Over the past decade, the left in Latin America has made spectacular gains. Since the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998, leftist parties or coalitions have won the presidency in Brazil (2002), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2004), Bolivia (2005), and Chile (2006). In July’s congressional elections, Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) became the second electoral force in the country, overtaking the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which governed the country for 70 years. The PRD’s presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, lost the election by only half of a percentage point. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas are poised to win the presidential election.

This is an unprecedented development. During the Cold War, countries that elected leftist presidents, like Guatemala in the 1950s or Chile in the 1970s, faced deep financial instability and CIA-backed military coups. Today’s electoral gains have gone hand in glove with mass mobilization of a scale that was only rarely seen in the past, but markets seem relatively resilient. Moreover, the left is progressing without much effective intervention from Washington. All of this can be seen in a positive light. But the resurgence of the left in Latin America also follows on the heels of that region’s worst economic performance since the early 19th century. The new political forms that are emerging reflect these conditions and so should not be idealized: they are as much as symptom of decay as they are a sign of hope.

For 25 years states and financial institutions forcefully imposed an unbridled capitalism on Latin America. Today’s collective resistance is important on a global scale; the only way to stop deregulation and the pauperization of the working and middle classes is to restrict capital’s freedom of action. Even if some Latin American democracies are unlikely to build robust internal economies, they still generate criticism and competition that shames the great powers and corporations into curbing their excesses. Venezuela’s Chávez sending heating oil to the Bronx last winter and Cuba offering aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina are volleys on this vast front. More potently, the electoral victories of various left coalitions in Latin America resonate with battles over free trade and labor reform in Europe, and, more generally, with mounting international pressure on religious laissez-faire ideologies.

The left’s re-emergence through democratic politics has also left some space for a less statist, less macho political style that breaks from the patria o muerte tradition still evident in the glorification of Fidel Castro, the praetorianism of Chávez or Peru’s Ollanta Humala, and even the grandstanding of Mexico’s Obrador. In Chile and Brazil, for example, the left has advanced a progressive civil-rights agenda; in Mexico, it defends civil rights against the onslaught of a newly empowered Catholic right. Although the Latin American left as a whole has had an ambivalent relationship to the European left’s self-criticism of the ’70s and ’80s, it has not resisted such self-criticism entirely. Today there is a feminist critique, a robust indigenous movement, and other sources of energy in a political milieu that was profoundly influenced by the Soviet ideals of industrialism, anti-imperialism, nationalism, and statism.

Moreover, the left has shown some imagination in designing programs of redistribution, investing in public goods, and experimenting in decentralized governance and alternative media. These efforts generally succeed, in part because they enter into a field of democratic competition that may be demagogic or populist but is also directed to meeting real popular needs.

Despite these substantial gains, hard questions remain about the identity of the newly empowered left and what it might accomplish. To explore its potential, I have identified seven motifs of contemporary political and electoral competition. Together they constitute a kind of vocabulary for a movement that thus far knows better what it opposes than what it favors. Having not yet articulated an alternative political project, it vacillates between a moralism that celebrates civic virtue, an old-fashioned focus on state regulation, and borrowings from neo-liberalism. Because this combination has so little structure and definition, it can easily lead to the sort of overblown emphasis on leadership that has troubled Latin American politics since the 19th century.

Foundationalism. Specters of the past haunt every step in Latin America’s turn to the left. Political arguments regularly appeal to a rectification of history, the return to an origin or founding moment, a second chance at achieving some project previously derailed. Because the specific histories being rectified are, each of them, presented as national histories, the imaginary points of reference vary from country to country. Thus, Evo Morales’s victory in Bolivia is supposed to rectify 500 years of colonial imposition of whites over Indians. Morales’s formal inaugural ceremony before the Bolivian congress was preceded by another, “truer” inauguration in Tihuanaco, a pre-Incaic site, where Morales was presented with freshly minted age-old symbols of Aymara kingship and authority.

Hugo Chávez, in contrast, found the source of national redemption not in the pre-colonial past but in a return to the founding of the nation-state, under Simón Bolívar, almost 200 years ago. In Mexico the rise of the new left occurred first in 1988, under the leadership of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, in a movement that harked back to the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, Cuahtémoc’s father, and a period of agrarian reform and the nationalization of oil. Six years later, the Zapatista movement cast itself as continuing the radical struggle of Emiliano Zapata, in the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). In Chile Michelle Bachelet is redeeming the democratic socialism of Salvador Allende, killed in 1973, along with Bachelet’s own father. In Argentina, as Beatriz Sarlo has argued, the secret of the posthumous life of Peronism lies in the obsession with lost opportunity that is the key motif in the cult of Evita. The crisis of 2002 made Peronism the only political force, the only powerful political idiom, in the country. In Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s electoral triumph was widely received as the symbolic conclusion of that nation’s democratic transition from military rule, which formally ended in 1981. And in Uruguay, Tabare Vázquez’s triumph, the first presidential victory of the left in that country, is also understood as a vindication of that country’s early social-democratic legacy of the 1920s.

Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile: 500 years, 200 years, 90 years, 80 years, 60 years, 40 years, 30 years. But also: the pre-colonial era, the early republican moment, the Mexican Revolution, Uruguayan social democracy, national popular regimes, and democratic socialism. These are some of the ghosts that haunt the new foundationalism.

The embrace of these old haunts apparently concludes a period of mourning for the illusions both of the Cold War left and the shareholders of that era’s national “economic miracles.” The new foundationalism grafts the hopes of that period—which had been degraded, humiliated, and violently obliterated by the dictatorships of the 1970s and in the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s—onto the emerging new regimes.

But the current rise of the left occurs without an alternative economic project, which makes the very meaning of “left” and “right” difficult to pinpoint. And that difficulty may in turn explain why the “lost moments” all appeal to specific national traditions and images of autonomy and self-governance.

Reliance on this nationalist idiom has in turn provoked debates about the meaning of the nation, who represents it, and who belongs to it. In the case of Venezuela, where polarization has been greatest, there is a contest over the flag, about who are the true descendants of Bolívar, and even over the name of the country. More broadly, though, the left’s reliance on nationalism tends to paint the opposition as an oligarchy allied to foreign interests. The right and center too have increased their nationalist investments, to the extent they can without violating their pro-globalization posture. In short, the foundational discourse of the Latin American left builds on the remnants of an older nationalist discourse that is not, in the end, the special possession of the left.

Corruption. A renewed concern with corruption was first taken up in the 1980s by neo-liberal reformers—who represented the national-popular regimes of the prior era as “obese,” weighted down by inefficient, state-subsidized or state-run companies, and objects of political pillage—and subsequently embraced by social movements and by left parties and voters. The failure of neo-liberal regimes was itself understood as the result of a new form of corruption, more akin to the vampirism of the chupacabras than to the Rabelaisian excesses of the previous system of clientelistic redistribution—more like Enron, insider trading, and currency speculation than like PEMEX, overcharging the government, and insider bidding on public works. In some cases, where neo-liberal reform led to deep economic crises, corrupt neo-liberal leaders were demonized in a truly novel way: they were publicly repudiated and banished, as were Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his adviser, José Córdoba, in Mexico; José Carvallo in Argentina; and Gonzalo Sánchez Losada (Goni) in Bolivia.

This concern with corruption shapes the contours of contemporary democratic politics and defines its limits: the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet could not be tried for murder without risking deep national divisions, but he and members of his family are being tried for corruption. More deeply, commitments to transparency and the autonomy of central banks—understood as responses to corruption—set limits on the political action of contemporary populism.

Neo-republican honesty is being newly emphasized as a counterpart to neo-liberal ideology, with a corresponding shift in focus from the organization of the state as the locus of corruption to the civic virtue of leader and citizen. This is why, for example, Simón Bolívar and Benito Juárez—paragons of 19th-century republican virtue who otherwise have little connection to the left—have been revived as heroes of the new leftist caudillos.

If jogging, youthfulness, and personal success were iconic signs of the modern neo-liberal citizen (an iconography that was developed in the 1990s by presidents such as Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil and Carlos Menem in Argentina), then waking up early, cutting one’s own salary, driving a Datsun, and traveling economy class are becoming iconic signs of the neo-republican paradigm of virtuous citizenship personified by such politicians as Obrador and Morales.

This new ascetic leadership paints existing bureaucracy as hopelessly weak and corrupt, and in need of a whole new exoskeleton of pacts, policy initiatives, and parallel institutions: structured formally, but animated by civic virtue.

The body politic. The new focus on civic virtue has brought with it a sentimentalism—which was perhaps most gushingly deployed by the Zapatistas—that plays on the image of civil society as the site of everything that is true, pure, and good. The ideal of dignity resonates deeply. White-collar employees in Argentina and Uruguay; unionized working classes in Brazil; peasants, small-shop owners, and artisans in Mexico: all of them are represented as noble victims of the treacherous and perverted state, and all are being vindicated by the leaders of the new democratic left.

But while the term “civil society” is still widely embraced, there is a tacit but powerful tension between two understandings of it: civil society as a middle-class form of association, with its corresponding media (newspapers, TV chains, TV channels), and civil society as a fancy way of appealing to what used to be known as “the people” (el pueblo) and to popular sovereignty. The new democratic right has been working hard to draw sharp lines between the rabble and democratic politics based on the protection of individual rights. So, for instance, one of the most contentious practices of contemporary Latin American politics is the increasingly widespread blockage of city streets and roads for political rallies. These events are covered by news organizations as an abuse of the citizenry at the hands of special interests.

In fact, the plebeian occupation of public space is a focus of conflict between opposing views about civil society and appropriate form of democratic politics. Political commentators on the right are fond of contrasting upright citizens with “la chusma,” a derogatory term for the plebes. Conversely, the new left indulges, to different degrees, in baiting the middle classes by upsetting the traditional protocol of political engagement. For example, Mexico’s rural Movimiento de 400 Pueblos has in recent years taken to holding street rallies in Mexico City in the nude. The bodily presence of a hundred or two naked, short, and brown peasant men and women is one example from a long list of new strategies to force open the circle of media attention and public discussion.

Correspondingly and reciprocally, older and somewhat archaic forms of class discrimination proliferate once again in the Latin American right: racist representations of Chávez as a monkey, Morales as an uncivilized Indian, and López Obrador as a black viper; and classist representations of Lula as a beer-drinking vulgarian. All these forms of discrimination are prominently showcased, transformed into useful political occasions, and then countered with socially transgressive public acts whose genealogies can be traced back to earlier transgressive populist leaders, such as Perón and Evita in Argentina or, more radically, Mexico’s revolutionary generals.

The physical characteristics and individual propensities of Latin American presidents have taken on great symbolic weight: their personal mobility through electoral victory enacts and redeems the morality and virtue of social classes and sectors that had been slated for extinction by neo-liberal reformers. As a result, when there are political scandals, they tend to revolve around presidential bodies and their violation of the sacred symbols of state sobriety: the Venezuelan high court receiving Chávez with a cheer: “U.A., Chávez no se va”; the expulsion of a New York Times reporter for his coverage of Lula’s beer drinking; video scandals exposing the corruption of PRD political operators, stuffing briefcases, coat pockets, and shopping bags with cash; media criticism of Morales’s clothing.

The tension between a form of democratic politics that excludes many of the poor and one based on mass mobilization—which can transgress legally sanctioned civil rights—is focused on the presidential body and its own transgressions. Thus, race is important for Chávez, single-motherhood for Bachelet, ethnicity for Morales, and a lower-class ethos for Lula. There is, in other words, a politics of identification between the body of the president and the irruption of the people into the democratic process.

Anti-imperialism. Before World War I, neither the United States nor the European powers cared about Latin American opinion: no need to worry about winning hearts and minds when gunboat and dollar diplomacy worked their magic. This began to change during World War I with the disruption of the world’s economic core. Germany became interested in Mexico, in Panama, in Brazil, in Argentina. With the rise of Bolshevism and fascism, the United States became deeply concerned with Latin American opinion, and it sought to gain influence through both overt and covert methods: cinema campaigns, collaboration in public health and hygiene, anti-fascist propaganda. This concern intensified during the Cold War, when the whole apparatus of “development” was put in place and deployed as an arm in the contest against communism.

With the end of the Cold War, however, political interest in Latin American opinion declined, and the state of Latin American democracies came as close to irrelevant for the United States, East Asia, and Europe as it had been since the First World War. Latin America is still haunted by the specter of its international irrelevance, of decline to a status parallel to that of Africa, and being increasingly remote from the emerging economies of East and South Asia.

In this context, one unmistakable success of the new left has been its ability to put the region back on the international radar screen: how much press did Bolivia get before Morales? Venezuela before Chávez? Latin America before Lula and Kirchner?

It is still difficult to grasp the full meaning of the contemporary left’s anti-imperialism, and at this point we can do little except to note a few telling developments. A first point of interest is the number of Latin American democracies that have chosen to prop up Castro’s Cuba rather than divest from it (a move that was initiated by the Vicente Fox government in Mexico under the leadership of Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda but that it restricted owing to internal political pressure). Other Latin American countries have no compelling desire to imitate Cuba’s economic model, but they have hailed Cuba’s resistance against the United States and its achievements in health and education.

Also, Venezuela’s activist international policy is a regional novelty that is in some ways reminiscent of international politics in the Arab world (consider Saudi Arabia, for instance, or Iran). Bolivia’s alliance with Venezuela, which is uncomfortable for Brazil, is founded on the politics of oil and natural gas. Thus, the international orientation of governments whose banner is the nationalization of extractive industries (and who are, in this regard, renter states) is distinct from those whose economies depend on a more diversified portfolio of commodities, or on renewable commodities that are less prone to regulated exploitation.

Thus, the opposition to the left—for example, in Mexico and Peru—is at times being organized effectively against the threat of Chávez, his oil populism and his oil diplomacy. Conversely, leftist candidates tend to equate anti-Chavismo with a pro–United States alignment (even as they try to keep their distance from Chávez).

The rise of the left has also fostered a creative attempt to reshuffle Latin America’s position in the international economy. Brazil has attempted to consolidate its old aspirations as a regional hegemon by building trade agreements in the south, and Argentina and Brazil are increasing their exports of soy beans to China. In this context, anti-imperialism is not anti-capitalism so much as a politics of reconfiguration of regional blocks.

In all cases there is a subtle but real fault line between anti-Americanism as a political resource and offering continued guaranteed access to key American interests. The complexities of this fault-line politics will be pivotal for Mexico’s new government, given the ugly turn that immigration politics has taken in the United States.

Populism. Many of the characteristics of the Latin American left are common to the region’s democratic politics as a whole. One such characteristic is the shift away from the corporate state to flexible forms of social distribution, beginning with programs such as the “social liberalism” of Salinas’s Solidaridad Program in the Mexico of the early 1990s and moving through López Obrador’s distribution of pensions, Lula’s Zero Hunger Program and Chávez’s misiones. Each of these programs provides direct, targeted distribution of resources from the federal government (for money, food, construction materials, health, or education), unmediated by union membership or employer-based social security.

Governments of the left and right both seem unable to mobilize bureaucratic structures effectively, and this limitation has issued in efforts to build parallel, flexible forms of state intervention in income security, health, and education. While side-stepping the state’s traditional bureaucracy, these flexible forms also concentrate power in the hands of key political operators, mayors, and presidents. The prominence of these forms of investment are a key aspect of the populist flavor of Latin American leftist regimes, although the classical populist regimes of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s tended to rely on unions and bureaucratic structures. There is a plebeian flavor to the new populism that makes it more reminiscent of Bonapartist mobilization than of Perón’s orderly, quasi-fascist corporatism.

Flexible populism can constitute a threat against longer-term public investment and is a threat to traditional constitutional checks and balances. It leads easily to the organization of political shock troops, some of which are deployed to restrict electoral processes. It is, at the same time, a system that is equally available to the left and to the right. It is no accident that the team that organized Salinas’s “Solidarity” program in Mexico City was equally prominent in the López Obrador government. Political parties compete to offer attractive programs of redistribution, stealing ideas from one another and applying them regardless of whether they originated on the left or on the right. Lula’s social policies borrowed liberally from Cardoso’s, and, on the other side, Fox borrowed from his archenemy, López Obrador. In this respect, again, there is a competitive relationship between the left and the political strategies of neo-liberal governments.

Consumerism. The political realm in Latin America has become focused on consumption and the politics of visible public works, often to the detriment of efforts to build strong national economic niches. In Mexico and Central America especially, but also in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere, new standards of consumption are being shaped by migrant workers in the United States, Europe, and even Chile and Argentina, where wages are higher and the structure of employment more favorable to those standards. Illegal traffic in drugs and other contraband also contribute to new consumer standards. Here a new kind of consumerism arises and presses in on democratic life and forces governments to respond to new expectations. Consumer items have become the signposts of class distinctions in societies that are the most unequal in the entire world. It is said that in Brazil, most of the youths who land in prison are not violent criminals or drug dealers but petty thieves of brand-name luxury goods: Nike, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger.

A return to classical forms of the developmental state may exacerbate the problem in the long term: education, in that frame, is a national good tied to national issues rather than a globally oriented good (a position that too often is associated with neo-liberalism). As a result, education is not funneled to reshape the nations’ economic niche—as in India, for example, with its high-tech industry. Latin America’s left—with the possible exception of Chile—is not yet poised to face that great challenge. Instead, it has followed the neo-liberal trend of turning its countries into consumer nations—into a kind of mass cultural suburb of the American suburb, awash in knockoffs.

Realism. The neo-liberal era produced a deep fracture in every Latin American country between the segments of the population that thrived under free trade and the shrinking state, and those that were put at risk. This fracture was visible everywhere except perhaps in Chile, the neo-liberal pioneer, where the special conditions of the Pinochet dictatorship made the fracture less visible and harder to discuss, and where there have since been unique gains in reducing poverty levels.

Everywhere else the rift was prominent, and it had many expressions: the two-tiered country; the “deep nation” versus the “fictional nation”; the oligarchy versus the pueblo. The fight was often represented as a contest about what is real and which side of the economy best represents it.

The neo-liberal faction fired the first shot in this battle when it argued that the developmental state and “import-substitution industrialization” defied economic laws and economic reality. The left constructed an alternative version populated by the poor, by violence, and by marginalization. Ultimately, the left effectively identified this alternative version with the nation and neo-liberal “economic laws” with a foreign imposition (either from Chicago-trained economists or Wall Street bankers). The political project for the left has been to bring this marginalized nation to center stage.

The Caracas food riots of 1989—the so-called Caracazo, where hundreds of poor looters were shot and thousands were photographed and televised—is the high point of the upsurge of the marginal real, of the sense that prosperous Caracas was an island that was everywhere surrounded, everywhere besieged, by a reality of poverty that was every day denied. The summer of the marginal-real has in fact been referred to by Chávez himself as in fact at the root of the Bolivarian assent to power.

Not coincidentally, Latin American cinema and literature have turned away from the magical realism of the generations of the ’60s and ’70s to a new realism that pursues what the Brazilian literary scholar Beatriz Jaguaribe calls “the shock of the real”–the raw portrayal of urban poverty, drug violence, child prostitution.

The left has repeatedly emphasized its contact with this social reality. López Obrador, for example, began his presidential campaign in January at a village of Guerrero state that was selected because it was the poorest municipality in the country. And Subcomandante Marcos, who wrote the rule book on the contention over the real, routinely signed his press communiqués from a rural Chiapas ejido called “La realidad.”

This talk about “the real” is part of a political language that emerged from Latin America’s classic populists—Evita, and Getulio Vargas, and even dictatorial populists such as Trujillo and the Duvaliers—and has been denounced by many as populist and anti-democratic. It is a language of bawdy transgression, of brown men upsetting protocol and convention. It is a language that instills fear in certain sectors, because it is an idiom of identification between leader and marginal follower, an idiom of identification that is generally recognized as a call to class hatred. And class hatred is a dimension—or at least a readily available resource—of contemporary democratic politics in the region.

But there is, in addition to this, a second important register in the left’s discourse of the real: the theater of public works. The public work, and especially the monumental public work, is here a kind of concrete image, a positive that stands in marked contrast to the corruption of neo-liberal regimes, which failed to build. Of course, it is the Mexicans and the Brazilians who are the champions of this particular form of monumentality: two-storied freeways, irrigation dams, new school buildings—the whole panoply of 1950s developmentalism—are now deployed as images of the real once the real is in power, images of what can be done when a virtuous citizen occupies the presidency.

For this reason, the neo-republican image of the presidential persona is coupled with the neo-developmentalism of his economic program, and often of his actual ministerial team. The marriage of foundationalism, neo-republicanism, and neo-developmentalism is thus a formula for more state control over the economy but also a somewhat worrisome sign of the left’s poverty of imagination.

The new left is not revolutionary and anti-capitalist; it is pro-regulation. It will continue to turn to developmentalism if there is no concerted effort to promote alternative models. On this score, the weakness of Latin America’s green parties and green movements is both a source of concern and a site of increasing attention.

Today, the Latin American left is riddled by contradictions: it is a form of democratic politics that challenges some of the core precepts of liberal democracy; it is a rebellion against unbridled globalization that constantly risks falling back on nationalism and the developmental state; it seeks to strengthen state intervention and regulation but must rely on “flexible” forms of redistribution that it shares with neo-liberal parties; it seeks to produce alternative models of reality and development but is insufficiently invested in science, technology, and environmentalism.

These contradictions are not unacknowledged in Latin American public discussion, but they are too often hurled as partisan accusations rather than engaged as urgent policy debates. Until they are taken seriously, the Latin American left will remain a promising ideal of global resistance but a practical failure.