Not long ago, Latin American leaders who described themselves as "leftist" were radicals proposing to dismantle entire political and economic systems. But a group of newly elected leaders across the region, being widely described as part of a swing back to the socialistic past, are hardly revolutionaries.
In elections Sunday, voters chose a socialist president in Uruguay, 23 governors in Venezuela who are allied with the populist president Hugo Chavez, and more than 2,000 local officials throughout Chile, a majority of whom are members of the progressive governing coalition headed by President Ricardo Lagos.
Only in Brazil, where President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva has spearheaded the modernization of Latin American socialism in the past two years, did elections go against the prevailing trend. In Sao Paulo, the nation's largest city, voters chose a more conservative mayor over the incumbent from Lula's pro-labor party.
Analysts said most of the region's newly elected officials accept the principles of market economics and democracy but also believe that free trade and economic liberalism have not lifted the region's poor as promised, requiring a stronger role for the state. Some also gained popularity by distancing themselves from the Bush administration's foreign policies.
"These old images of the left must be left aside," said Sergio Bitar, Chile's education minister. He said recent electoral trends in the region have shown that candidates with a "center-left" position, advocating "fiscal responsibility and more active social policies," are winning. The notable exception is Chavez, who remains closely allied with Cuba's Communist leader, Fidel Castro.
Bitar and other analysts said the new crop of presidents, governors and mayors resemble European Social Democrats.
"The world has changed completely" since the 1970s and '80s, when Latin America was a battleground between socialist radicals and military dictators, Bitar said. "The dilemma now is how to combine policies that assure good macroeconomic management with strong policies for the reduction of poverty."
Voters in Uruguay elected Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist backed by former guerrillas. He won middle- and upper-class votes with his choice for economics minister, Danilo Astori, a favorite of Wall Street, while garnering wide popular support with the message: "We have to stop being a rich country with a poor population."
Vazquez, heralded in headlines throughout Latin America as the country's first leftist president, and his Broad Front coalition focused their message on the poor. He said it was unacceptable that one-third of Uruguay's 3 million people are impoverished, and he vowed to immediately implement a food and health care plan for the poor in return for community service.
"What we would like to do is achieve a balance between current market forces and the state's need to focus on the basic necessities of the people," said Daniel Aljanati, an official in the Socialist Party of Uruguay and a member of the coalition that backed Vazquez.
Latin America, a region of nearly 500 million people with enormous disparity between rich and poor, has gone through a "bad spell," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Crime and violence are sky-high, growth has been flat for years, and some countries such as Argentina have gone through deep financial crises.
"People have been unhappy with their governments and voting them out of office," Hakim said, adding that "the Bush administration's favorite politicians are not winning elections" in the region.
But while those winning may be part of a "leftist trend," he added, they are "not really rejecting the free market." Rather, he said, they are "saying a stronger commitment is needed to address the social needs."
In Brazil, Lula remains popular despite Sunday's setback. But analysts said the ability of such leaders to deliver better schooling, health care and quality of life will determine the broader success of the current center-left movement in Latin America.
Lourdes Sola, a political scientist at the University of Sao Paulo, said the election in that city was "not a referendum on Lula," but rather an expression of popular frustration with the inability of Lula's Workers' Party to fulfill its promises.
In Chile, poverty levels have declined under Lagos, according to Bitar, but the income gap between affluent and poor has remained wide. He said it is a challenge for regional governments to remain fiscally responsible while providing stronger social programs.
Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American studies at Georgetown University, said the newly elected leaders are very much in favor of democracy and "not willing to run huge budget deficits." But he added that they "don't think free trade is a magic bullet" and believe Washington oversold the ability of "trade, not aid" to lift the region's poor.
"People are saying, 'This is not working,' " Valenzuela said.
In Mexico, the presidential candidate leading in early polls for the 2006 election, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has focused on delivering benefits to the poor and elderly from his current post as Mexico City mayor.
Across the region, officials and analysts said the overwhelming rejection of the Bush administration's foreign policy was another factor in regional political trends. The disgruntlement has more to do with U.S. policy toward Iraq than Latin America. Bush's policy is "seen as too radical, especially his use of democracy as a weapon," Sola said. "It's scary."
Bitar said Bush is "perceived as a bully who imposes his views with force, and Latin America is sensitive to that."