Pay attention to the politics of Latin America

By By Matteo Jensen

By Matteo Jensen

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” or so the saying goes. That aphorism rings hollow in Latin America after a half-century of failed economic liberalization. A rising tide only lifts those boats that are seaworthy. Predictably, those with holes sink swiftly to the bottom.

Across most of the developing world, economic orthodoxy has mostly produced a fragile fleet of leaking lifeboats. An armada of economic battleships has not materialized despite the most promising predictions by economists and politicians. Instead of the promised growth and stability, the result has been catastrophic collapse followed by devastating social fragmentation.

Because of its proximity to the source of the largest exporter of economic ideology, Latin America has suffered the greatest collateral damage. Mexico’s Tequila Crisis, Brazil’s devaluations and Argentina’s staggering default are tragic manifestations of this policy failure.

Now the neighbors are less keen on cooperation with the United States. This should be alarming. The nations of Latin America continue to rise in importance to U.S. politics, economics and security.

The region was once ready to exchange the guarantee of security provided by the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary in exchange for acquiescence to U.S. objectives. But although the watchful eye of the United States has been diverted by war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Latin America has begun to look leftward.

Venezuela’s indomitable leader, Hugo Chavez, is leading the charge toward Socialism with his oil-driven Bolivarian Revolution. Even the white horse on the Venezuelan coat of arms has been enlisted in the effort. After 200 years turned to the right, Bolivar’s white stallion now gallops to the left as a symbol of revolutionary progress.

Venezuelans will head to the polls on Sunday to decide the fate of their constitution and their country. They will determine whether Chavez will assume a lifetime appointment to the presidency (at least until another general ousts him). Also on the ballot are other so-called reforms. These will undermine the political power structures, eliminate the independence of Venezuela’s few remaining credible institutions and erode private property rights.

Sustained by high oil prices, Chavez and his revolution appear unstoppable. Lest anyone forget, the state-owned media repeats this mantra relentlessly. Like his comrade, Fidel Castro, Chavez has cleverly cast the role of the villain in this melodrama to give his people a cause to rally around. This role was eagerly filled by the United States, the menacing but thirsty giant to the north. This has allowed him to divide the opposition parties and brutally put down student protests. Meanwhile, the middle class seems ready to accept its fate as a marginalized force, anxious but weary.

Chavez is not alone. His compadres in ideology and petroleum wealth have embraced some of his most egregious battle tactics. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has convened a constitutional assembly to rewrite the country’s governing charter to his will. Even more critically, the new assembly will grant itself the power to dissolve the current political structures.

Similarly, Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, has called for a constitutional assembly. Less able as an administrator than an agitator, Morales has proven that he is unable to govern effectively. Instead of calming the nation and building national unity since his unprecedented election as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, he has presided over discord and chaos. Protests continuously rock the country, from the heights of Sucre, Bolivia, to the lowlands of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The unlikeliest of allies, highland prostitutes and lowland businessmen are standing against the proposed constitutional changes.

But there is hope. Moderate leftists with respect for markets and human rights have won in Chile, Uruguay and Brazil. They have achieved economic growth and political stability that is unparalleled throughout the region.

Next year will be telling for Latin America’s course. Only two critical allies, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay, vote for a new executive. Paraguay will be especially indicative because this small, landlocked nation displays the same ideological division that is representative of Latin America as a whole.

In 2008, Paraguayans must decide between Fernando Lugo, a strident former bishop and admirer of Chavez and Luis Castiglioni of the ruling Colorado Party. Recent polls indicate that Lugo will easily win with grass-roots support. It does not help that the Colorado Party has held power for the past 75 years and is still tainted by the long and brutal rule of Alfredo Stroessner.

It is imperative that we keep ourselves apprised of the events unfolding throughout this region. They will have far-reaching consequences. Whereas Latin American nations once looked to the United States for leadership and guidance, many of them are hedging their bets by creating trade pacts and alliances with antagonistic powers such as Russia, China and Iran.

We cannot ignore our own neighborhood. It is essential that the United States strengthens ties with its traditional allies, builds rapport with moderates and finds common ground with irredeemable Socialists. We must acknowledge previous failures and become strong advocates for change.

To succeed, these societies must bridge the opportunity gap between rich and poor. This will require some measure of wealth redistribution, a solution that has at best been ignored and at worst has been maliciously impugned by conservatives of all stripes. Another area of collaboration and hope will be immigration. A comprehensive plan can help to stem the tide of emigration from Latin America, allowing these societies to retain their most ambitious and skilled workers.

The pink tide will inevitably ebb. We must ensure that it does not bleed red before it does.

[email protected]