Latin America’s Shift to the Center

One of the most ideologically charged regions of the globe is turning to pragmatism.


When Colombia inaugurates its next president on Saturday, observers might be tempted to proclaim a new political era in Latin America. The right-leaning Juan Manuel Santos will take over from President Álvaro Uribe, South America’s most conservative president in recent years. Add this to the recent election in Chile of the conservative Sebastián Piñera and the possible victory of Brazil’s conservative presidential candidate, Jose Serra, in an October election, and it would be easy to assume that — less than a decade after Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales moved the region far left — Latin America is now swinging back to the right.

In fact, though, the reality is more complex. Latin American Barometer, a comparative public opinion survey that has tracked political attitudes since 1995, reveals that if anything, the region has made a marked shift toward the center. In 2002, 29 percent of Latin Americans identified themselves as centrists; by 2008, that number had jumped to 42 percent.

It’s not surprising, given the region’s history, that some measure of political moderation should have taken over in more prosperous times. During the decades of 20th-century Cold War meddling and harsh military dictatorships, Latin America was nothing if not ideologically charged. These days, the region is governed more by pragmatism than any set of beliefs. So-called left and right candidates largely agree on how to run economic and social policy. To be sure, ideology has not disappeared, but it has taken a back seat to governments’ abilities to actually run their countries.

In many cases, left and right share broad continuity and a measure of predictability on important economic, security, and social policy questions. Policy differences are still discernible in every election, but Latin America’s global links, growing self-confidence, and swelling middle class have tempered abrupt political shifts. Citizens now vote on governments’ performance — the ability to resolve pressing problems like crime and unemployment — and the charisma, political skills, and general appeal of the candidates. It’s not about where the new government falls on the political spectrum.

In the Colombian elections, for example, there was little daylight between Santos and his main challenger, former Bogotá Mayor Antanas Mockus, on key economic and security policies. The differences between the two men were chiefly stylistic. Chile’s election saw similar agreement between Piñera and the center-left coalition’s candidate, former President Eduardo Frei. Though a politician on the "right," for example, Piñera is committed to the social agenda in health and education pursued by former Presidents Michelle Bachelet and Ricardo Lagos — both Socialists. 

In Brazil, too, the political disparity between the left-leaning Dilma Rousseff — the favored candidate of outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — and Serra appears pretty modest in the scheme of things. Serra is even proposing to expand Bolsa Familia, Brazil’s anti-poverty cash-transfer program that has been such a pillar of the Lula government. Foreign-policy differences are more evident — Serra favors a less cozy approach to relations with Venezuela and Iran — though no serious candidate would retreat from Brazil’s global influence. 

When more radical candidates have emerged in the past, it has been largely because traditional political institutions collapsed and predecessors were discredited — not because Latin Americans suddenly became rightists or leftists. Venezuela’s Chávez, Bolivia’s Morales, and Ecuador’s Correa all came to power that way. Once in power, these men were reelected because the cumulative discontent was so profound, attractive alternatives have not emerged, and some social programs have had modest success. Constitutional amendments ramping up executive authority have also helped by tightening political control and skewing the political playing field. 

Like the presidents they kicked out, this loosely aligned leftist coalition shouldn’t rest too easy; the tides of popular opinion can easily turn if and when policies begin to fall flat. Chávez’s popularity, for example, has fallen to a seven-year low thanks in part to economic mismanagement. And perhaps the most unexpected phenomenon in the recent Chilean and Colombian elections, for example, was the emergence of challenges posed respectively by Marco Enríquez-Ominami, formerly of the Socialist party, and Mockus. Both of these candidates demonstrated a growing hunger for a more open kind of politics and fresh approaches to issues, especially among Latin American youth. 

An astute politician, Santos has heeded the message represented by Mockus. Since being elected in June, he has distanced himself somewhat from Uribe, taking a less confrontational tone, making repeated appeals for "national unity," and a notably independent-minded cabinet. Santos is a proponent of the so-called "Third Way" first articulated by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair — an attempt to reconcile free-market policies and socialist ideals. So would that make Santos center-left or center-right? Colombia just hopes it makes him a good president.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.