Friday links The Pentagon’s military aid role keeps growing
Jan 252010

Chileans didn’t elect Sebastián Piñera a week ago Sunday because of their antipathy for Hugo Chávez. Bolivians didn’t re-elect Evo Morales in December out of admiration for Venezuela’s president. Nor will Chávez 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 Chávez, 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 Chávez 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, Fernández in Argentina, and even Chávez and Colombia’s Uribe who, while still quite popular, has seen a modest 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 Chávez. In fact, as Diehl points out, Chávez 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 Rafael Correa, is visibly distancing himself.

Diehl writes that “Hugo Chávez’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 Chávez’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 Chávez government should implode under the weight of its mounting economic and social pressures — a possibility that can’t be dismissed within the next five years — 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 Chávez 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.

4 Responses to “It’s not about Chávez”

  1. lfm Says:

    I agree with Adam: the “Diehl spiel” of turning everything in Latin America and, heck, while we are at it, in Egypt and Syria as well, into some story about Chavez has been ridiculous from the start, but worse than that, it’s no longer amusing. But at a deeper level, there are two thoughts that I have in mind:

    1. Why do we still pay any attention whatsoever to the Washington Post? Future generations will wonder how many trees were felled so that this rag could inflict upon us the ramblings of Diehl, Krauthammer, Robert Samuelson and so on.

    2. One of the professional hats I wear requires me to teach Argentinean history. So, for years I’ve been wondering about the parallels between Chavez and Peron. I could go on and on about the mistakes Peron made, I could also go on and on about the mistakes Chavez has made, but that is besides the point. What matters is that in Argentina, Peron awoke the masses politically and gave them the experience of a government that, with lots of flaws, granted, was willing to take on some interests to deliver significant improvements in living standards for them. Then, when he fell, his successors made the fateful mistake of trying to erase that page of history, trying to suppress the popular awakening that Peron meant. The result? A 20 year-long governance crisis that, after lots of coups, dictatorships and economic disasters led to… the return of Peron.

    I keep fearing that the Venezuelan elites of the IV Republic, if and when they come back, will make the same mistake. I doubt they will try to come to terms with the new political landscape of popular mobilization that Chavez would leave behind and will, instead, try to suppress it, violently if needed.

    Does that mean that I’m a Chavista? No. But I’m an anti-anti-chavista. I disagree with many things the Venezuelan government has done (while, yes, I APPROVE of others). The thing is not to demonize what is, after all, yet another flawed president (all of them are). The thing is to recognize that the political process in Venezuela is much more nuanced than what the opposition would have us believe and that, failing to recognize that is just setting the stage for a set of mistakes of historical proportions.

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