I have been turning over a theory in my mind for the last several months. And it has been somewhat uninformed, just a hunch. Latin American nations have been electing an interesting bunch of leftist leaders, leaders that had they ran for office in the 1980s, would have been quickly disposed of by the U.S. The “Colossus of the North” has a pretty nasty reputation of staging covert CIA backed coups and instigating civil wars in Latin America. These actions, needless to say, disrupted the region’s natural political evolution in the name of Cold War politics.
So I am starting to wonder if Latin Americans are taking advantage the U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East to finally run their countries as they see fit, and if the U.S. is trying to do in the Middle East what it did in Latin America, but this time in the name of energy politics. While I am not a fan of people like Chavez, I am a fan of national sovereignty, and I believe that nations have to evolve at their own pace. I think it is an interesting and important transitional time for Latin America.
Here is a list that you might all find interesting. You will see some wacky leftists, like Chavez, but also some more pragmatic left-leaning leaders who seem to follow the mold of Lula da Silva in Brazil. Then there are suspicious election winners like Garcia of Peru. I think it makes for some provocative thought.
Hugo Chavez- Venezuela: Elected in twice, once in 1999 and then again in 2002. He is the father of the “Bolivarian Revolution”. He is a democratic socialist (rather than a social democrat like Lula da Silva in Brazil). He launched a failed coup attempt in 1992. Then ran for office and was elected in 1998. He survived an attempted coup against him in 2002 (blamed that on the CIA) and a recall referendum in 2004 (blamed that on the CIA). He has changed the constitution so that he can remain in power and has said he’ll retire from power in 2021. He is now famous to calling G.W. Bush the devil. He has turned away from economic liberalization by renationalizing the oil industry, is “fidel” to Fidel, and may be positioning himself to become the next thorn in the side of the U.S. when Fidel dies.
Evo Morales- Bolivia-A.K.A “The Sweater": Elected in Jan 2006 over an American-educated businessman. Morales is a socialist and the leader of a loose federation of coca leaf-growers who are resisting the efforts of the United States government to eradicate coca in southeastern Bolivia. He is said to be the first Indian president of Bolivia. He believes that he owes his victory in part to inflammatory remarks made by the U.S. Ambassador, Manuel Rocha. He claims that the worst enemy of humanity is U.S. capitalism. He also claims that “If the entire world doesn't acknowledge this reality, that the national states are not providing even minimally for health, education and nourishment, then each day the most fundamental human rights are being violated." I have to admit, he has a point here. He hsupports complete nationalization of the nation's oil and gas industries and claims to be part of the “Axis of good” with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.
Rafael Correa- Ecuador: Elected in Nov 2006. Came from obscurity to win as a self titled. “Christian Leftist”. A western trained economist, he has rejected a free-trade treaty with the U.S. and promised to shut down an American base at Manta used for anti-drug flights. He threatened to default (the euphemistic term is “place a moratorium”) on Ecuador's foreign debt, cut ties with the IMF and World Bank, and bring more state control to bear on banks. He has promised to spend more of the nation's oil revenue (Bolivia is the region’s 5th largest producer) on the poor. He has said that he will also call for a new constitutional assembly when he takes office in Jan.
He has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and wrote in his dissertation about the “Washington Consensus" defined correctly as a set of U.S.-backed, free-market policies intended to address the region's economic ills and analyzes the potential of a common regional currency as a partial solution. That said, he has agreed to keep the dollar as the country’s official currency. In the wake of his election, Ecuador’s bonds were hammered. His response to concerns about jittery investors was somewhat royal, "If they're nervous, let them take a Valium. What more can I do?" So the jury is still out.
Daniel Uribe-Columbia: Elected in 2002 and again in 2006. He is hard to place on the political spectrum but can perhaps be defined as center left. His situation is different from that of other Latin American countries in that his presides over near anarchy. His first term was successful in that he managed to get a grip on the violence for which Colombia is famous. It helps that he gets some $600 mil a year from the U.S. So I imagine he has a lot of help and makes a lot of trade offs for it. His concern is less the economy and more the FARC. There are well-founded rumors that he has ties to the Medellin Drug Cartel. However, as a president he has not done anything outside the bounds of the constitution. The Economist says that he is the first president to be re-elected in Columbia in modern history. After his re-election, the FARC declared war, ambushing government troops in a bloody attack. Safe to say, he, unlike the rabble rousers in Venezuela and Bolivia is far from a maverick, but he may not be able to repeat the successes of his frist term.
Daniel Ortega- Nicaragua: Elected Nov. 2006. Remember this guy? He was the Sandinista rebel leader whose group toppled the American-backed Samoza regime that threw the country into Civil War. We funded the Contras (famous Iran Contra deal) in the hopes that they would destroy him and his leftist counterparts. Well, it looks like he has succeeded again over U.S. wishes having beat U.S. backed Eduardo Montealegre, an investment banker (we really know how to pick the right horse in Latin America, don’t we?). Ortega claims to be a new man. In the twist of ironies (or some odd version of “That 70’s Show”), Jimmy Carter monitored the election. So we will have to wait and see what he does.
Alan Garcia- Peru: Elected in 2001 and again in 2006. Peru is perhaps the most interesting story of Latin American Presidential politics. If you recall, Fujimouri fled to Japan in 2001 and Peru held its first elections in 10 years. It was a dirty deal. Garcia ran against Hugoesque Alejandro Toledo, a former shoe-shine boy turned economist. At one point Toledo claimed that he was drugged and kidnapped by Fijimouri’s agents and then filmed in sexually compromising poses. This was meant to explain his positive test for cocaine and his appearance in a threesome at a hotel. Toledo fired back with allegations of corruption against Garcia, who prior to his candidacy had been in exile for 9 years after having been accused of accepting bribes. Videos of money changing hands turned up.
Toledo won but the election was very close and there were suspicions of election tampering. Toledo had some excessive habits, such as a rather large budget for expensive whiskey.
Garcia won round two is now seen to be moving toward the center left, adopting some of the policies promoted by Toledo. At the same time, he is lobbying hard for a trade deal with the U.S. and has exercised tough fiscal restraint. But he has also lashed out at environmentalists and human rights activists.
Tabare Vazquez Uruguay: Elected 2005. His wearing of the sash ended 150 years of government by Colorados and the National party. He is moderate, more in line with Lula da Silva. He has satiated the far left of his party by giving them toothless but significant posts. He has resisted adding leftists to his economic team. That said, his first act as president? To restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. This may have less to do with any love for Fidel and more to do with economic common sense.
Michelle Bachelet-Chile: Elected in 2006- She is a socialist, but more in the European strain of the word. She promised to maintain Chile’s economic track while spending more on social programs. She recently took a hit for refusing to throw more money at schools until there were better control mechanisms for dispersing it. Chile is prosperous. It is up to her to keep that up.