PRAGUE — The death of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s former military dictator, provides perhaps an appropriate end for a year that saw the Latin American left return to glory, a revival that President Hugo Chavez’s overwhelming re-election in Venezuela is but the strongest sign. For unlike in the days of Pinochet, fear of the left has mostly vanished in countries across the Latin American continent.

Indeed, the left has won in countries in which it has previously never held power. Despite the fact that the victories of Presidents Felipe Calderon in Mexico, Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and Alan Garcia in Peru put a stop to a supposed tsunami of socialist victories, the trend toward the left is unmistakable.

Chavez is no longer a lonely populist. In the Andean region, he is accompanied by two clones that are reheating his recipes: President Evo Morales in Bolivia and President-elect Rafael Correa in Ecuador. In the rest of the continent, the other left — the one deemed reliable by Wall Street and London bankers — will not join Chavez’s postures, but neither will it join a crusade to unseat him.

This other left, however, is not radical. The return to power of President-elect Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Garcia in Peru, two of the most demonized enemies of U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s, provides sardonic testimony to this. Ortega won thanks to an alliance with the heirs of Nicaragua’s old dictator Anastasio Somoza. His only ideology nowadays is Ortega. Garcia defeated Ollanta Humala, who would have presumably joined the drift toward Chavez.

That the Latin American right can sleep at night despite this leftward tide is not merely the result of communism’s disappearance, nor does it mean that the United States has given up its hegemonic intentions. The explanation lies in the fact that much of today’s left is not the left as we have known it.

Instead, today’s left looks at growth, fiscal discipline and competitiveness with pragmatism, and not as ideological red flags. Its economic proposals do not define its character: It feels at ease with policies such as those followed by President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva during his first term in Brazil or those implemented by Chile’s former Socialist President Ricardo Lagos and his successor Michele Bachelet. Easy applause can no longer be had by attacking big business or the International Monetary Fund.

Yet there is a frontier between today’s left and right, and it is found in the realm of social issues: same-sex couples and marriages, religious freedom, abortion and female equality. These matters have been increasing in importance, and are inciting a clash between the political forces that have just come to power and their conservative opposition.

Foreign affairs also form another divide. The Latin American left does not share U.S. President George W. Bush’s view of the world. On global issues, it has not backed the U.S. in the Iraq war, it does not tolerate American disdain for multilateralism and it is unwilling to join the antiterror crusade.

In Latin American affairs, it balks at the Free Trade Area of the Americas and generally wants relations with the U.S. that allow it to promote their local initiatives. Right-leaning rulers such as President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia still like to speak about their special relationship with Bush or their backing of his foreign policy. Lula and others on the left mostly prefer to hold their tongues.

Everything suggests that the new moderate Latin American left is more political than economic. And it is here where its biggest challenges will emerge. An excessive focus on growth and macroeconomic balances can lead to frustration among those sectors that are demanding better living conditions when they raised this new social democratic left to power.

Education — its quality more than its coverage — was a key issue in Chile’s recent presidential elections. The debate over the ability of growth alone to reduce poverty has become heated. If the new left does not answer these questions satisfactorily, it will be seen as having failed.

There is a paradox at the heart of this process: The electoral victories by the left are a sign of democratic maturity. However, even though rulers are chosen through popular vote, there are worrying signs of weakness in the region’s democratic institutions. Presidents are too easily re-elected or returned to power — Uribe, Lula, Chavez, Ortega, Garcia — with a consequent concentration of power and limits on the emergence of new leaders.

Moreover, the military remains politically influential in Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia. Electoral systems are precarious enough to generate pathetic situations such as that which prevailed in Mexico throughout the autumn, with its “two presidents.” Parties lose ground against the caudillist adventures of people like Lopez Obrador in Mexico and Chavez in Venezuela, and congresses are assured only of public antipathy.

Across Latin America, voters — voicing their economic hopes — have opted for a new left. That left has obtained historic victories thanks to a democracy whose survival is still not guaranteed. So the ghost of Augusto Pinochet lingers.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.