The Latin American Left: Challenges for 2016 and Beyond
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In 2015, the Latin American left suffered significant electoral setbacks, against the backdrop of falling oil and commodity prices. As a result, these electoral changes may lead to a dangerous reversal to many of the gains achieved by progressive governments and popular movements over the last decade and a half.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro holds a picture of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez during a rally in the port city of Catia La Mar, in northern Vargas state.

In recent weeks, however, many within the Latin American left have been scratching their heads searching for answers in order to address the concerns and frustrations of the population.

“The perception is that the recent achievements were the result of the benevolence of those in power, and not due to action from grassroots organizations. So, in the minds of the people, changing those in power will still guarantee those achievements,” Miguel Stedile, a member of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement national coordination committee told teleSUR English.

The political expectations of the region’s highly empowered and critical citizenry led in part to right-wing electoral victories in Venezuela, Argentina, and to a lesser extent in Brazil and Bolivia. The subsequent electoral outcomes serve as an indication that there are some major challenges facing the Latin America left in 2016, including adequately addressing voter demands.

As we look ahead to 2016, progressive sectors in the Latin American left face changing socio-economic demographics amid slow economic growth, which will undoubtedly impose structural constraints on the ability of governments to enact necessary and popular socioeconomic reforms.

Lingering Inequalities and Satisfying the Middle Class

One major source of discontent among Latin Americans is the high levels of income inequality. Despite impressive achievements in the area of poverty reduction, income inequality remains high and frustration with slow progress on this front is now likely to be enhanced by slower economic growth, with the new middle classes fearing the reversal of their new found economic prosperity.

A poll released on September 25 by Latinobarometro, a Santiago-based research group that has polled public sentiment in Latin America since 1995, revealed that 60 percent of Latin Americans — around 360 million people — feel they are not receiving their fair share of the economic pie.

The same survey, however, discovered a positive correlation between wealth distribution and government approval ratings. For instance, in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, countries with high presidential approval ratings, citizens perceived the distribution of wealth to be the most equal — 49 percent, 42 percent and 38 percent respectively.

Over the last decade, economic growth combined with social-welfare policies through transfer payments programs, has meant that the less well-off have benefitted and the middle class has expanded from one fifth to one third of the population, prompting a second wave of demands such as greater economic inclusion and equality.

In recent years, the middle classes have been the primary beneficiaries of the social welfare programs. Therefore, civic demands for higher public spending and more participatory governance have been defining features of civic engagement over the last 15 years.

“It seems that the populations in Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina — I don't know about Ecuador and Bolivia, I don't follow those countries as closely — are feeling that they have had a huge improvement in the quality of life, but now they want more,” Stedile said during an interview with teleSUR English.

The rise of Latin America's middle class has given way to the emergence of new demands such as reforms geared toward guaranteeing their continued economic mobility as well the provision of more efficient public services.

However, experts warn that due to shrinking fiscal resources, the economically vulnerable sectors of Latin America’s newly established middle class may fall back into poverty.

“I think that the left (governments) must be self-critical, because they were content with a program of immediate achievements, for example in Argentina and Brazil ... But these didn't turn into more long-term achievements.” Stedile told teleSUR English.

As external markets and global economic conditions worsen, Latin American governments will face continued pressure to meet the public policy demands of differing social demographic groups, possibly sparking competition between sectors of society that seek support from the state.

The Search for New Forms of Economic Growth

Over the last decade, the emergence of Latin America’s new middle class has been facilitated in part thanks to the surge in demand for primary goods, including minerals, hydrocarbons, soybeans and other agricultural commodities.

However, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean, the region will see its exports drop again in 2016.

The end of the commodity price boom has created structural challenges in the Latin American economic growth model, which is largely dependent on revenue from primary exports.

Now that the commodity boom has come to a halt, many countries across the region are desperately searching for alternative forms of economic growth. Unfortunately, however, most Latin American economies lack alternative sources of revenue due to their continued dependence on commodity exports.

For example, during the commodity price boom the dependence of Latin American and the Caribbean countries on primary exports increased. In 2014, they accounted for 68 percent of exports to Asia and the Pacific, up from 48 percent in 2000.

At a time when states have fewer resources to fulfill both demands from the middle class and those belonging to the most vulnerable sectors of society, government’s will likely be forced to navigate the complicated terrain of conflicting class interests.

Media Reform

Looking ahead, the left may consider new strategies in order to adapt to the changing socioeconomic demographics of the region, and meet the new wave of demands. One of these initiatives is the use and transformation of media as an instrument of power.

Over the last decade, increased access to the Internet and education has produced a more informed and critical public, which has cast doubt on dominant media narratives.

A 2015 survey covering 19 countries and carried out by Latinobarometro, revealed that just over 54 percent of respondents reported that they had little to no trust in media outlets. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of people surveyed indicated that they trusted the media a lot.

Over the last 15 years, progressive governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Uruguay have approved important legislative initiatives, challenging the structure of media ownership and creating alternatives to hegemonic models of communication.

In several countries in the region, at least one third of all broadcasting frequencies have been designated for community or alternative media sources.

Nevertheless, in many instances, such policies have failed to ensure increased representation and visibility for independent media outlets, partially due to burdensome licensing procedures as well as rigid broadcasting laws.

Thus, one of the remaining challenges for many progressive governments is the continued diversification of the region's media landscape, which has become an important space for policy makers to better understand, and respond to, the needs, interests, problems and expectations of different sectors of the population.

However, attempts to diversify media ownership have been complicated in countries like Argentina and Venezuela where the ring-wing secured significant electoral victories in recent months.

Only days after being sworn into office, Argentine President Mauricio Macri wasted no time in announcing his administration’s plan to empower corporate media conglomerates by dismantling the country’s state-run media watchdog, which was created under the 2009 Media Law.

Similarly in Venezuela, newly elected lawmakers are vowing to modify the legal framework of the country’s media law.

Not surprisingly, the assault on alternative media outlets represents a direct challenge to one of the fundamental strategies deployed by social movements against the neoliberal and conservative governments of the region during the early 2000’s.

The Progressive Left Is not Dead

From Brazil to Venezuela there have been radical shifts in the geopolitical landscape of the region. Thus, the year 2016 will no doubt be a period marked by reflection, creativity and resistance. It has to be, for the left to be able to respond to the challenge from the right-wing movement in the region.

Amid this complicated scenario, the region’s leftist governments and lawmakers will have to focus on the implementation of public policies that promise the greatest gains for the greater good, as well as defending the important social economic achievements won over the last 15 years.

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