In Argentina's Oil, A Glimpse Of Latin America's Left

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez holds up a petroleum sample as she announces plans for her government to nationalize a giant oil company that is largely owned by a private Spanish company. Behind her is an image of the country's former first lady, Eva Peron.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez holds up a petroleum sample as she announces plans for her government to nationalize a giant oil company that is largely owned by a private Spanish company. Behind her is an image of the country's former first lady, Eva Peron. Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

Just the arrival of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner prompted supporters in her Peronist movement to break into chants last Monday. The event, choreographed to feel momentous, was at the presidential palace. Fernandez de Kirchner announced plans to expropriate assets of the Spanish oil firm Repsol in Argentina.

Through a window, television viewers could see a huge image of Evita Peron, the famous 1950s-era populist whose presence is deeply felt in today's government.

"Companies that are here with foreign stockholders are Argentine companies," Fernandez de Kirchner said. "Let no one forget that."

The president's plans, likely to be easily approved by Congress this week, delighted the left in her country and were condemned by the Europeans and criticized by the U.S. State Department.

The move also provides a peek at what the left might look like in Latin America, just as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Castros in Cuba appear to be fading.

Emerging Leaders

For decades, the radical left was embodied in Fidel Castro. His fiery speeches inspired leftists across the region after his 1959 seizure of power.

Then came Chavez, who transformed Venezuela into a Socialist state over 13 years. Now, though, Chavez is stricken with cancer and has faded as he seeks treatments in Cuba.

Castro has been replaced by his brother, Raul, who is five years younger but still 80.

Sooner or later, both Cuba and Venezuela will have new leaders. This means the de facto emergence of another set of leftist populists: Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and, of course, Fernandez de Kirchner.

These populists are known for intervening in their economies and spending heavily, thanks to a recent bonanza in crop and resource prices.

Money Crunch

At the moment, it's Argentina's expropriation of Repsol affiliate YPF that is getting attention across the region, making Fernandez de Kirchner a champion to some on the left.

"Clearly, YPF is the biggest, most symbolic nationalization that we've seen in Latin America in decades," says Arturo Porzecanski, an economist at American University in Washington.

Fernandez de Kirchner has also used Central Bank funds and a nationalized pension system to shore up finances. Porzecanski says such steps reflect the serious money crunch Argentina faces — and it's not just in Argentina.

"Those countries whose governments have spent all the bonanza and then some are really scrambling for funds," he says. "Whereas other countries that have managed the bonanza more responsibly — whether it's a Colombia or a Peru or a Chile or a Brazil — they're in a much more viable, sustainable position."

Those other countries are either center-left, such as Brazil, or center-right, like Chile. They are all market-friendly and have drawn record levels of foreign investment and diversified their economies — while some of the other countries have begun to decay.

'A Sense Of Stagnation'

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., says measures such as the YPF takeover or Ecuador's recent efforts to restrict the press are more the exception than the rule. He says they reflect a populist option that is not viable for most countries.

"There's no sense of moving toward fulfilling some alternative vision and some utopian ideal," Shifter says. "There's a sense of stagnation and just trying to hold on to power, which is really not a very attractive leftist project."

He also says that, in the long term, it's just not sustainable.