Old-style leftist politics is making a huge comeback in Latin America. In Brazil, an avowed socialist and anti-capitalist has taken power in a landslide vote. Luiz Lula da Silva’s first day as president ended with a dinner with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Also joining him was Venezuela president Hugo Chavez, who is pursuing a leftist agenda and promising a full crackdown on “terrorists” and “traitors” who oppose him. In Ecuador, new president Lucio Gutierrez, a retired army colonel, holds similar political sympathies, promising to empower the poor through state means. These political leaders’ platforms are also fueled by a religious component: a reversion to liberation theology, which twists the Gospel call to assist the poor in their plight into a redistributionist political agenda that threatens violence and uses anti-American sentiment to secure political power. With economies in turmoil in the midst of a stubbornly recessionary environment, resentment against “globalism,” American influence, and property owners and producers is high. The perception that “neo-liberal” economics has been tried and failed can only lead to more political momentum shifting toward socialist experimentation and folk-hero autocrats on the model of Chavez and Lula, who thrive on denouncing the wealthy as the cause of economic instability and widening poverty.
All of this recalls the heady days of the 1980s, when liberation theology was at its height in Latin American politics. Lead by theologian-intellectuals, the liberation theology religious movement allied itself with Soviet-backed political interests to call for revolution against the capitalist classes, and the expropriation of the expropriators in the name of Jesus. Pope John Paul II eventually led a campaign against the theological deviation and boldly stood up to would-be dictators in the region who used religion as a way of justifying their personal power. This time, redistribution, not revolution, is the watchword. Resentment is directed against globalization, not the commercial classes as such. The theology backing the new Latin leftism is more populist and nationalist than communist. It focuses on popular control of industry and welfare measures rather than wholesale looting. And, most importantly, because the new political trends do not play into an overarching global-political drama, hardly anyone is paying close attention.
In some sense, however, this increases the danger of these trends, if not for global political reasons, at least for the plight of all people in Latin America. The simple truth is that redistribution, centralization of power, expropriation of wealth, and the like will not raise the standards of living. Only market economics, more secure property rights, freer trade, and sounder currencies, can do that. Measures like disempowering owners of factories and farms, erecting protectionism in the name of combating globalism, and handing out more subsidies to people who vote in a leftist direction do not create wealth, but rather increase dependency and poverty. No economy has ever grown through statism. The best prescription is not intervention but the fostering of free trade and openness. But the first step is to understand the pending dangers that the new Latin leftism poses to democracy and freedom in Central and South America. To quote Russell Kirk, “A good-natured ignorance is a luxury none of us can afford.”