Latin America: how far left?
November 24, 2006
Anti-American journalists and politicians in the U.S. and Latin America have hailed the Nov. 5 presidential election victory of old Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua as a great victory against “Yankee imperialism” in the hemisphere. But was it really? Let’s take a closer look.
“The U.S. is concerned that Ortega will become another boisterously anti-American voice of Latin America’s New Left, which is led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,” Time magazine observed after Ortega’s electoral victory. Although that’s certainly true, the good news is that Nicaragua’s president-elect isn’t your father’s Daniel Ortega, who was a fiery anti-American guerrilla “comandante” 25 years ago.
Today’s 61-year-old Ortega is much more moderate. In fact, his running mate was a former political opponent, Jaime Morales, a wealthy banker whose home was confiscated by the Sandinistas during a bloody revolution in the 1980s. Morales also served in the U.S.-backed “Contra” Army, which fought against the Sandinistas. My, how times have changed.
“Ortega still likes to take shots at Washington,” Time reported, “but he has strived to adopt a more moderate look. His campaign anthem was sung to the tune of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance,'” and he now preaches reconciliation and stability and vows to maintain close ties with the U.S. anti-Americans throughout the hemisphere – including the Blame America First crowd here at home – will be disappointed when the new and improved Daniel Ortega doesn’t turn out to be a Chavez clone.
In reality, Chavez’s only solid allies are a dying Fidel Castro in Cuba and the new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, whose successful campaign was financed by Venezuelan petro-dollars. Although other leftist leaders in Latin America endorse portions of Chavez’s stridently anti-American rhetoric on occasion, they maintain their distance from him when it comes to economic and trade issues and other important aspects of U.S.-Latin America relations.
Moises Naim, the brilliant Venezuelan economist who edits Foreign Policy magazine, analyzes hemispheric relations in the November/December issue of that prestigious publication. “Latin America can’t compete on the world stage in any aspect, not even as a threat,” he writes. “Unlike anti-Americans elsewhere, Latin Americans aren’t willing to die for the sake of their geopolitical hatreds.” And that’s a big difference between anti-Americanism in our hemisphere and throughout the Muslim world, where fanatic Islamo-fascists blow themselves up in support of their violent jihad against Western “infidels” (i.e. anyone who doesn’t agree with their Medieval worldview).
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Naim recalls that “the international concern about trends in Latin America peaked in late 2005, as 12 presidential elections were scheduled for the ensuing months . . . (and) leftist candidates with Chavez-sounding platforms stood a good chance of winning. Yet that expectation did not come to pass. Surprisingly, running for office with too close an identification with Chavez or his policies has become an electoral kiss of death (in Latin America).” And that’s good news for the United States.
The first alarm bells sounded a few years ago with the elections of left-leaning presidents Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina. But although they occasionally resort to anti-American rhetoric, they mostly govern from the center, declining to roll back the economic reforms (“globalization”) of the 1990s, according to Naim. More recently, candidates backed by Chavez lost in Mexico and Peru, where former President Alan Garcia won a second term by running against Chavez. And in Mexico, the Venezuelan leader may have been the kiss of death for leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost to a moderate conservative, Felipe Calderon (who takes office next week), by only 400,000 votes out of more than 40 million that were cast.
Brazil’s “Lula” won re-election last month despite some formidable negatives. As the Washington Post noted, “His achievements have come without the populist trappings, irresponsible fiscal policies or erosion of democracy seen in other Latin American countries – most notably, neighboring Venezuela.” Hear, hear!
So it would be a big mistake to conclude that Latin American politics have taken a giant leap to the left. In fact, Chavez’s dream of establishing a new Bolivarian empire in South America has turned out to be a pipe dream as he’s being quietly shunned by several of the newly elected presidents in that part of the world.
When I worked at American embassies in Latin America a few years ago, we argued that Latin American “unity” extended about as far as the region’s shared opposition to U.S. foreign policy. Beyond that, however, each country defends its own national interests by rejecting the extreme, anti-American solutions advocated by Castro, Chavez & Co.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, lived and worked in Latin America for nearly 20 years before retiring from the U.S. Foreign Service in 1995.