In the Peruvian election today, Socialist candidate (and former President) Alan Garcia was, despite allegations of corruption, leading Ollanta Humala, a protege of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The story is not, despite how some on the right might spin it, that the leftist wave sweeping over Latin America is running out of steam. Quite conversely, the fact that the choice in the end was between two different brands of socialists points out emphatically how powerful it is. Conservative candidates couldn't even muster the support to make it into the final round of balloting.
This follows socialists being elected in Bolivia and Chile, as well as making big gains or taking control of the parliamentary bodies in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
The only large South American country where they have not done well is Colombia, where there is still an open insurgency being fought. Heck, in Venezuela, things have moved so far to the left that not only is Chavez a prohibitive favorite to win another term later this year, but the most serious opponent he has is a guy who is even farther to the left than he is.
Central America has had much the same story. Earlier this year a socialist came very close to winning the Presidency in Costa Rica, traditionally the most conservative country in the region. And in Nicaragua, former Sandanista leader and Reagan administration bogeyman Daniel Ortega has a good chance to reclaim his old job in elections later this year. Even in Mexico, polls had showed Socialist Manuel López Obrador in the lead earlier this year. Since then, his two opponents have hired American political consultants to begin running an American style negative smear campaign against López Obrador (a style not before seen in Mexico) and current President Vicente Fox, no friend of Obrador's, made an adroit move in inviting rebel leader Subcommante Marcos to go on a speaking tour of Mexico. Marcos' line is that all three candidates are the same so voters shold boycott the election (Fox believes, probably correctly, that anyone who heeds Marcos' call for a boycott would otherwise be more likely to vote for Obrador than either of the other candidates.) Despite all this, recent polls have shown Obrador tied for first with PAN candidate Felipe Calderón.
So what is going on? It would be easy to blame George Bush, and some bloggers have done that, pointing out that Latin Americans are almost unanimous in their dislike of the U.S. leader. But let's be honest-- if we do that then we give ourselves entirely too much credit. Though relations with the U.S. are certainly an issue in any Latin American election, they are not what the vote is likely to depend on. Those issues tend to be the same as they are here-- economic.
So why would Latin American voters choose socialism?
Simple. Look at the model that Latin America has struggled under for years. The very wealthy, who have controlled the government and suppressed dissent-- by force if necessary, have had a very nice world of low taxes, a government which outside of the military does very little, little regulation (none at all if you grease the right palm), and a relatively small middle class, mostly consisting of professionals to service the needs of the wealthy elite. On the other end of the scale, you have the impoverished masses, for whom low taxes mean little, and who get the brunt of the lack of government services while still living in a capitalist society where they have to pay for everything they can't afford. Those who are in competition with each other for jobs, where labor standards are almost nonexistent, and they can be hired at whatever price the market will bear. Legally they have always had every opportunity to achieve, just they have to be the one in a hundred who through a combination of skill, hard work and good fortune, manages to break out of the slum. Meanwhile businesses, both multinational and domestic, can run up huge profits and pay very little in taxes. In other words, pretty much a conservative Utopia.
What has changed to produce this revolution at the ballot box? Well, the first of these conditions-- that the wealthy suppress dissent by force. Maybe not 100%, but by and large that has changed. Yes, we do now have democracy throughout almost all of Latin America. And what has been the opinion of the voters about their old system? That for most people, living in that kind of society sucks. So bad that they are electing socialists all over the place who pledge to raise taxes, increase services and have the government provide basic necessities to all.
People in Latin American don't have to experiment with conservatism. They've been living under it for generations. And now that they aren't staring down the barrel of a gun, we can see what they really think about it.
Cross posted at Night Bird's Fountain