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Isabel Hilton: Latin America: the leaders change but the injustice lives on

They've seen off the US, for now, but their failure to change lives could lose them popular support

When Fernando Lugo, a former priest and a political novice, won Paraguay's presidential election on 20 April, he became the first man in 60 years to reach the presidency without being a member of the Colorado Party. Since 1947, the Colorados, the party of the late dictator Alfredo Stroessner, of political repression, of political informers, corrupt deals and secret police, have used Paraguay as though it were their own, making it one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the hemisphere.

Lugo joins the lengthening list of leaders who have come to power in Latin America on the hopes of the dispossessed, the excluded, the poor and the landless. They are the marginalised majorities who have prevailed against corrupted electoral machines and well-financed ruling parties to get their candidates into office. They include President Lula of Brazil, Paraguay's giant neighbour and local superpower, a factory worker turned politician; Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, a former army officer; Evo Morales, the indigenous peasant leader and president of Bolivia; and Rafael Correa, Ecuador's evangelical Catholic president.

What they have in common is a popular mandate to address Latin America's inequalities in income, health, education and a sentiment, variously exploited, that challenging traditional US dominance of the region is an important part of the process. It is a combination that has raised anxieties in Washington and earned the new leaders a warm welcome from some in the European left who see in these new champions of the poor an opportunity to re-fight the ideological wars of position of long ago.

It is tempting, but a mistake, to squeeze these disparate figures into one model leftist president. Latin America today is not the continent it was 40 years ago, and if these leaders have in common a mandate to redress social and economic injustice, they are nevertheless not singing from the same hymn sheet. Their ideologies, political personalities and degrees of success are markedly different. Chavez remains the most divisive and contentious. Flush with petro-dollars, he has tried to seize the revolutionary mantle from the nerveless fingers of Fidel Castro, adopting the revolutionary rhetoric, the enthusiasm for six-hour speeches – provided it is he who is making them – the conviction that all bad things originate in Washington, and the equally firm belief that he is destined to lead the sub-continent. None of this has made him particularly popular in the region. Lula scarcely troubles to hide his distaste for Chavez's claim to regional leadership, Correa is no great supporter, and the newly elected Lugo has been at pains to point out that to put state resources entirely at the service of one man is "dangerous for a real democracy."

Chavez can boast his own democratic credentials, burnished by the stupidity of a ridiculous and short-lived coup against him in 2002, one of the Bush administration's throwbacks to the political dark ages. Chavez submitted to the judgment of the electorate 10 times in nine years, and prevailed in nine of them, including on his first rewrite of the constitution. Nevertheless, these days his democratic vocation is not without question: he has used state power and money against his political opponents, arguing that they served the cause of the people against the elite.

His move against an implacably hostile private TV station provoked alarm that went much wider than the usual suspects, and his bid to secure for his presidency the possibility of re-election without limit was rejected by the Venezuelan electorate last year. When he openly sought to influence the results of the Nicaraguan election in 2006 by promising cheap oil to the ex-revolutionary Daniel Ortega, who won with 38 per cent of the vote, or was himself named the same year as the donor of $300,000 (£152,000) to the winning candidate in Argentina's elections, he laid himself open to charge of interfering in the democratic processes of others. Now, having lost the referendum that would have kept him in power, his best democratic test will be to leave his post gracefully at the end of his term.

How far has this new wave of leaders succeeded in satisfying the hopes invested in them? The short answer is, not as well as their constituents hoped. To break the electoral stranglehold of Latin America's oligarchies is one thing, to deliver on the promise of change is harder. Overall, Latin America's economies have benefited from a rising China's hunger for natural resources, and has gained, too, from the Bush administration's neglect, having switched its attentions to remaking the Middle East to a neo-con template. Washington is no longer able to pull the strings and guarantee the outcome as it once did and Latin America's new leaders have more room to rearrange their domestic furniture than before. But despite the steady economic growth of the last few years and politicians elected on a redistributive platform, not much has changed.

In Brazil, where Lula has been in power now for five years, and in Venezuela, where Chavez has benefited from high oil prices, the poorest are living better on direct state subsidies. But the fundamental reforms that would bring lasting improvements in the balance of economic power and social justice – land reform in Brazil, for instance, have not happened. In Venezuela, despite the proclamations of success in eradicating illiteracy and poverty, the evidence is highly contested.

One recent US study pointed out that the average share of the budget devoted to health, education and housing under Chavez in his first eight years in office was 25.12 per cent, hardly above the 25.08 per cent of the eight years before and less than in 1992 under the neo-liberal Carlos Andres Perez. Chavez continues to see a possible military overthrow of his government by the US and its ally Colombia as the biggest danger to democracy in the region, but that remains rhetorical. The more profound threat is that the failure of these disparate, populist leaders to make headway against the historic and structural injustices they inherited will lead to electoral disenchantment and more instability – not external military intervention, but in the difficulty of change and in disappointed expectation.