Latin America tiptoes to the left ...

Sunday elections in Argentina are part of a backlash against

In Argentina, they call it cambio lite: low-calorie change, or change with stability.

And in Chile, they're calling it socialismo descafeinado - decaffeinated socialism.

In the coming weeks, three countries of South America's southern cone - Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay - will hold presidential elections where the leading candidates are from left-of-center political parties or coalitions.

From Argentina, where voters on Sunday are expected to elect center-left Radical Fernando de la Rua, to Chile, where voters are favoring Socialist Ricardo Lagos for the December election, the weather vane looks to be shifting left.

And you can add Mexico to the mix, where the six major candidates for next July's presidential election are all attacking the "neoliberal" market-economy model. These campaigns are prompting commentary about a shift in Latin America away from the economic reforms that have characterized the last decade.

But what the region's political barometer really indicates is not so much a leftward tilt or radical economic detour as mounting public pressure for more emphasis on social equality and economic opportunity. Voters aren't clamoring for a change in the global economic model of open markets, foreign investment, and a predominant private sector, analysts say. But they do want governments that extend the benefits of economic growth to a broader spectrum of the population.

"In the 1980s, the focus in Latin America was the consolidation of democracy; in the '90s it's been economic reform," says Rosendo Fraga, a Buenos Aires political analyst. "And the next decade will see greater emphasis on the social agenda, addressing poverty and reducing inequalities. But no one's talking about radical change."

Francisco Rojas Aravena, director of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in Santiago, Chile, adds, "It's not a question of left or right, but a desire for closer alignment with the post-cold-war international values of democracy, human rights, economic equality, and social justice" - similar to tendencies in Western Europe and the US, he says.

These presidential campaigns demonstrate this public emphasis on addressing what Mr. Rojas says is the region's "specificity" within the global context - the wide gap between the few haves and the many have-nots.

In the developed world the wealthiest 20 percent of the population concentrates seven times more wealth than the lowest 20 percent, he says. But in Latin America the top 20 percent concentrates 17 times the wealth of the lowest 20 percent.

Chile's economic model

In Chile, often placed at the top of the Latin class by international economists for its economic reforms and high growth over the past decade, the top 20 percent of the population controls half of the country's wealth.

In Argentina, which only recently has begun to experience the more typically Latin American income chasm, if any "model" is under question it is what the public perceives as President Carlos Menem's brand of economic reform that has benefited a select group of people.

"What people want is a shift away from [Menem's] ostentatious political style and a way of carrying out reforms that enriched a certain few," says Manuel Mora y Araujo, director of a prominent Buenos Aires public-opinion service. "People think the country should be able to do better continuing the same direction but with leaders who place more emphasis on issues that matter to them like unemployment, corruption, and public security."

In both Argentina and Chile, those are precisely the issues the candidates are hammering. In Uruguay, a smaller country that has traditionally been less open to the world and more protective of national industries, for example, the lead held by center-left candidate Tabar Vzquez in the run-up to Oct. 31 elections demonstrates an interest in similar "social" issues.

Argentine reforms

In Argentina, Mr. de la Rua quickly acted to squelch doubts that - because of his party's alliance with the further-left Frepaso party - he might as president move to alter the country's economic direction. Although he hails from the same Radical Party as former president Ral Alfonsn - who loudly proclaims his opposition to the "neoliberal" market-economy model - de la Rua early on went to Washington to insist that with him as president there would be no change in Argentina's economic program.

He has even used the "one peso, one dollar," refrain to indicate his support for what many analysts consider Menem's single greatest achievement: the parity of the Argentine peso with the US dollar that ended the hyperinflation of the 1980s. And when he was accused of being "boring," de la Rua quickly made a TV ad arguing that if boring is tackling people's everyday concerns like unemployment or corruption, then he is guilty as charged.

In Chile, Mr. Lagos - who would be the first Socialist elected president since Marxist Socialist Salvador Allende was ousted in a violent military coup in 1973 - has made "growth with equality" his principal slogan. In a country that has doubled its gross national product in the last decade, the slogan sends a message of continuation with a new focus on extending growth to more of the population.

A Lagos victory would constitute a vote for stability in that the Socialists are part of the coalition of parties, including Christian Democrats, that has governed Chile since its 1989 return to democracy. But perhaps the clearer signal that more attention will be paid to social issues in the next decade is that Lagos's principal challenger, conservative Joaqun Lavn, has surprised nearly everyone by moving up in the polls against Lagos with a populist, get-down-with-the-working-class campaign.

Voters' priority on stability and a rejection of pie-in-the-sky promises come through in Chilean polls that show a relatively high rate of satisfaction with the current government, says Rojas. "People have daily access through their televisions to the problems that instability brings around the world, and that tempers demands for dramatic change," he says.

In Argentina, voters "know that this election for president means there is going to be change" after 10 years of Menem, says Mr. Mora y Araujo. "but they also know that the change is going to be moderate."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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