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In 2006, Jorge Castaneda published a Foreign Affairs article claiming there were “two lefts” in Latin America.

One is modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past. The other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded.

I never agreed with Castaneda’a “two lefts” analysis (nor did I agree the region experienced a “pink tide”), but it was the sort of elegant narrative that became conventional wisdom in many circles. Analysts contrasted a moderate left defined by Brazil and Chile with a populist left defined by Venezuela and the rest of ALBA. The assumption was that the moderate left would succeed while the populist left would eventually collapse under its own failures (but we should all panic about it anyway).

A subsidiary belief to this was that the populist left was created and supported by Hugo Chavez. The rest of those ALBA countries needed Venezuela and its oil money to keep their political systems working.

Eight years later, it’s interesting to see that divide in what was considered the radical left. Venezuela is facing economic and political turmoil, recession and massive inflation, some of the worst crime statistics in the hemisphere, and one recent poll showing 58% of the Venezuelan public thinks President Maduro should resign. Meanwhile, Bolivia President Evo Morales was reelected with a solid 60% support brought about by strong economic growth and an ability to subtly and effectively neutralize his opposition.

The “two lefts” weren’t supposed to be defined by the differences between Venezuela and Bolivia, but here we are.

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Michael Shifter and Murat Dagli hit some important points in this WPR article:

At least three of the ALBA members—Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua—have proved to be among the most stable Latin American governments, with very popular leaders.  Despite their troubling authoritarian tendencies, marked by an erosion of the rule of law, the governance models forged by Presidents Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega, respectively, have gained wide support and are sustained by sound economies. For Washington, the challenge has become how to balance criticisms of democratic backsliding with attempts to engage popular governments presiding over economic and social progress.

Shifter and Dagli’s take on the political situations in each country is just as important as the economics. It’s not just economic growth in each of those three countries, but also a more successful manipulation of the political system than what has been mismanaged in Venezuela.

The alternative hypothesis for these countries is written by Oppenheimer in his column this weekend:

Financially irresponsible countries with luck: They include Ecuador and Bolivia, which have followed Venezuela’s steps nationalizing companies and taking other anti-business measures, but started doing these things much more recently. They are relatively lucky, because the world is awash with cash looking for short-term high yields, and they can still get some speculative investments to keep their economies going.

This is how a few analysts try to hold on to the quickly disintegrating Two Lefts theory. Instead of trying to explain why Bolivia and Ecuador are growing faster economically than Venezuela (or for that matter, Mexico and Colombia), Oppenheimer attributes it to luck and the fact their nationalizations were more recent and moves on.

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Narrative of the Two Lefts

So lets look at the other side of the two lefts divide. Chile has already seen the left leave and come back in the form of Michelle Bachelet, it’s a member of the Pacific Alliance, and its economy is struggling given the current low copper prices. Brazil is facing very weak economic growth, serious protests last year and a potential (though still not likely) removal of the PT from power this year. Uruguay’s economy is doing ok, but that election is also likely to be close. Humala, who was lumped in with Evo Morales and the “populist left” in Castaneda’s 2006 article, has turned out to be one of the most macro-economic orthodox leaders on the continent and is widely praised by investors.

The group of countries and politicians defined as a moderate and pragmatic left is struggling both economically and politically to varying degrees.

Let me leave aside the crazy idea that we shouldn’t try to force each country’s individual politics and economics into an easily explainable grouping and ask the tougher question. Is there an elegant narrative for Latin America today?

To some extent there is a narrative and conventional wisdom in Latin American political analysis, with many analysts moving away from “two lefts” to contrasting the Pacific Alliance vs. Mercosur vs. ALBA. Yet, while I think the Pacific Alliance has value as a tangible group taking real integration actions, the narrative that these countries are doing better economically is only barely supported by the data and its long term political stability as an organization is not supported by public opinion polling.

So what’s the correct narrative that explains Latin America as it is, not as we might want it to be? Can we find a post-Cold War explanation for “left” and “right” ideology without stumbling over all the messy details of how these countries actually succeed or fail?

What narrative gives us a region in which Venezuela is collapsing while Bolivia is succeeding, Brazil is stumbling but Mexico isn’t doing much better, where Argentina is an economic disaster whose stock market has more than doubled this year, where the paragons of free trade ideology in Chile and Peru actually depend on a commodity export model while Ortega’s Nicaragua is the biggest beneficiary of CAFTA? Can we create any simple and elegant explanation in which all of those data points hold together?

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