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Why Outsiders Are In in Latin America

Voters have set aside ideology in their desire for a higher standard of living. But populist campaign promises may be hard to keep.

November 26, 2002|T. Christian Miller and Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writers

QUITO, Ecuador — Across Latin America, people are trading in the old for the new. In country after country, voters are rejecting political parties and powerful party bosses who have long dominated the economic and social landscape in favor of outsiders.

It's a trend rooted less in ideology than in a desire for change. Voters do not seem to care whether candidates are of the left or right, but whether they are likely to deliver a better standard of living.

As a result, they are turning to anti-establishment leftists such as Ecuador's newly elected president, Col. Lucio Gutierrez, who has never before held political office, or Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who spent a lifetime outside mainstream politics as a committed leftist.

At the same time, they have supported conservatives such as Colombia's new President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner who ran as an independent, and Mexico's President Vicente Fox, who shattered the decades-long dominance of the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party.

"There's a discontent that has manifested itself as a desire for people outside the system," said Pablo Franky, a political analyst at Javeriana University in Bogota, the Colombian capital. "The traditional parties have not been able to solve the problems of poverty, corruption and inequality."

Many of the traditional parties had embraced the so-called Washington consensus, pursuing open markets and free trade. Few of the new generation of anti-establishment leaders have rejected outright the drive toward globalization. But many of them have expressed the desire to soften its effects on the poor and middle class.

Politicians of both types have made extravagant populist promises to put a chicken in every pot. Gutierrez's opponent pledged to build 200,000 homes that could be purchased for $48 a month. Gutierrez responded by promising 200,000 homes for $37 apiece.

Neither man explained exactly how he would pay for such a program. Ecuador faces $2 billion in payments on its $13-billion foreign debt next year, an amount equal to nearly half the country's budget.

It is also unclear whether there is a genuine surge in anti-American feeling, or whether voters are simply rejecting discredited U.S.-backed elites and the U.S. prescription for their economies.

None of the outsiders seems particularly ideological. Uribe, perhaps the most conservative president in the region, won partly on his promises to crack down on leftist rebels, but also pledged to vastly increase the number of schools in the country.

South America's most leftist leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has been careful to maintain close economic ties with the U.S., his country's largest market. And Lula has promised to honor Brazil's payments to the International Monetary Fund.

"This turn toward the left in Latin America is very peculiar," said Fausto Maso, a radio talk show host in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, and columnist for the El Nacional daily. The left "doesn't have Russia anymore and ... this limits them. During the campaign they say one thing, but when they get elected they end up talking to Washington, and later end as failures."

Not all Latin American governments are distancing themselves from Washington. In Central America, memories of failed ideological experiments in countries such as Nicaragua have left the region firmly committed to deeper economic and social integration with the U.S. Leaders are rushing to take advantage of a possible free trade agreement with the Bush administration. Recent elections in Honduras and Nicaragua saw the return of conservative politicians.

In South America, most countries remain committed to the hemisphere-wide free trade agreement scheduled to be completed by 2004, though Ecuador and Brazil have expressed reservations.

"There is still an enormous push to achieve some kind of more productive economic relationship with the United States," said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a left-center think tank in Washington, D.C.

More than anything, the region's continued poverty explains the rise of unorthodox, outsider and messianic leaders. A recent U.N. report indicated that after a decade of decline, poverty rates have begun increasing in some Latin American countries, especially Argentina.

The region's growing number of poor still face shortages in health care, education and pensions. Many have seen the success of Asian competitors, some of which are taking jobs away from South America, and wonder why they have not benefited from the globalization boom. Continuing problems with corruption also have left voters disillusioned.

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