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Which way left?

"Which way left?" Continued...

Issue: "Street theater," Sept. 30, 2006

At the same time, appealing to his original base, da Silva has increased social spending. Under his tenure, the minimum wage has increased 25 percent. A cash-transfer program for poor Brazilians now reaches 8.7 million families, a fifth of the population. A hands-off management style and distancing from the corrupt image of his own party have earned him comparisons to Ronald Reagan as the region's "Teflon" president.

Michelle Bachelet of Chile is another center-left leader who has to juggle maintaining successful free-market policies and hiking social spending. An unorthodox choice, she is a single mother of three who in March became the first female president of Chile. Already, her social policies are diverging from Chilean conservatism: In a country that legalized divorce only two years ago, health-care workers are now distributing the morning-after pill to teenagers for free.

No matter what their balancing act, however, center-leftists in Latin America keep strong ties to the United States and international trade, making them less likely to tolerate an encroaching Chavez.

Next: Ecuador and Nicaragua?

Dora Ampuero does not have high ambitions for Oct. 15, when Ecuador elects a new president. Her hope is that the lesser of the two leftists will win. The choice is between frontrunners Rafael Correa, a pro-Chavez former economy minister, and Leon Roldos, a former vice president. For now, Correa is proving more popular.

"He's young, good-looking, and a populist," said Ampuero, who directs the Ecuadorian Institute of Political Economy. "He just repeats what Chavez and Morales are doing." As economy minister, Correa tried to sell $300 million in Ecuador's debt to Venezuela, a deal that fell through. Worse, Ampuero said, Correa squandered an oil stabilization fund meant for debt payments on social spending.

But Correa is speaking the language of revolution, and Ecuador's poor are prone to populist messages and upheaval. Last year, Ecuadorians ousted their seventh president in 10 years. (See "Coup parade," May 7, 2005.)

In Nicaragua, the leftist candidate is a recurring Cold War memory for Americans: Sandinista leader and former president Daniel Ortega. He has kept to his old Marxist polemic, calling President Bush the new Reagan and casting the election as another opportunity for U.S. interference.

He also has ties to Chavez. The Sandinistas are the second-largest party in the National Assembly, and in May Ortega inked a deal with Venezuela to receive subsidized oil. Since the Sandinistas can pay the final 40 percent due over 25 years, opponents see the deal as a thinly veiled attempt to fund Ortega's election campaign. But with his run gaining increasing support, alarmed U.S. officials are warning that a November win for Ortega would yank Nicaragua backwards. Washington prefers Ortega's opponent, the pro-business Eduardo Montealegre.

Unlike South America, however, Central America has shifted to the center-right. An Ortega victory would likely make Nicaragua an anomaly. But even if the radical leftists win in both Ecuador and Nicaragua, the impact may not be strong on Latin America as a whole.

"The new wave of populism is not as damaging as the previous one," said Alejandro Chafuen, president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. In the 1970s, Marxism bound together different countries and indigenous groups. But now, "each of these indigenous tribes does not like to follow the chieftain of the other tribe." Competing national and political interests mean leftists are far less united than before. Though Chavez still plays an enticing populist tune, today's Latin America may not be so quick to follow.

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