Chileans didn’t elect SebastiÃ¡n PiÃ±era a week ago Sunday because of their antipathy for Hugo ChÃ¡vez. Bolivians didn’t re-elect Evo Morales in December out of admiration for Venezuela’s president. Nor will ChÃ¡vez be an issue on February 7, when a center-left and a rightist candidate face off in Costa Rica.
If you read Jackson Diehl’s column in today’s Washington Post, though, you might come away with the impression that Latin American politics today are “all ChÃ¡vez, all the time.” That the region is lined up, cold-war style, in monolithically opposed blocs, with ideological tides ever advancing and receding.
Latin America has quietly passed through a tipping point in the ideological conflict that has polarized the region — and paralyzed U.S. diplomacy — for most of the past decade.
This is true in a few politically polarized flashpoint countries, such as post-coup Honduras, increasingly authoritarian Nicaragua, or Colombia, whose war of words with ChÃ¡vez continues. But in most of Latin America today, elections are quietly and undramatically ratifying presidents or parties in power (Bolivia, probably Costa Rica), or uneventfully bringing oppositions to power (Panama, Mexico’s legislative elections, Chile, probably Brazil later this year). There is no regional cold war.
Instead, it’s hard to discern any pattern in the current set of polls and political outcomes. To the extent that there is one, Latin American voters’ mood is turning against angry, extreme, polarizing leaders of all political stripes. Approval ratings seem to favor moderate pragmatists of the right and left (Martinelli in Panama, Funes in El Salvador, Bachelet in Chile and Lula in Brazil). They are less kind to more combative, partisan leaders (Ortega in Nicaragua, FernÃ¡ndez in Argentina, and even ChÃ¡vez and Colombia’s Uribe who, while still quite popular, has seen a modestÂ decline in his ratings). An exception is Morales in Bolivia, who won a landslide despite a very combative political style.
Whatever the regional pattern, it seems to have little to do with the personality or influence of Hugo ChÃ¡vez. In fact, as Diehl points out, ChÃ¡vez is in trouble at home, facing rising crime rates, power shortages, inflation and a steep currency devaluation. The Venezuelan leader has reacted by hardening still further, nationalizing retail stores, pulling the plug on cable TV networks, and other steps that risk misfiring politically in advance of September legislative elections. As the Venezuelan leader’s direction appears more erratic, the Colombian magazine Semana notes, one ally, Ecuadorian President RafaelÂ Correa,Â is visibly distancing himself.
Diehl writes that “Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s ’socialism for the 21st century’ has been defeated and is on its way to collapse.” That may be. But if true, it would be a huge error to imagine a significant change in U.S. relations with Latin America as a result.
As president of a country of 28 million people, Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s ability to determine his neighbors’ political destiny was never great. His influence may be less of a concern than what he leaves behind: if the ChÃ¡vez government should implode under the weight of its mounting economic and social pressures â€” a possibility that can’t be dismissed within the next five years â€” it could leave a chaotic competition to fill a power vacuum, making the whole region less secure.
Meanwhile, the popular anger and aspirations that first elected ChÃ¡vez could easily manifest themselves among voters in another country, sending new leaders of the left to power. And as this happens, still other countries may move rightward.
There are no cold wars in Latin America, no rising or falling tides to be fostered or contained. Just democracies going in different directions, occasionally directions quite distant from the United States. Here in the United States, we have to get used to that, and stop viewing each electoral outcome as a harbinger of triumph or tragedy.