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The right side of Latin America's left

The US shouldn't fear South American changes made in the interest of progressive reform and democracy.

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With his landslide reelection victory this month, Hugo Chávez maintains his role as lightning rod for US anxieties about Latin America's resurgent left.

President Bush has commended the leftist presidents of Brazil and Chile for embracing free-market orthodoxy and governing with moderation. But administration officials and members of Congress have repeatedly denounced Mr. Chávez – and more recently Bolivia's Evo Morales – for zealously criticizing the US and putting oil and gas resources to nationalist use. With the election of each new leftist president in Latin America, US commentators distinguish "good" leftist leaders who don't rock the boat from "bad" ones who do.

This US perspective is shortsighted. The resurgence of the left in Latin America is part of an ongoing process – which began with the 1910 Mexican Revolution and the rise of leftist parties in the 1920s and 1930s – of extending democratic reform, broadening markets, and increasing the involvement of the middle class in politics. Latin American leftists have not always championed these goals, and other parties have taken them up. But without the presence and pressures of the left, these changes, which support democracy and markets in the long run, would never have taken place.

Instead of worrying about particular leaders and policies, Democrats, moderate Republicans, and US business leaders should recognize that more progressive reform in Latin America, not less, constitutes the best path toward stable societies and a good investment climate.

The US should root for reforms that redistribute land, collect taxes in a progressive fashion, increase democratic decisionmaking at all levels, and broker thoughtful deals with the private sector. Only by providing poor and middle class people with incentives to move from protest in the streets to participation in political institutions will Latin American democracies avert social explosion and foster enduring reform.

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