The End of Ideology in South America

Conservative leaders are stepping up in Latin America, but the region isn’t shifting to the right.

Presidents Alan García of Peru and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Lima, Peru, July 27
Presidents Alan García of Peru and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Lima, Peru, July 27 (Flickr/Juan Manuel Santos)

A new generation of conservative leaders appears to be stepping up in Latin America. In Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos just took over as president from Álvaro Uribe who had been the continent’s most right-wing leader in a decade. Chile recently elected billionaire Sebastián Piñera president while in Brazil, the opposition’s candidate, José Serra, stands a good chance of claiming victory this fall. It may be tempting to believe that South America is turning conservative. Not so, says Michael Shifter.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Shifter, who is the president of the Inter American Dialogue think tank, argues that South America isn’t making a turn for the right. Rather, he believes, it has shifted to the center.

The numbers prove him right. Latin American Barometer, a comparative public opinion survey that has tracked political attitudes since 1995, reveals that the number of Latin Americans who identify as centrist has jumped from 29 percent in 2002 to 42 percent in 2008. “It’s not surprising,” according to Shifter, “that some measure of political moderation should have taken over in more prosperous times.”

During the Cold War, the region was nothing if not ideologically charged. In part due to American interference, socialist governments were toppled by military dictatorships which subsequently returned democracy in the late 1980s. “These days, the region is governed more by pragmatism than any set of beliefs.”

Candidates both left and right largely agree on economic and social policy. In Brazil, for instance, Serra, who is currently governor of São Paulo, would, if elected, leave many of President Lula da Silva’s welfare programs intact. Government is spending too much, he believes, but both major party candidates in the race agree that there’s a role for the state in fighting inequality and bridging the social divide.

In Colombia and Chile, the differences between the candidates have been similarly trivial. Piñera, though formerly a businessman, has promised to maintain and continue the education and health programs initiated by his socialist predecessors while in Colombia, Santos and his main challenger agree on key economic and security policies.

It would be a mistake to characterize the emergence of radical leaders in more recent years as proof of strong leftism, argues Shifter. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador — all came to power because traditional political institutions collapsed and their predecessors were discredited. Their popularity today depends not on their ideological propaganda but purely on the success of their policies. Morales remains highly popular; Chávez’ approval rating is at a seven year low.

In Colombia, Santos has begun to position himself as somewhat more moderate than his mentor, taking a less confrontational tone and appealing to “national unity.” Santos is a proponent of the Third Way, the attempt to reconcile free-market policies and socialist ideals that was pioneered by American president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair in the 1990s. Does that make him left or right wing? Shifter writes, “Colombia just hopes it makes him a good president.”