CARACAS (Reuters) – “Fatherland, Socialism or Death!” scream the large red letters on a typical pro-government street painting in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.
Down the road, however, some of the president’s supporters grumble among themselves at a state food shop where shelves are half-empty, vegetables rotten and meat non-existent.
After 11 years of socialist rule in Venezuela — a flagbearer for a decade of gains by the left across Latin America — trappings of revolutionary fervour are everywhere.
Scratch under the surface, though, and even many poor Venezuelans who still back Chavez are increasingly displeased at the prospect of a second straight year of economic contraction and a government unashamedly dependent on one man.
“He was our only hope, but I can’t stand seeing Venezuela become another Cuba. He’s taking this too far,” said Jose Quintero, who still calls himself “half-Chavista” but plans to abstain at the next election in protest.
Around Latin America, other hard-left leaders like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Cuba’s Raul Castro have won support among the poor with heavy spending on social programmes but have also failed to make their economies shine, to the disappointment of believers at home and abroad.
The centre-left that ruled Chile for two decades has just lost power to a conservative billionaire, Sebastian Pinera, and radical presidential candidates are losing support.
Peru’s pro-Chavez candidate Ollanta Humala and Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador both came close to winning power in 2006, but have faded since and are long shots for the next elections.
The most successful socialists seem to be those like Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who long ago toned down his rhetoric and embraced orthodox policies that helped usher in the biggest economic boom in three decades.
Mexican Economy Minis-ter Gerardo Ruiz says greater political maturity is squeezing radicals on both sides across Latin America, which suffered a string of military coups and left-wing rebellions in the second half of the 20th century.
“Where democracy has truly taken hold, it is very difficult for there to be a radical government from either extreme, left or right,” he told the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit last week.
So has the left had its heyday in Latin America?
Almost certainly not. Most experts are quick to distinguish between the state of the “Bolivarian” left — named for Chavez’s hero and 19th century South American liberator Simon Bolivar — and the centrist left represented by Lula and the likes of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica.
“It was never a homogeneous movement,” said analyst Jimena Blanco of the Latin American Newsletters, based in Britain.
“The radical or ‘Boliva-rian’ left has lost a lot of its initial strength and force. It does not have the same appeal. But the centre-left looks here to stay, even though they are more likely to alternate government with the centre-right.”
While frustrating to supporters, the radicals’ problems in Latin America are a relief to Wall Street and President Barack Obama’s administration.
“The vast majority of governments in the hemisphere… have chosen a path which was much more toward the side of ‘let’s open up our economies, let’s try to increase transparency, let’s try to fight corruption,‘“ US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Craig Kelly told Reuters on Thursday.
“The fact that they are not seeking those Utopian solutions now is a good sign.”
Foreign investors have poured money into Latin America, which generally weathered the global financial crisis well and is exected to grow 4 per cent or more this year.
“The region’s appeal is only going to grow to the extent that the more unorthodox models continue to fail,” said analyst Patrick Esteruelas, of Eurasia Group.
“One left seems to have withered, while the other has kind of consolidated itself as part of a new centre. As much as Chavez and Correa still retain an institutional grip and count on a divided opposition, they are both very much in decline.”
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s leftist rhetoric is hailed by Chavez, and her power base continues to be labour unions and the urban poor who have benefited from high spending on social programmes. But her policies are more ad-hoc than ideological, and her popularity is down to below 30 per cent.
In Mexico, Lopez Obrador of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, lost the presidency by a whisker-thin margin in 2006, but he upset moderates by contesting the result with crippling street protests. Party divisions mean the PRD is unlikely to get close again in 2012.
Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, has cast himself as a modern-thinking moderate leftist with an eye to running for the PRD in 2012, and he says the left needs to combine its old emphasis on social support with solid economic policies.
“Brazil is a good example,” he told the Reuters summit, referring to Lula’s model of targeted social spending with market-friendly policies.
“I don’t think we can repeat here what Chavez did.”
In Colombia, the radicalism of neighbours Venezuela and Ecuador is a turnoff to voters, with all candidates in this month’s presidential vote stressing free-market principles.
Bolivia, perhaps, defies the trend or any simplistic tags, with Chavez ally President Evo Morales — the nation’s first Indian head of state — remaining popular and managing 3.4 per cent growth in 2009 despite the global crisis.
“I would put Morales in a class apart,” said Esteruelas. “It is as much an ethno-indigenous political current as an ideological one that he heads.”
Nobody, however, is predicting an early exit for the radical left’s big men like Chavez, Castro or Correa despite the apparent failure of their model of nationalizations, subsidies and greater state control. All have solid power bases, even if there is dissatisfaction among their supporters and fewer admirers abroad.
“I do not see them fading away. It is not like we are going to wake up at the end of this year and Chavez will not be there,” Blanco said. “But it’s also clear now that Latin America is not going to descend into the 1960s or ’70s again.”