I was gchatting a liberal, American, former-Catholic friend of mine while we watched the Pope's election on Wednesday. When the new pope's name was announced -- Francis, like Saint Francis of Assisi -- I observed that maybe it indicated a progressive commitment on his part to social justice.
That doesn't mean he won't run the Church as a conservative, my friend noted, citing orthodox Catholic stances on contraception and homosexuality that he finds problematic. And, indeed, the new pope is expected to take a conservative stance on social doctrine.
Yes, obviously you can be conservative on some issues and liberal on others, whether you are a 23-year-old American or the pope. But it's worth taking the opportunity to note that, from a Latin American perspective, Francis's views aren't notably eclectic. In a funny way, the gap between my friend's progressivism and Francis's says something about the difference between the U.S. and the Latin American left.
In the U.S., many of our most vocal, polarizing, and space-consuming public debates have focused recently on social issues like gay marriage and the death penalty. There is a fairly well-defined "left-wing" (and "right-wing") perspective on each of these issues, even if not all Americans who self-identify as progressive (or conservative) hold those views.
A sign of this is that, among younger Americans, who tend to be more progressive than their elders, a large number of under-30s (25 percent, according to a recent poll by Reason) identify as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. To a great extent, the measure of your progressivism is your take on social issues rather than your take on how the economy should be run.
In Latin America, by contrast, it is common to be squarely on the left by anyone in the region's yardstick and still be fairly socially conservative. (In part, that's because an overwhelming number of Latin Americans are Catholic, so social conservatism on issues like gay marriage is more par for the course.) There are pockets of what Americans would call social progressivism, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Mexico City and wealthy countries like Uruguay, and younger Latin Americans are becoming more likely to take an interest in progressive social change -- even if they feel ambivalent about it -- than did an older and more socially conservative generation. (To get a sense of the relative pace of social change, consider, for instance, that women got the vote in Argentina in 1947, and in Mexico in 1954.)
Region-wide, though, the public face of leftism in Latin America has more to do with a particular position on how society should distribute wealth. (See the "left-wing" governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, etc., which have spent a lot of money on uplifting the poor -- and dropped even more rhetoric about it.) Note that this is a somewhat distinct issue from what type of economic system a country uses. Peronism, which was a rightist political movement, relied on government management in the economy. And there are left-leaning governments (as in Brazil) that have paired strong social uplift programs with somewhat liberalized markets.