Latin America's Populists Are Seeing Opposition

Ten years ago Hugo Chávez stormed into office railing against corporate interests and the United States. In his wake came Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who shared a populist vision for what became known as 21st-century socialism, capitalizing on the ruling elite's failure to relieve growing poverty. With a strong mandate and the establishment parties in tatters, these leaders centralized economic and political control and gutted the power of the old-guard parties. They also moved to take tighter control of their nations' energy industries—through either increased windfall taxes or outright nationalization—promising to redistribute the wealth to the poor.

In the process they created a slew of new provincial opposition forces, who are attempting to advance their own interests while retaining or increasing their regions' share of oil and gas revenue. Local leaders in Ecuador are organizing a "national uprising" against Correa, and regional leaders were instrumental in defeating Chávez's attempt to abolish presidential term limits in Venezuela. In the provinces of Bolivia and Venezuela, local leaders are mounting an opposition that could become a standing threat to the populists in the capitals. "The traditional top-down two- or three-party systems have evaporated, so what has emerged in opposition are these regional movements," says Christopher Sabatini of the Americas Society. "They are going to be a permanent part of the political landscape."

The strongest revolt has come in Bolivia, where Morales's plan for land reform would give La Paz authority to take non-productive agricultural land from wealthy landowners and give it to landless poor families. Since Morales announced the plan in 2006—and began pushing for a new constitution that redraws the political map in favor of the nation's poor, indigenous majority—four of Bolivia's nine regions have voted for greater autonomy. Last year, political activists in the department of Santa Cruz took control of the country's busiest airport, demanding that landing fees be paid locally, rather than to La Paz. In June, former Morales ally Savina Cuellar was elected governor of Chuquisaca. She, too, supports the autonomy movement, which wants regions to collect their own taxes, elect assemblymen directly and have greater authority over issues like roads and schools. Now the rebellious provinces are threatening to boycott an August referendum on Morales's leadership and that of regional governors—a move that could delegitimize the vote and diminish the president's credibility.

In Ecuador, Correa has reignited longstanding rivalries between the capital and the coastal hub of Guayaquil. He took his clear victory in the 2006 presidential election as a mandate to push for constitutional reforms aimed at a redistribution of wealth, strengthening state control of the economy and centralizing executive power. Others disagreed. Last November the governor of Orellana province, Guadalupe Llori, allegedly orchestrated a protest that inflicted millions of dollars of damage on the country's oil production. Earlier this year, Jaime Nebot, the mayor of Guayaquil, led a street rally to protest the loss of local autonomy. With municipal elections and a referendum on the constitutional reform scheduled for September, the now fragmented regional opposition could begin to cohere. Marlon Santi, a leader of rural indigenous groups in the highlands and Amazon territories, is calling for a national indigenous uprising against Correa, and says he is discussing "next steps with other social movements."

Cracks are emerging even in Venezuela, where Chávez was long believed to be invincible. In December voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed him to stay in office indefinitely and appoint regional leaders. Governors and mayors particularly opposed the plan, unwilling to cede authority to Caracas. Rising crime and high inflation have given these leaders even greater appeal. In upcoming local elections, Chávez most fears losing Caracas and its suburbs to people like Leopoldo López, mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao, and Enrique Mendoza, the former governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second most populous state.

So far, these regional leaders have not articulated a common political platform, beyond pushing back against pressure from the capitals. But with the old political parties showing no sign of reform, they are filling a gap. Indeed, these days the new provincial movements are what stands for an opposition.

Latin America's Populists Are Seeing Opposition | World