Much confusion has arisen over the so-called "move to the left" in Latin America occurring in recent years.
Leaving aside the fact that "the left" has become a difficult and ill-defined concept in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is obviously a new and hopeful mood throughout Latin America. It was created by the emergence of leaders and parties, traditionally associated with progressive causes, who have been notably sceptical of US claims to global hegemony. Particularly significant is the return of Cuba as a player in the continent's politics. Although the newly emerging leaders are not themselves uninteresting, the seismic upheavals beneath the surface are what make these new developments worthy of investigation, and also explain why this so-called "left" has been appearing in different forms.
The principal and immediate cause of these upheavals has been the unsuccessful imposition of the "Made in Washington" policies of neo-liberalism. These involved the widespread privatisation of state industries, the collapse of education and healthcare systems once provided by the state, and the creation of a climate of corruption never before seen on such a scale. The growing impoverishment of the great mass of the people, and the failure of the neo-liberal regimes to secure tangible benefits from privatisation for the middle class, have produced electoral victories both for the traditional left and for new players on the political stage.
The most unusual developments have occurred in the countries of the Andes, notably in Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Where once, in the 1970s, outside attention was concentrated on the south of South America, and in the 1980s on Central America, the focus has now moved to the Andes. Here the large concentrations of indigenous peoples, forcing themselves to the fore for the first time in two centuries, are in the process of transforming politics. The question of race or ethnic origin has become as important as class.
The Venezuela of Hugo Chávez has led the way, specifically taking up the cause of indigenous peoples in the new constitution of 2000, and spotting the importance and significance of Evo Morales, an indigenous leader who is now Bolivian president, long before he had become well known outside his country. Chávez's enthusiasm for the continental project of Simon Bolivar, who liberated the Andean countries from Spanish rule at the beginning of the 19th century, has evoked an appreciative response throughout the region.
Morales's victory in December may well be followed by a comparable success for Ollanta Humala in Peru in April and for Rafael Correa in Ecuador next year. Both figures depend on support from the mobilised indigenous movements. None of these men (Chávez included) comes from the traditional or identifiable left, yet they all have a fiercely independent and anti-imperialist tint that places them very firmly in a certain progressive tradition of Latin American nationalism. Here perhaps their most important achievement is to have revived the history and culture of their countries, to be used as a weapon against the prevailing cultural imperialism of the US.
By comparison, the governments of Lula in Brazil and of Michelle Bachelet in Chile cannot really be considered to be of the left, although they have both benefited from the prevailing leftist climate in the continent. Both have failed to break away from the neo-liberal model, and both have refused to engage with the new forces emerging within Latin American society that exist outside the confines of a traditional labourist, workerist or even socialist political party. The sense of history that infuses the Andean countries, the sense that Latin America is not just an extension of Europe, is wholly lacking in Brazil and Chile.
It is lacking too in the Uruguay of Tabaré Vásquez. Heir to the Tupamaros guerrilla movement of the 1970s, the Vásquez government has so far failed to escape from the economic straitjacket constructed by earlier conservative regimes. More intriguing is the Argentine government of Nestor Kirchner, survivor of the leftist Juventud Peronista regime of the early 1970s. Into a similar category falls Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the likely leftist winner of this year's elections in Mexico. He will recover Mexico's traditional anti-imperialist rhetoric, while retaining its current commitment to a neo-liberal agenda.
Latin America's move to the left may have been exaggerated, and crucial differences exist. Yet undoubtedly a groundswell of leftist anti-imperialism is now evident, exhibited in the chancelleries and presidential palaces of half the continent. The US is so preoccupied elsewhere that it has not yet woken up to the threat.
Richard Gott is the author of Cuba: A New History and Hugo Chávez And The Bolivarian Revolution