Quiet rise of Latin America's center

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

Esteban Felix/AP
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.
SOURCE: Latinobarómetro 2008/Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

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.

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."

In 11 of 18 countries in the Latinobarometro poll, more of those surveyed this year said they support democracy, compared with the year before. The jumps are particularly high in countries where change has come, such as Paraguay, where former bishop Fernando Lugo won the presidency in April, ending more than 60 years of one-party rule.

Second on the list is Venezuela, where a series of elections have been nearly annual events since Hugo Chávez took power – and where he lost an important constitutional referendum last year.

"In general, what stood out for me is that Latin Americans seem to feel pretty good about democracy in the region," says Gregory Weeks, a Latin America politics professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "We hear a lot about conflict in Latin America, but on the ground this means there is political competition and things are happening."

Although satisfaction with democracy in Venezuela runs high, the Freedom House report criticizes aspects of freedom of association for NGOs and independent trade unions there. NGOs, according to the report, are increasingly accused of being conspirators if they criticize the government. Protests were also noted as being increasingly suppressed by the government last year.

Separately, in Nicaragua, which Freedom House lists as showing declines in associational freedoms, mayoral elections this month have been widely denounced as fraudulent by the opposition, with claims that votes were rigged in favor of Mr. Ortega's Sandinista candidates.

Although politicians in the region are quick to label themselves ideologically, Mr. Shifter says he believes most voters do not vote along clear ideological lines. "I don't think most Latin Americans see themselves in ideological terms," Shifter says. "They are centrist and support a government and leaders that are performing well. At the same time, political parties continue to lose their luster, which leaves a lot of voters in the center."

The fact that the center has grown, he says, is a sign of maturation. "The electorate is more discerning; they are tired of a lot of the ideological discourse and promises that aren't met."

That is why there are so many cross-currents among Latin American voters, making it hard to pigeonhole them politically. Many favor a greater state role in the economy – over 80 percent in the Latinobarometro poll favor state control of public services such as pensions – but can be more conservative on issues such as crime, which figures as the top concern in Venezuela and Mexico.

Lagos does not see these as ideological contradictions, but as a consequence of cultural attitudes, which she says is a remnant of the paternalistic state that started under Spanish colonialism. That's one reason so many favor state control over services like pensions, health, and education.

"There is still this whole idea of the father state," she says. "It is not a horizontal society, and maybe it will never be."

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