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Quiet rise of Latin America's center

Pragmatism gains over ideology, but some freedoms wane, new reports indicate.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 2008

A growing center: Voters seek pragmatism, not ideology, from Latin American leaders, such as the leftists featured on a banner at a recent protest march at the Ibero American Summit in San Salvador.

Esteban Felix/AP

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The leftward tilt of Latin America has dominated headlines over the past five years, but during the same time, more of the region has moved toward the political center.

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The number of Latin Americans identifying themselves as moderates grew from 29 percent in 2003 to 42 percent this year, according to the annual survey by Latinobarometro, a Chile-based polling group.

That is despite the continued dominance of Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chávez and the election of his allies, including Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Sandinista Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

But instead of signaling dissatisfaction with leftism, a burgeoning center indicates more newcomers are joining the political fold seeking pragmatic solutions from leaders, no matter their ideological tendency, says the executive director of Latinobarometro, Marta Lagos.

The ascendancy of a political center doesn't necessarily indicate healthier democracies, however. According to a report released this week by Freedom House, 10 countries in Latin America showed declines in freedom of association from 2004 to 2007, while six showed gains. In some countries, including Nicaragua, voters are highly frustrated with the way the political system is working.

But Ms. Lagos says more participation in the center provides a healthy check on government power that bodes well for the region. "Where things happen people are more participatory, and where people participate things happen," says Lagos. "It's extremely good news. People are being more educated on their rights and obligations; they are saying to democracy, 'This is what you promised, this is what you've got to give.' "

The annual survey, released Friday, interviewed more than 20,000 people in 18 countries from Sept. 1 to Oct. 11.

One explanation for a growing center, Lagos says, is that those new to the political process tend to migrate to the middle, not the margins. Michael Shifter, an expert on Latin America at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, suspects that it's also a generational issue, which he sees at play in the US, too. "Young voters see their traditional political parties as being too ideological, incapable of solving problems," he says. "The older people in Latin America are still very much shaped by the ideological battles of the cold war. The new voters are voting on what works."