Quick: when you think of a leftist or progressive movement or the ideology generally, what do you think of? As someone who considers himself of the left, I think of greater state involvement in the economy to better re-distribute wealth and improve social safety nets; I think of support for minority groups and the disenfranchised; and I think of greater protections for social rights and groups.
Yet, in the countries many like to label leftist or socialist—President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador—only the first really applies, and in Venezuela, increasingly less so.
So, why do observers and the media continue to label Maduro or Correa leftists? I suppose it’s because those leaders themselves call themselves that. But let’s look at the facts.
First, there’s the issue of Indigenous rights: the rights of the historically disenfranchised and exploited native populations in Latin America going back to colonial times—a legacy that endures today. Increasingly, international law is defining one of the principal rights of the Indigenous their collective right over property what is referred to in the region as the right of “consulta previa” or previous and informed consent.
Which governments do you think have signed on to and acted to enforce international conventions to protect the rights of the Indigenous to be consulted when a policy or investment affects their collective, cultural rights over property? The-self proclaimed leftist regimes of Venezuela and Ecuador? Nope. Instead it has been “neo-liberal” governments of Peru, Chile, and Colombia (the latter of which even extended those rights to Afro-descendant communities) that have signed and pro-actively developed regulations to govern Indigenous rights for consultation over land.
In contrast, President Correa remains engaged in an epic battle with Indigenous communities in Ecuador over their water rights and a series of investments he has allowed in natural resources to foreign investors, with some even accusing him of genocide. In Venezuela, the rush to exploit the country’s oil sands have brought the government into conflict with Indigenous communities. Neither of these countries has signed the international agreement that sets out rights of consulta previa (International Labour Organisation Convention 169) nor do they seem even remotely committed to its principles. Yet, the “neo-liberal” countries of Colombia, Chile, and Peru have.
Let’s take another example: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights. In the left-progressive movement in the developed and developing world this has become a defining issue. Unfortunately the memo about the new strategy never made it to the self-proclaimed progressive south.
Though the plight of the two political prisoners in Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, has received a great deal of international attention, there is also Rosmit Mantilla, a Venezuelan LGBT activist, who was arrested last May and remains in prison. But beyond Rosmit’s case there has been a pattern of hateful, anti-gay language, as when President Maduro has called opposition leader Henrique Capriles a “maricon” (faggot). That’s not progressive; it’s downright retrograde.
Or—to take the case of another government that is often labeled leftist—when President Evo Morales openly speculated in 2010 that the use of hormones in chicken has led to an outbreak of homosexuality and baldness.
Then there’s the issue of economic re-distribution to the poor. Yes, it is true that the Venezuelan government turned the windfall of historically high oil prices into a spigot directed to the poor, lavishing them with subsidized food, health care, educational programs of questionable worth and reduced poverty.
But today in Venezuela, food shortages and near hyper-inflationary levels (expected to reach 200% this year) are eating into the living standards of the poor, and will quite likely wipe out the gains of the heady days of skyrocketing oil prices. And while not as extreme, even Ecuador is looking at declining growth, partially a result of its excessive reliance on natural resource exports.
In the meantime, Chile, Peru, and even Colombia under former President Alvaro Uribe—for all the other problems—have in the past decades scored a series of gains in sustainably reducing poverty and providing social mobility. Oddly enough, despite their ultimately pro-poor and, even in some cases, re-distributionist policies, only a few (Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet of Chile) are referred to as the left.
Lost in all the facile labeling of Maduro and Correa as leftists is a simple fact: simply pumping money to the poor doesn’t make you socialist or even a leftist. It makes you a populist (and profligate).
A credible, ideological metric, though, never seems apply to Latin America. So as a result, anyone who declares themselves a socialist gets labeled so in popular media, despite that they exhibit none of the characteristics of the modern progressive left. Have they championed the rights of minorities and excluded groups? Have they helped improve the lives of the poor in terms of security and sustainable social mobility?
No? No problem, as long as you declare yourself a socialist.
Did I ever mention I’m a male model?