By Douglas Kohn
America, like many other nations, tends to view Latin American politics as a matter of trends. Of these various social and political trends lately, the one that makes the most headlines is the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela, and the seemingly endless rants of a blowhard elected dictator whose position is becoming ever more untenable.
As the most recent poll by the Latinobarometro points out, the Latin American public is significantly further to the left on economic and political issues than Americans would like them to be. In poll after poll, the people of Latin American nations consistently favor big government doing many of their services.
The so called Revolution of Chavez has expanded its following to include the states of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba. For all of Chavez’ blustering, this is relatively little to show for his efforts and his active foreign policy that has come at the expense of the long term economic and social health of his own Venezuela.
The other story of Latin America has been the notable progress of pragmatic, center left governments throughout the region, having permeated much further than Bolivarianism. In Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and others, fiscal restraint and government deregulation has been the real trend, in spite of the left wing preferences of the population. Rising economic growth, decreasing inequality and an overall increase in the quality of life in so many Latin American nations have ensured that these governments are reelected and prudent policies continued.
Chavez received his first setback a few years ago in a plebiscite that would have greatly expanded his powers and ability to preserve his socio-economic policies. His rants of racism in the United States have had the rug pulled out from under them in the election of America’s first black president.
Chavez then made the mistake of trying to tangle, possibly militarily with Colombia, the most Pro-American country in South America. With American backing, the democratically elected right wing government of Colombia has brought order to a country usually known for its lack of it. Through a combination of military buildup and amnesty programs, Uribe has nearly eliminated Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC. Chavez tried to support this group through back channels and gave them some protection, in spite of their heinous acts of hostage taking and other forms of brutality. This was a major diplomatic loss for him. Colombia, in conducting daring raids into Ecuador and its own territory, has won the respect of many in the region. America’s Colombia policy may be counted as one of the only foreign policy success stories of Bush Administration.
Venezuela, after these setbacks, is increasingly looking for allies and support. It is now reaching out to Russia, Iran and other regimes united only in their hostility to the United States. Venezuela is stepping up armed cooperation with these nations as well, hosting Russian naval units. These developments, however, are probably not nearly as dangerous as some in the media have been portraying.
The best evidence of this is Chavez’ most recent difficulty that the opposition party has gained ground in municipal elections in Venezuela. Chavez, essentially an elected dictator, is now a cornered animal. With the decrease in the price of oil, his policies now seem increasingly wrongheaded and imprudent. The ultimate test of Venezuela’s electoral system is about to come, the world will watch and see if Chavez lashes out like a caged animal as his power decreases, or if he peacefully concedes the failure of his false revolution.