The Populists Retreat
Why Latin America's firebrands are softening their rhetoric—and emboldening the opposition.
January 28, 2008 Issue - Newsweek Magazine

By Joe Contreras | NEWSWEEK

A rather chastened Hugo Chávez recently addressed his fellow Venezuelans on his weekly television program, "Aló Presidente." "I'm obliged to apply the brakes," said Chávez, referring to the pace of political and economic change the country should expect this year, after voters rejected a government-backed package of constitutional reforms in December. Soon after, his Bolivian ally Evo Morales made conciliatory gestures of his own, opening unity talks two weeks ago with provincial governors from opposition parties. "Let's work together to resolve our differences," said the Bolivian president.

What's going on? Chávez and Morales are two of the Latin American left's leading demagogues, known for their pugnaciousness and their willingness to throw vitriol at all enemies, real or imagined. Yet they have significantly toned down their rhetoric, coming to the realization, it seems, that bitter words don't get things done. "These are majoritarian populists who strongly believe they represent the people and that the people are on their side," says Arturo Valenzuela, director of Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies. "But they've found that governing is more complicated than that, and there's a sense of realism that's setting in."

Indeed, running a country takes more than fiery speechmaking. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has had so few accomplishments after his first full year in office that he skipped the traditional state-of-the-union address. His poll numbers reflect that dismal performance. Between April and December, his disapproval rating jumped 18 points to 54.6 percent.

In Bolivia, Morales swept into office two years ago promising to take back control of the country's energy resources and become George W. Bush's "worst nightmare." But his campaign to nationalize Bolivia's natural-gas and oil resources amounted to little more than tax hikes on foreign energy companies operating there. His attempt late last year to ram through a new constitution that would give him greater powers galvanized political rivals. Bloody clashes broke out between police and protesters, spooking many in a country where spasms of violent unrest have toppled governments. Now voters are becoming disenchanted with an economy that expanded by 4 percent last year while other commodity-rich countries in the neighborhood fared better. Last week a humbled Morales and eight of the country's nine provincial governors agreed to form a commission to reconcile a new draft constitution, which would give the president much more power, with provincial demands for greater autonomy. "The government was unable to impose its own constitution and has now opted for negotiations," says Bolivian economist Gonzalo Sánchez. "The opposition has been strengthened."

A similar scenario could unfold in Ecuador this year. Left-wing president Rafael Correa is pushing for a new political charter that would bolster the executive branch and allow him to run for a second consecutive term as president in 2010. But the mayor of Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, is lobbying businessmen to block Correa's power grab. "The opposition is already talking the Bolivia talk about regional autonomy," notes Florida International University political scientist Eduardo Gamarra.

Even the region's most powerful leader, Chávez, is finding it difficult to maintain momentum. The voters' rejection of a constitutional reform that would have allowed him to seek reelection with no limits, was a major setback for Chávez that reflected voter anger over the nation's soaring crime rate and high inflation. Still, Chávez can't bring himself to reach out without throwing a punch, too. Just days after his earnest TV promise of "revision, rectification and relaunching," he went back on the offensive. He told the rubber-stamp Venezuelan Congress he would again ask voters, in 2010, to endorse a reform that would allow his indefinite re-election. "People are becoming somewhat tired of the rhetoric and confrontation, and this is a pause in the process," says Georgetown's Valenzuela. "But it's premature to say it's a trend."

So far, none of the region's hardline leftists have shelved their populist-flavored political agendas. But the fact that Chávez & Co. have taken their feet off the accelerator has emboldened many of their once demoralized political foes, suggesting Latin America's radical leaders may find themselves on the defensive for some time to come.