Leftists across Latin America gather for Sao Paulo Forum congress in Nicaragua

The leftists that comprise this group are, in many cases, more divergent than the right-left divide in their own countries, but from the rhetoric you would never know it.

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega (l.) addresses the audience as Venezuela's Foreign Minister Nicolas Madero looks on during the inauguration of the Foro de Sao Paulo (Sao Paulo meeting) in Managua on May 18, 2011. The Foro de Sao Paulo is a meeting of left-wing political parties and organizations from Latin American and Caribbean nations.

For people whose worldviews were informed by a rigid Cold War paradigm of left versus right, sometimes it’s hard to move beyond the notions of a universe tidily divided into easily digestible concepts of good and bad, socialist and capitalist.

That’s especially true in Latin America, where political discourse is often constructed using antiquated terms, nebulous concepts, and old fears from a bygone era.

The opening of the São Paulo Forum, a Latin American and Caribbean conference of left-leaning political parties and social movements that is holding its 17th international congress this week in Nicaragua's capital, Managua, is a case in point.

“The battle is the same against capitalism, with its most sophisticated forms of domination,” said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, opening the forum. He was in his element flanked by a gaggle of 257 international leftists and personalities from 32 countries – everyone from Cuban apparatchiks, Chilean anarchists, Vietnamese Communists, and Libyan diplomats, to deposed former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (the only guy in the room wearing a suit and tie, in daring defiance of the socialist-casual dress code).

Encouraged by enthusiastic applause from the international delegates, and the hoots of approval from his Sandinista Youth fan club dressed in their pink T-shirt uniforms, Mr. Ortega comfortably stepped into his role of the elder socialist statesman. “The tyranny of capitalism! The tyranny of imperialism!” Ortega waxed, squinting into the distance as if the lights were too bright.

Yet despite the predictable rhetoric by this year's host, the São Paulo Forum actually brings together leftist politicos whose own ideological views are – in many cases – more radically divergent than the left-right divide.

This year’s congress offered a variety pack of hemisphere’s leftist parties and movements, from Argentine communists and Puerto Rican socialists to dapper Nicaraguan Sandinistas who drive SUVs and wear designer sunglasses.

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At Wednesday night’s opening ceremony, there was enough variety of “leftist flavors” to give Baskin-Robbins a run for its money. Cuban Communist Party representative Ricardo Alarcón says socialism in Latin America is like a “multicolored rainbow” reflective of all the “richness and color that our people and cultures are capable of giving.”

Even Ortega, basher of all things capitalist, has been commended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other conservative elements for achievements unbecoming of a socialist, such as maintaining macroeconomic stability, promoting job creation in the textile sector, and acting with fiscal responsibility,

But apparently, at least for the opening night, he did not want his leftist audience to believe the hype.

"We are not going to become administrators of capitalism – because that’s what they want! They try to divide us by saying: ‘This left is democratic because they accept the rules of Washington. And those who don’t accept Washington’s rules are anti-democratic’,” Ortega said.

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