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Opinion Briefing: Latin America's Leftists

Opinion Briefing: Latin America's Leftists

by Steve Crabtree and Jesus Rios

Issue at Hand: Strengthening U.S. alliances with Latin American countries in light of the region's increasingly leftist politics.

As in other regions around the world, the United States currently has strained relations with several of Latin America's leaders and an image problem among many of its populations. The perceived failure in the 1990s of "Washington Consensus" prescriptions for market-driven reforms set the stage for a leftward shift in the region. The flag-bearer for this trend has been Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who over the past few years has fed Latin Americans a steady diet of anti-U.S. rhetoric, regularly calling for resistance against the U.S. "empire."

Obama's Stance: Barack Obama's general approach to Latin America seems to be one of cautious engagement. During last year's presidential campaign, Obama criticized the Bush administration's "negligent" policy toward Latin America, saying it is one reason "demagogues" like Chavez have been successful in the region. Obama has indicated he is willing to open a dialogue with such U.S. adversaries as Chavez and Cuba's President Raul Castro -- but he has also opposed the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, citing ongoing violence against Colombian labor leaders.

Latin Americans' Perspective: First, it's important to distinguish between Chavez's polemics and the general leftist sentiment that holds sway in most Latin American countries. Any U.S. policy toward Latin America needs to recognize that "socialism" is not a dirty word in the region -- though Chavez's conception of it is controversial.

In 2008, Gallup asked the following two questions in 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean:

  • Nowadays, people in this country talk a lot about socialism and capitalism. How would you consider yourself? Would you say you are 1) more socialist than capitalist or 2) more capitalist than socialist?
  • And how about this country these days? Would you say it is 1) more socialist than capitalist or 2) more capitalist than socialist?

By dividing the percentage of residents in each country who choose socialism by the percentage who choose capitalism, we get a single odds ratio describing the population's overall position and their view of their country's overall position. A ratio of 2.52 to 1, for example, means that residents are about 2½ times as likely to lean toward socialism as they are to lean toward capitalism. Figures below 1.0, on the other hand, imply that the population leans more toward capitalism than socialism overall. The same calculations were applied to residents' ratings of their country's position in the right column in the following table.


The only two countries surveyed whose residents are more likely to describe themselves as capitalist than socialist are Panama and Mexico. But perhaps the more important point is that in every country but one, residents are more likely to describe themselves as socialist than they are to say the same about their country. The sole exception is Venezuela -- not because Venezuelans don't describe themselves as socialist, but because they are just as likely to view their country that way. Overall, these results imply that, given the choice, most Latin American populations would move their countries further to the left than they currently are.

However, the socialism most Latin Americans have in mind does not necessarily correspond to the "strongman" approach Chavez has pursued. Even those who say they lean toward socialism are more likely to disapprove (42%) than approve (30%) of Chavez's leadership. In fact, in most Latin American nations, residents are far more likely to agree that their country is heading toward "a better democracy" than to say it is heading toward "a socialist revolution."

What's more, there's little evidence that Chavez has poisoned the United States' image throughout the region. It's true that in South America and Mexico (though not Central America) residents of most countries polled in 2008 were more likely to disapprove than approve of U.S. leadership. However, this is not necessarily evidence of a "Chavez effect" given the prevalence of anti-American sentiment in most global regions.

Obama -- a left-wing leader who happens to be nonwhite -- presents a completely different figure from George W. Bush; this fact alone will likely improve perceptions of U.S. leadership in Latin America. Asked in 2008 whom they preferred to see win the U.S. election, the median level of support for Obama among Latin American countries was about three times as high as that for John McCain.

What's more, as noted previously, Venezuela's leadership didn't fare well in Latin Americans' ratings either. Among South American countries for which data are available, only in Uruguay and Venezuela itself were respondents more likely to say they approved of Venezuela's leadership than that of the United States. In Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, they were significantly less likely to do so.


Policy Implications: The prominence of Chavez and other populist leaders is as much a symptom as it is a cause of Latin America's leftward tilt. Obviously, the kind of blatant disregard for democratic checks and balances that Chavez has been accused of should meet with disapproval and penalty from the United States. But there is also a need to recognize that Latin Americans may be more willing than U.S. residents to provide more powers over to their governments in return for promises of economic security -- that this isn't a condition being forced on them, it is grounded in the legitimacy of public support. The trick is to always be cognizant of this line, respecting Latin Americans' social and political preferences while pushing for transparency and accountability in the region's leftist regimes.

Survey Methods

Results from Latin America are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted August 2008-October, 2008. For results based on these total samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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