUR opened the door to other countries governed by the hard left, such as Bolivia, which signed the MERCOSUR initial incorporation protocol on December 12, 2012. Now Venezuela has taken over the six-month presidency of MERCOSUR. This should help further erode the sharp differences between the moderate Latin American left and the hard left.

MERCOSUR, founded by the moderately left-wing governments of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, is an institutionalized customs union with a strong grasp on political and social affairs. Its main continental rival is ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América or Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) whose member states subscribe to Bolivarianism, a Latin American brand of socialism championed by the late Hugo Chavez. The union encompasses Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Honduras before the 2009 coup d'état.

ALBA is based on bartering rather than free trade. Each country gives according to what it possesses and receives according to its needs. For example, ALBA’s two founding countries, Venezuela and Cuba, exchanged oil for expertise in education and public health. Only a few years after its creation, ALBA is in the process of becoming a monetary union with the institutionalization of the Sucre as a common currency.

When Venezuela joined MERCOSUR, it opened the door to a union between the hard left, represented by ALBA, and the moderate left of MERCOSUR. The integration of both groups would create a giant bloc of approximately 350 million consumers distributed across a resource-rich area of more than 5.4 million square miles.

To be sure, the convergence of Latin America’s Left has been going on intermittently for the past 20 years, beginning in 1990 with the Forum of São Paulo (FSP). The FSP was created by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, or PT) of Brazil and serves as a forum for Latin Americas Left. However, the current integration of Latin America’s plural lefts has only become possible because of the simultaneous and unprecedented rise to political power of 11 left-leaning governments. 

The countries of the moderate and the hard left differ on certain cores issues. MERCOSUR is based on liberal democratic standards, while ALBA is based on radical democracy standards. Liberal democracy uses corporatist mechanisms to emphasize an institutionalized system of checks and balances designed to avoid abuse of power that boosts national production and remains tough on corruption. This system of checks and balances is the secret to the outstanding overall performance of the governments of Chile and Uruguay. Radical democracy in the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau uses a strong executive branch to emphasize quantity over quality (or majority rule) by increasing the social inclusion of and the direct participation of the popular sectors of society.

Despite these differences, the 11 governments that constitute Latin America’s plural lefts share an opposition to domination by capital or any form of neoliberal imperialism. Furthermore, both MERCOSUR and ALBA aim to introduce new forms of political participation that give a democratic voice to communal organizations (e.g., community councils in Venezuela) in policy-making processes and challenge the monopoly of representation by traditional parties and pacts. These common democratic-politics principles also emphasize the notion of popular sovereignty, in which the desires of the people have primacy over the rights of the individual.

Venezuela’s MERCOSUR membership is the clearest sign so far the similarities between Latin Americas plural lefts are starting to outweigh the differences. However, left-leaning governments in Latin America have thus far not fulfilled their potential. The unprecedented simultaneous rise to power of Chávez-Maduro, Lula-Rousseff, Kirchner-Fernández, Evo, Correa, Tabaré-Pepe, Lugo, Ortega, Humala, Funes, and Zelaya could play a pivotal role in political history, but only if the plural lefts in Latin America integrate into an institutionalized regional trade arrangement such as MERCOSUR.

Nearly two centuries ago, Simón Bolívar united half of South America into Great Colombia, before it was dissolved into four countries. Today, Latin America is encountering its second window of opportunity to unite, and this opportunity again arose as a result of the rise of Bolivarianism in Venezuela. Once again, Caracas is crucial to the regional integration process of Latin America. For one, Venezuela took over MERCOSUR’s presidency on July 12, which rotates every six months. 

But more importantly, Venezuela’s proven oil reserves are 297 billion barrels, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 265 billion barrels and the United State’s 21 billion barrels. The adherence of Venezuela to MERCOSUR will immediately generate substantial benefits to the regional trading block by guaranteeing a secure supply of oil, offering a direct route to the Caribbean, and opening a large import market that is estimated at $50 billion annually. MERCOSUR will in fact steer the urgently needed process of reindustrialization in Venezuela toward a strategy of sustainable endogenous socio-productive development aimed at non-traditional exports.

I recently argued in the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent (“from chavismo to a democratic left in Latin America”) that the short-term alternative to Maduro’s administration is not the democratic opposition led by Enrique Capriles, the alternative to Maduro is more radical. His most likely successor would be Diosdado Cabello, a former member of the armed forces and current president of the National Assembly. Cabello represents the radical, pro-military wing of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV).

Political stability in populist Venezuela is a key factor for the integration of Latin America’s plural lefts, because chavismo ––quite literally the left-wing ideology based on that of Hugo Chavez–– in Venezuela is the strongest defender of democratic politics principles in the region, which is in turn the strongest ideological link between MERCOSUR and ALBA.

The best option for the left in Latin America is potentially not to mimic either the EU welfare liberal democracy or the U.S. nationalistic free-trade approach. A third set of priorities that emphasizes the principles of democratic politics may be the best choice. The orthodox Washington Consensus prescription of liberalization, privatization, and stabilization is an inadequate solution to the daunting array of problems found in Latin America, as shown by the collapses of the largest economies in the region (Mexico in 1994, Brazil in 1999, and Argentina in 2002). A unified bloc of MERCOSUR and ALBA members could offer a political alternative and serve as a role model for developing countries around the world.



Antonio Lecuna is a Venezuelan assistant professor in the School of Business and Economics at Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago, Chile.

[Photo courtesy of Blog do Planalto.]

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