Latin America’s Leftists Aren’t Who You Think

The region’s left has won a series of elections—but U.S. interests aren’t under threat.

By , deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program, and , a professor of international political economy at UC San Diego.
Gabriel Boric celebrates with supporters at the end of the Presidential Elections on November 21, 2021 in Santiago, Chile.
Gabriel Boric celebrates with supporters at the end of the Presidential Elections on November 21, 2021 in Santiago, Chile.
Gabriel Boric celebrates with supporters at the end of the Presidential Elections on November 21, 2021 in Santiago, Chile. Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

string of victories for progressives in Latin America has generated some anxiety in Washington, stoking fears of depleting U.S. power and rising Chinese influence. Since 2018, left-of-center candidates have won presidential elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru, and leftists lead in the polls in this year’s campaigns in Brazil and Colombia.

It would be premature for Washington to sound the alarm, however. Firstly, there’s little evidence in the region of a deep-seated or lasting ideological shift. Anti-incumbent sentiment is strong, and voters upset by the pandemic’s health and economic toll are beating up on whomever occupies the presidential palace. Last year, for example, frustrated Ecuadorians elected a conservative businessman president, and the left-leaning governing parties in Argentina and Mexico performed poorly in legislative elections.

Secondly, many of the progressives riding this anti-incumbent tsunami are pragmatic centrists who disfavor the timeworn, anti-imperialist rhetoric that burns bridges between the United States and its neighbors. The region’s most influential leftist, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has taken only two foreign trips as president, both to the United States. In Argentina, allies of President Alberto Fernández refer warmly to the U.S. president as “Juan Domingo Biden,” after the founder of Peronism, Juan Domingo Perón.

string of victories for progressives in Latin America has generated some anxiety in Washington, stoking fears of depleting U.S. power and rising Chinese influence. Since 2018, left-of-center candidates have won presidential elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru, and leftists lead in the polls in this year’s campaigns in Brazil and Colombia.

It would be premature for Washington to sound the alarm, however. Firstly, there’s little evidence in the region of a deep-seated or lasting ideological shift. Anti-incumbent sentiment is strong, and voters upset by the pandemic’s health and economic toll are beating up on whomever occupies the presidential palace. Last year, for example, frustrated Ecuadorians elected a conservative businessman president, and the left-leaning governing parties in Argentina and Mexico performed poorly in legislative elections.

Secondly, many of the progressives riding this anti-incumbent tsunami are pragmatic centrists who disfavor the timeworn, anti-imperialist rhetoric that burns bridges between the United States and its neighbors. The region’s most influential leftist, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has taken only two foreign trips as president, both to the United States. In Argentina, allies of President Alberto Fernández refer warmly to the U.S. president as “Juan Domingo Biden,” after the founder of Peronism, Juan Domingo Perón.

Thirdly, there are stark differences between progressive social democrats—including those with an old-school focus on social class and others who emphasize gender equality and renewable energy—and the unapologetic authoritarians in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, who serve up Marxist rhetoric and ritualistic denunciations of U.S. imperialism.

In many ways, the region’s social democrats are natural allies of Washington. Their platforms sound remarkably similar to U.S. President Joe Biden’s priorities: expanding access to social services, more equitable taxation, women’s rights, climate leadership, and multilateralism in foreign affairs. For the United States, opportunities abound for building issue-by-issue coalitions.

Fortunately, the Biden administration shares a similar understanding of Latin American politics. The White House relaunched high-level security and economic dialogues with Mexico. Biden’s national security advisor stopped in Buenos Aires on his first trip to Latin America. U.S. vaccine diplomacy is ideologically blind; the United States has donated almost 6 million doses to Mexico and 3.5 million doses to Argentina.

At the same time, Biden has kept several controversial conservative leaders at arm’s length. Honduras’s former president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who left office earlier this month, was in the penalty box amid allegations of cocaine trafficking. Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is out in the cold over climate policy. In both cases, their progressive competitors are seen as potentially better U.S. allies. The White House was gleeful about Xiomara Castro’s December 2021 victory in Honduras; on Jan. 27, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris attended her inauguration. Brazil’s leading opposition figure, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, worked closely with the White House when Biden was vice president. Last year in Peru, the United States joined Pedro Castillo, a socialist union leader, in pushing back against claims of electoral fraud from his opponent, archconservative Keiko Fujimori.

This ideological agnosticism is not new in post-Cold War U.S. Latin America policy, nor does it apply only to Democrats. The United States, for example, maintained warm ties to the center-left Frente Amplio coalition that led Uruguay from 2005 to 2020. (In 2007, then-U.S. President George W. Bush traveled to Montevideo, Uruguay, and enjoyed a barbecue with his socialist counterpart, Tabaré Vázquez.) The U.S.-Chile relationship has been consistently warm since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, though the country has mostly been led by center-left coalitions.

These days, Chile is run by conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera. But Chile’s tightknit relationship with Washington is not expected to change in March, when Piñera is replaced by Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old bearded and tattooed former student protest leader whose coalition includes Chile’s Communist Party. In recent days, Boric has calmed U.S. investors by appointing Mario Marcel, the respected chief of Chile’s Central Bank, as finance minister. He also sent reassuring signals to the U.S. State Department by naming Antonia Urrejola, former president of the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, foreign minister; she shows little sympathy for the region’s leftist autocratic regimes.

As for Beijing’s influence, Chinese commerce is now commonplace in the Americas, and its rhythms are not typically governed by election results. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union penetrated Latin American societies through Moscow-aligned communist parties. By contrast, China is generally indifferent to the politics of its business partners. Moreover, the young Latin Americans sweeping newcomers, such as Boric, into power find little appeal in the repressive Chinese political system; indeed, they are demanding more, not less, democracy and accountability.

For the United States, it helps that Latin America’s authoritarian left is downtrodden and discredited. For a decade, former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez spread anti-imperialism and oil earnings throughout the region. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, presides over a failed state. Venezuela’s biggest regional export is millions of desperate migrants. Nicaragua, in the grip of a former leftist guerrilla, President Daniel Ortega, is another pariah regime. This month, Ortega’s swearing-in for a fourth term was mostly shunned by regional leaders. Cuba’s economy is broken, suffering severe shortages of basic goods, such as garlic and medicine. Its appointed leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, lacks even the romantic appeal the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, once offered.

Meanwhile, the enduring strength of conservative opposition parties—including in Argentina, Chile, and Honduras—is among many constraints on the region’s moderate leftist leaders. In many countries, both public and civic institutions have grown stronger, providing anchors that impede radical policy changes or presidential power grabs.

Distinguishing between Latin America’s leftists—progressive social democrats versus anti-democratic authoritarians—is not merely an academic exercise. For the United States, a misplaced fear of the region’s progressives could be self-fulfilling, reinforcing the caricature of a U.S. government that is ideologically rigid and beholden to conservative corporate interests. In reality, the United States has little to fear from any leader committed to fighting poverty, improving public services, combatting corruption, and defending human rights. Indeed, U.S. officials increasingly recognize that Latin America’s prolonged, pre-pandemic economic stagnation and stubborn inequalities have imperiled its democracies by fueling cynicism and empowering populist caudillos of the left and right. The White House should welcome all those committed to democracy and working together to solve shared hemispheric challenges.

Benjamin N. Gedan is a former South America director on the National Security Council and the current deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program.

Richard E. Feinberg is a professor of international political economy at UC San Diego.

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