The Left That Never Was

The Left That Never Was

Venezuelan youth participate in anti-government protests, December 20, 2014 (Carlos Díaz / Flickr)

In 1998, many North American and European intellectuals hailed the emergence of a new Latin American left when Hugo Chávez ascended to the presidency of Venezuela. When Evo Morales became president of Bolivia in 2006, and Rafael Correa won the same office in Ecuador in 2007, the praise for what some labeled a “pink tide” grew louder. Books appeared with titles like The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn and Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism. Not just intellectuals were swept up in the excitement: when Chávez visited Europe in May 2006, the then-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, described him as “the best news out of Latin America in many years.”

Chávez died in 2013, leaving Nicolás Maduro, his chosen successor, to continue the country’s transition to “twenty-first century socialism.” But there is no hint of utopia in Venezuela today. Instead, there are serious shortages of food and medicine, crime is ubiquitous, and public services are erratic (in part because shortages of electricity close government offices most of the week). The economy has contracted since 2014. A significant percentage of the population has seen a pronounced reverse in their welfare. Seventy-six percent of Venezuelans are now reported to be living in poverty. Evidence of poor administration abounds: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is forecasting inflation to reach 700 percent in 2016. Access to foreign currency is restricted by byzantine rules. The official exchange rate is unrealistic and impractical. (At the current official exchange rate, a “happy meal” at McDonald’s costs $146.)

With dire shortages, there have been riots and looting. The armed forces have had to assume responsibility for the distribution of food. There are mounting calls for Maduro to resign. Public opinion polls show a majority of Venezuelans want him to leave the presidency—now—not at the end of his term in 2019.

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has decided not to seek reelection. In May 2017, the country will have a new president, with Correa saying that “the country needs a rest from him, and he needs a rest from the country.” Ecuador has daunting financial difficulties, requiring painful slashes in the state budget. The country muddles along in part by selling future oil production to the Chinese. Still, in 2015 the nation’s gross domestic product was stagnant; notably, in 2016 it declined. (The economy of neighboring Peru, governed by moderates, expanded by 3.3 percent in 2015 and grew even faster in 2016.)

In Bolivia, there is economic growth, though it has slowed. However, there are mounting political difficulties. President Evo Morales sought yet another change in the constitution, one that would allow him to run for a fourth term. But voters rejected his bid, in part ou...