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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

South Americans Lean to the Left

TACAMARA, Bolivia -- At first glance, there's nothing cutting edge about this isolated highland town of mud-brick homes and cold mountain streams. The way of life is remarkably unchanged from what it was centuries ago. The Aymara Indian villagers have no hot water or telephones, and each day they slog into the fields to shear wool and grow potatoes.

But Tacamara and dozens of similar communities across the scrub grass of the Bolivian highlands are at the forefront of a new leftward tide now rising in Latin American politics. Tired of poverty and indifferent governments, villagers here are being urged by some of their more radical leaders to forget the promises of capitalism and install instead a community-based socialism in which products would be bartered. Some leaders even talk of forming an independent Indian state.

"What we really need is to transform this country," said Rufo Yanarico, 45, a community leader. "We have to do away with the capitalist system."

In the burgeoning cities of China, India and Southeast Asia, that might sound like a hopelessly outdated dream because global capitalism seems to be delivering on its promise to transform those poor societies into richer ones. But here, the appeal of rural socialism is a powerful reminder that much of South America has become disenchanted with the poor track record of similar promises made to Latin America.

So the region has begun turning leftward again.

That trend figured heavily in the presidential election held Sunday in Bolivia. Evo Morales, a charismatic Aymara Indian and former coca farmer who promises to decriminalize coca production and roll back market reforms, came out ahead in the poll. Local media reports showed him taking more than 50 percent of the vote, higher than predicted, Reuters reported.

Morales was the most fascinating candidate because he is anything but alone in Latin America. He considers himself a disciple of the region's self-appointed standard-bearer for the left, Venezuelaen President Hugo Chavez, a populist who has injected the state into the economy, showering the nation's oil profits on projects aimed at the poor.

"In recent years, social movements and leftist parties in Latin America have reappeared with a force that has no parallel in recent history in the region," says a new book on the trend, "The New Left in Latin America," written by a diverse group of academic social scientists from across the Americas.

Peru also has a new and growing populist movement, led by a cashiered army officer, Ollanta Humala, who is ideologically close to Chavez. Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, who won office in 2003, announced last week that Argentina would sever all ties with the International Monetary Fund, which he blames for much of the country's long economic decline, by paying back its $9.9 billion debt to the fund.

The leftist movement that has taken hold in Latin America over the last seven years is diverse. Chavez is its most extreme example. Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, by contrast, is a former labor leader who emphasizes poverty reduction but also practices fiscal austerity. Uruguay has been pragmatic on economic matters, but has had increasingly warm relations with Venezuela. In Mexico, the leftist who is thought to have a good chance to be the next president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has distanced himself from Chavez.

What these leaders share is a strong emphasis on social egalitarianism and a determination to rely less on the approach known as the Washington Consensus, which emphasizes privatization, open markets, fiscal discipline and a follow-the-dollar impulse, and is favored by the IMF and United States officials.

"You cannot throw them all in the same bag, but this is understood as a left with much more sensitivity toward the social," said Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, a former Colombian government minister who last year helped write a United Nations report on the state of Latin American democracy. "The people believe these movements can resolve problems, since Latin American countries have seen that the Washington Consensus has not been able to deal with poverty."

The Washington Consensus became a force in the 1980s. Country after country was told to make changes from selling off utilities to cutting pension costs.

But the results were dismal. Poverty rose, rather than fell; inequality remained a curse. Meanwhile, many Latin Americans lost faith in traditional political parties that were seen as corrupt vehicles for special interests.

The new populism is perhaps most undefined here in the poorest and most remote corner of South America. Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist and former economic adviser here, says he empathizes with Bolivia's poor and agrees that energy companies should pay higher taxes. But he says Bolivia cannot close itself off to the world. "Protectionism isn't really a viable strategy for a small country," he said.

As president, Morales might well find that the slogans that rang in the streets are not much help in running a poor, troubled country.

Da Silva, the Brazilian president, acknowledged as much in comments he made Wednesday in Colombia: The challenge, he said, is "to show if we are capable as politicians to carry out what we, as union leaders, demanded of government."