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Latin America's lurch to the left

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The recent inauguration in Bolivia of indigenous leader Evo Morales is being interpreted by many as a sign of a hemispheric lurch to the left. Indeed, with 12 presidential elections in 14 months, 2006 could well be a watershed for the region, recasting US policy toward its neighbors.

Yet, characterizing the region as hopelessly drifting away from US interests or as uniformly jettisoning the market economy "model" underestimates the complexity of both US relations and democracy in the region.

To look at what will be the most intense election year in Latin American history as a question of left-right orientation misses important differences among the leaders and obscures the democratic progress that many of these electoral contests represent. For many countries, the dozen presidential contests that started with Honduras last November will be a stable exercise in popular will. In only two of the countries, Nicaragua (November 2006) and Venezuela (December 2006), have observers raised questions about the fairness of the electoral process.

Throughout the region, candidates of both the left and the right are placing greater emphasis on reducing poverty and income inequality, a democratic reflection of growing popular concerns over economic security. But these demands should not be confused with a widespread rejection of the market economy model. According to Latinobarometer surveys, 63 percent of the citizens in the region agreed that the market economy was the only means to develop their countries.

For the most part, election results this year will bear out such public sentiment. In Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil - four of the closest friends of the United States - elections have already or probably will produce governments that will persist on their current path of fiscal responsibility and continued integration into the global economy. It's too early to tell what will be the outcome of Peru's presidential election in April.

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