The death of Hugo Chavez has turned the spotlight on the left in South America. As his legacy is disputed, Arthur Ituassu argues that in Venezuela and elsewhere the record of left-wing governments is a mixed one.

The death of the charismatic and controversial Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, presents an opportunity to assess the performance of left-wing governments which have dominated Latin America in recent years. Hugo Ch?vez, who was first elected in 1998, won a fourth presidential term in October, (though the cancer which resulted in his death prevented him from being sworn in). He may be the most famous of the left-wing leaders outside of South America, but was just one figure in the leftward advance which has swept the continent.

In Argentina, Cristina Kirchner assumed power in December 2007, after the death of her husband, N?stor Carlos Kirchner, who had ruled since 2003. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff will run for re-election in 2014. She was chosen by the Brazilian left's political icon, Luis In?cio Lula da Silva, to succeed him, after his two terms between 2003 and 2011. In Uruguay, Jos? Mojica assumed office in March 2010. His predecessor, Tabar? V?zquez, developed a programme that resulted in the reduction of the proportion of people living in poverty in the country from 32 per cent to 20 per cent in five years, between 2005 and 2010. Also part of this left dominance is Fernando Lugo who in 2008 ended more than six decades of rule by the conservative Colorado party in Paraguay - although he was then controversially impeached by the national Congress in June 2012, his vice-president, Federico Franco, assumed the vacant presidency. Finally, on 17 February this year, Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador for the third time, with close to 60 per cent of the votes.

Some commentators have suggested that within this leftward advance a distinction can be drawn between a 'good' and a 'bad' left. - with the 'good' represented by more 'social democratic' leaders, such as those in Brazil, and the 'bad' with more 'populist' leaders, exemplified by Hugo Ch?vez. However, the key argument of this essay is that this clear distinction does not hold up to close scrutiny: that among all the left-wing governments in Latin America there are elements of good and bad.

The good news: tackling poverty

Most of the continent's left-wing governments have been praised for their social and economic policies, particularly their poverty reduction plans. By the end of 2012, for example, the Brazilian government had expanded a programme called 'Brasil Carinhoso', which aims to eradicate extreme poverty among Brazilian families with small children. For these families the programme raises further the monthly benefit already given by the government to poor families through Bolsa Fam?lia, the now famous programme closely linked to the popular former president Lula. With Brasil Carinhoso, which since November last year would also be available for families with children between seven and 15 years old, as well as those with children up to six years old, who were already covered, the monthly benefit can reach 235 reais (approximately US$120) and could remove almost 8 million people from extreme poverty. In Ecuador, the government of Rafael Correa has been credited with lifting 1 million people into the middle class in the last five years. The economy is growing at a 4 per cent annually and unemployment, at close to 5 per cent, is historically low. More to the point from a left-wing perspective, Correa has used high oil revenues to substantially increase investment in the country's public health and education systems.

As Venezuela enters seven days of official mourning for President Chavez, the country is currently plagued by violence and inflation. But in the first years of Chavez's presidency, Ch?vez initiated a land transfer programme and introduced social welfare reforms, which resulted in lower infant mortality rates, the implementation of a free, government-funded healthcare system, and free education up to the university level. Some studies report that 1 million more children have been enrolled in primary school since Chavez came to power.

In 2003 and 2004 Ch?vez launched social and economic campaigns providing free reading, writing and arithmetic lessons to the more than 1.5 million illiterate Venezuelan adults and also introduced protection for the livelihoods, religion, land, culture, and rights of the country's indigenous peoples. Some studies show that family income among the poorest grew more than 150 per cent between 2003 and 2006, and that the infant mortality rate fell by 18 per cent between 1998 and 2006.

The bad news: undermining democracy

But there is another side to the story, which is also one shared by the majority of the left governments, whether 'social democratic' or 'populist'. Most have been condemned for undemocratic behaviour - including having no limits on the number of terms a single president can serve, the personification of power in the hands of the president, the weakening of political institutions, the lack of opposition, and control over the media.

Concerning the first of these, the egregious examples are Venezuela and Ecuador. In Venezuela, a 2009 referendum backed by Ch?vez abolished term limits in the country, allowing him to stand for a fourth term - now cut short. In Ecuador, Correa's first term had been due to end on January 2011, but a new constitution mandated general elections for April 2009. Correa won this election and then won again in February this year, extending his presidency until 2017. These extended mandates obviously strengthen the executive at the expense of other political institutions and the opposition, and create conditions in which rent-seeking practices, corruption, income concentration and political centralisation are more likely to occur.

Linked to the issue of the successive mandates is the personification of the political power, centralised in the president's image and character. This can be seen most vividly with Hugo Ch?vez, but also with Rafael Correa, Kirchner and even Lula.

The death of Chavez may well demonstrate one of the risks of these cults of personality, with a country being wracked with political instability when the dominant figure disappears from the political scene. Another problem that arises is the weakening of political parties. In Brazil, for example, Lula's relaxed attitude concerning the major corruption scandal involving high-ranking members of his government and his party, the Mensal?o, and his active participation campaigning in the 2010 national election for his anointed successor Dilma Rousseff were heavily criticised for being disrespectful towards the country's political institutions.

Turning to the intimidation of the media: this is a serious concern across the continent. However, perhaps the worst offender is Cristina Kirchner. The fight of the president with the Clar?n Group, the largest media conglomerate in Argentina, has became a spectacle, with Kirchner passing successive laws trying to break the group's political power. In Brazil also the media was a constant target of Lula, and Dilma Rousseff and the Worker's party have taken on the baton. The frightening idea of empowering 'social committees' to evaluate media content keeps returning to Brazilian political debates.

In Venezuela, Ch?vez had notoriously antagonistic relations with the media. The same is true of Correa in Ecuador. The New York Times recently attacked Correa for 'leading a relentless campaign against free speech'; and the Washington Post accused him of 'the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media under way in the western hemisphere'. The spur for these attacks was a federal law, which came into effect before the 2013 election, prohibiting media from 'either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message'. On his relations with the media, President Correa once said, during one of his weekly TV and radio broadcasts, that he would 'put an end to the illegitimate, immoral political power that certain media have' and complained that 'all they do every day is a political campaign against the government'.

In one sense Correa is, ironically, right. After all, with the weakening of the political parties, it is the media, in particular the major newspapers, that has assumed the role of the opposition to the government. And in the absence of strong political adversaries, investigative journalism in the region has taken on a greater importance. As with any other complex social matter, there are rights and wrongs on both sides. The media is right to defend free speech, but is wrong to support monopoly or oligopoly. Governments are right to question the media's political motivations, but are wrong to try to control content.

No good and bad guys, but a shared democratic crisis

So do the records of the different governments of the left in South America, both with regard to tackling poverty and on democratic reform, allow us to separate the good guys from the bad guys? Hardly. If there is one thing this article would like to suggest it is that there is not a Manichean struggle going on, but rather a much more complex crisis of representative democracy in the region.

To different degrees, softly or radically, all these political experiences should be seen as responses to the same problems currently facing representative democracy. These include the indifference of the citizen and the society concerning politics, the detachment between the political system and the citizen on the day-to-day of politics, poor information on political debate and excessive dependence on the mass media, the low political capital of civil society, the absence of popular sovereignty, and the generalised distrust of politics and politicians.

As if this was not enough, one could add to the mix the current problems with social political communication, including the competition between information and entertainment for the citizen's attention, the tension between the commercial logic and the social logic of journalism, the dissemination of a cynical view of politics from the mass media and the media's 'spectacularisation' of politics, reducing it to events and personalities.

In this context, it is not by chance that some, including this author, are now arguing for institutional reforms in political representation. Such innovations should drastically reduce the distance between representatives and the represented in the day-by-day of politics, with the use of new communication channels and possibilities. Oxal? communication may need to be the future of representative democracy for all countries in the region.