With the recent election of avowed socialist Evo Morales as the president of Bolivia, Latin America’s turn to the political and economic left continues. Venezuela and Bolivia now have elected presidents who publicly declare themselves to be socialists, who discuss (and even implement) land redistribution programs, and who are willing to antagonize the United States. In addition, the presidents of Argentina and Brazil have leftist origins and sympathies, although they are more moderate than Bolivian and Venezuelan leftists. Finally, other countries have elected presidents with leftist platforms or from traditionally Marxist political parties — although those presidents have turned out to implement quite different programs once in office. This last set of countries includes Ecuador and Chile, among others.

The current post will briefly ask three questions. First, is it reasonable to characterize Evo Morales as a threat to regional stability, as the US State Department has tended to do? Second, what does this broad turn to the left in Latin America mean, and where does it come from? Third, what does all of this mean for the church?

So, first off, US press coverage and official statements about Evo Morales have tended to focus primarily on one of his proposals: the legalization of coca farming. Coca, of course, is the plant which serves as the primary raw material for producing cocaine. In its unprocessed form, coca isn’t a powerful drug at all and in fact is used as a widely-available medicine for altitude sickness in the Andes. When processed, however, it becomes one of the major motive forces behind the international drug trade.

With US funding, and as part of the US drug trade, Bolivia has spent the last several years trying to eradicate coca production within its borders. Since much of the coca produced in South America ends up being exported to the First World by the major drug gangs in the form of cocaine, this eradication effort may at first glance seem to be a direct struggle with elite figures from the criminal underworld. However, the actual market structure of cocaine production makes the picture more complicated. Most of the coca used in the drug trade is produced not by drug lords directly, but rather by small independent farmers. These farmers sell their coca to the drug gangs for rather small amounts of money, and they enjoy a lifestyle just above subsistence level. Virtually all of the profit from drug production accrues to the refiners, shippers, and First World dealers — not to the farmers.

So, when Latin American governments crack down on drug crop production, rather than on refining or shipping operations, they are essentially going to war against tens of thousands of poor farmers. Distaste for this reality lies behind Morales’s proposal to decriminalize coca production in Bolivia and stop crop eradication efforts. Such a proposal need not amount to legalization of the cocaine trade; if the US were to negotiate a realignment of efforts in Bolivia toward closing shipping lanes, the net result for the global drug trade would likely be comparable to the outcome under the current crop-eradication system. (Indeed, my two or three friends who work drug-war jobs in Latin America have told me that the biggest successes in the drug war have all come from eliminating shipping routes or destroying refinement facilities — because the drug gangs can easily encourage vast overproduction of the raw materials, making the drug supply essentially eradication-proof.)

In other words, the US preoccupation with Morales’s drug-policy proposals are probably unwarranted, and the depiction of him as a threat to regional stability overdrawn.

Beyond coca production policy, what else does Morales stand for? In fact, like much of the rest of the current Latin American left, it’s easier to say what he stands against. He opposes the package of trade openness, labor market deregulation, and dramatic cuts in government social spending that the United States, the World Bank, and the IMF have been pushing in the region for the last 25 years. This policy package has become remarkably unpopular in Latin America in recent years, with surveys in nearly every country showing clear majority opposition to each element of the policy package. In a previous post, I’ve talked about a major reason for this change in perceptions: the package of reforms advocated by the US (called “neoliberalism”) hasn’t always worked very well. In many countries, the economy has gotten much worse, or at best not any better, for the average individual since these reforms were introduced. Naturally, this leads people to seek new alternatives. In this light, the rise of the new left in Latin America is more a reflection of the economic failures of the center and the right than it is an affirmation of redistribution or an increased state role in the economy.

However, there’s a bit of a puzzle in thinking about Bolivia in terms of economics; the average Bolivian has actually done pretty well over the last generation, as can be seen in this chart from the post linked above. The key to understanding Morales’s election has to do with some details of Bolivia. First, while the average Bolivian has done pretty well since 1980, many Bolivians (especially outside of the capitol city) have not. These people who have not benefited from recent changes are clearly less than half of Bolivian society, but they are still a substantial group. Furthermore, while most Bolivians are better off than they were in 1980, they’re still in pretty bad economic shape: 62% of Bolivian households were below the poverty line in 2005. Hence, while things have gotten better, they simply haven’t gotten enough better for enough people. Second, the Bolivian political system is quite fragmented, such that the first-place candidate in the 2002 popular vote received only about 22.5% of the vote. Hence, it was difficult for the opposition to successfully coordinate against Morales’s candidacy.

There’s a second sense in which the current rise of the left can be seen as a result of failures by the center and the right: corruption. Concerns about corruption among the old ruling elites played a central role in Chavez’s election in Venezuela, to Lula’s election in Brazil, and to Kirchner’s victory in Argentina. Polling data suggests that similar concerns have contributed to Morales’s recent victory. So the left has capitalized on the perceived inability of the Latin American center and right to refrain from robbing their countries blind.

In other words, the new left in Latin America doesn’t seem to draw its support from a broad base of ideologically-mobilized supporters. Instead, it is based on a large group of people who are tired of being poor and who are worried about corruption in the government. This essential pragmatism at the level of the left’s electoral base may help explain one of the noteworthy factors of the new Latin left: its lack of a clear program. In contrast to past, Marxist iterations of the left, the new left in Latin America has goals but few if any ideologically defined programs. Nationalization isn’t seen as automatically being desirable, tariffs and exit taxes are out of fashion, and thus the left is newly willing to experiment with policy packages — a pragmatic attitude that corresponds nicely to the composition of the left’s electoral base.

So, what does this all mean for the church? Unfortunately, bad things. In Latin America, the LDS church retains a heavily US-American image. There are multiple reasons for this. Most of our leaders are Anglos. Many of our missionaries in Latin America are from the US. Mormon architecture in Latin America is often a direct US import, as are the patterns and rhythms of Mormon worship services. These factors create a strong identification of the church with the US in many people’s minds.

Yet the current climate in Latin America, reflected in as well as fostered by these leftist governments, is one of suspicion or even antagonism toward the United States. The US has been quite active in designing the economic policies of Latin American governments since the debt crisis of the early 1980s, and so our country receives (perhaps in part deservingly) blame for the consequences of those policies. To the extent that the image of the church is connected to the image of the US, the church will suffer in the current climate.

What could be done to avoid these negative consequences? It seems to me that the church would have to weaken its perceived ties to the US. One easy step in that direction would be to send Latino general authorities to give press conferences on Latin American TV stations. In these conferences, it would be wise for our church leaders to express concern about “the excesses of global capitalism,” a phrase which doesn’t really commit anyone to anything. After all, who’s in favor of “excesses”? To elaborate on the meaning of that stock phrase, the leaders could tell stories of children starving or dying of preventable disease in Latin America, and then state (correctly) that such outcomes are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ as we understand it. Such an effort would yield massive gains to the church by reducing its perceived connection with the US government.

Second, and more difficult, the church could try to help its missionaries project less of an American image while serving. But this is an immensely complicated topic, so I will set it aside for the present.

Third, and most difficult of all, the church could decentralize some degree of meaningful control to Latin American regional leaders. If manuals were written in Latin America and reflected distinctly Latino priorities and images of the gospel — rather than the distinctly Anglo priorities and images they currently represent — this would help the members feel less connected to the US. Such a feeling of equality would likely serve to eventually sever the imagined link between the LDS church and the US.