Opinion and Analysis: International
Venezuela and the Latin American New Left
• The inauguration of Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay shows that Latin America’s democratic march to the left continues, and could be a forerunner to Mexico’s 2006 presidential election.
• The Bush administration, already uncomfortable with Latin America’s new left, would become apoplectic if this movement reached the U.S.-Mexican border. A López Obrador victory in the Mexican election would signal the ultimate domino falling.
• Bush’s Latin America team fails to understand that the model of the new left in Latin America today is less Che Guevara than FDR and Tony Blair’s British Labor Party.
• The growing center-left ideological tilt among Latin American states is symptomatic of a growing movement towards a continental alliance and a political stance markedly different from that being fielded by the U.S.
On March 1, Uruguayans inaugurated their first ever left-of-center president. This event shattered the power-sharing arrangement that had existed for the last 170 years between the moderate Colorado and Blanco parties. This arrangement, which in many ways mirrored the near half century reign of the similar power-sharing Punto Fijo pact in Venezuela between the Christian Democrats (COPEI) and Democratic Action (AD), ended last October when Uruguayans elected Dr. Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist, who ran on an anti-neoliberal platform. Vázquez was not the standard bearer of any well entrenched political party but the leader of a medley of relatively small movements that joined together under his Broad Front (Frente Amplio) coalition. The major issue Washington will be watching in the months ahead is not whether Vázquez will chart a leftist course, but just how left-of-center that course will be. Will he adopt a concertación style of government as seen in Chile, a balancing act between populist demands and IMF mandates as in Brazil, or a frontal assault on Washington – at least rhetorically – like Venezuela under Hugo Chávez?
Nothing too Radical
It is difficult to divine how Uruguay’s new president will deal with the threefold challenge posed by his country’s crippling debt, widespread poverty and high unemployment rate, all of which were exacerbated by Argentina’s 2001 crash. Those in the coalition’s far left-wing will want him to challenge the IMF’s prescriptions at every turn; but, unlike Argentina under Nestor Kirchner, Vázquez has given no indication that he will default on his country’s foreign loans. To the contrary, his choice for economy and finance minister, Danilo Astori, is viewed by observers as cautious and conservative. Astori, as reported in the Economist, believes that “Brazil played a central role to prove that a leftist government can be compatible with rigorous fiscal behavior.” Given that Vazquez’s likely economic model will be similar to the Keynesian model to which other new left governments in the region have turned, what does the Uruguayan leader’s victory mean for the future of the continent’s resurgent left-leaning movement?
Will the Region’s New Left Movement March North?
In an interview with COHA, Professor Peter H. Smith of the Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of California in San Diego said “The greatest significance for Latin America is whether Vázquez’s victory is part of a trend that culminates in a win for López Obrador in the upcoming Mexican elections.” In the event of a López Obrador victory, Smith continued, “Washington would really start to worry. That would mean a major tilt in the [ideological] balance of the hemisphere.”
So far, Latin America’s leftward shift has been relegated to the southern continent. However, a López Obrador victory could precipitate a tectonic shift for the Bush administration’s ill-reputed Latin America team from grudging acceptance of South America’s left-of-center governments to the use of Cold War-style tactics against them. Even though López Obrador, as the candidate of Mexico’s left-leaning PRD party, appears to be moderate, the prospect of another new left administration – this time right on the U.S. border – would be all but intolerable to the administration’s nostalgic cold war ideologues. A López Obrador victory particularly would upset Eliot Abrams, that self-confessed perjurer and booster for Central America’s death squads in the 1980s who now serves as Bush’s Deputy National Security Advisor and Roger Noriega, the assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Both men see regional policy exclusively through an anti-Havana prism and hardly can be comfortable with Latin America lurching in the direction of everything they loath.
One would think the Bush administration would not get so flustered by Latin America’s new left regimes, as they are all democratic, practice at least a ‘soft’ neoliberalism and are only in the earliest stages of coalescing into a regional EU-like bloc. While most other administrations would likely brush off the continent’s new left tilt as a natural consequence of the region’s disenchantment with the unfulfilled promises of free trade and free markets as the guarantors of social justice, the current White House will see it as a frontal challenge. This is because Bush’s Latin America team, led by Noriega and Abrams, make no distinction between Fidel Castro and anyone who sports a red beret or spouts anti-Yanqui rhetoric.
A New Left Oil Bloc?
While the U.S. is forced to barely tolerate Chávez so long as he keeps the oil flowing, a López Obrador victory in Mexico next year would likely scorch Washington policymakers, especially if he reverses Vicente Fox’s policy and reaches out to Castro as have Chávez, Lula, Kirchner and Vázquez. If he wins, the administration will then be faced with four left-of-center hemispheric powerhouses: Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The nightmare scenario for the Bush team would then be Chávez inviting López Obrador and Mexico’s state owned oil company, Pemex, into a cooperative arrangement with the Venezuelan leader’s oil trading bloc, “Petrosur,” which already includes Argentina and, as of March 2, Uruguay. Given that Mexico and Venezuela are two of the U.S.’ top four sources of foreign oil imports (behind Saudi Arabia and Canada), a combined Obrador-Chávez alliance would account for upwards of a quarter of all U.S. petroleum imports. One can pretty easily anticipate how the Bush administration would react to such a petro bloc emerging, recalling Henry Kissinger’s old adage that any threat to Saudi oil exports to the U.S. would be a casus belli.
Regime change – Cold War style
The archetypal models for Washington-orchestrated regime change in Latin America against left-leaning democracies were Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. In the latter instance, Salvador Allende – a man as devoted to constitutional democracy as to his socialist ideals and who didn’t jail even one political prisoner in his three years in office – was toppled by a coup with the Nixon administration’s blessing and support. In Kissinger’s infamous words, “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”
The theoretical justification for this view can be found in the work of another Reagan era cold war zealot, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Jeane Kirkpatrick. In her book, Democracy and Double Standards, Kirkpatrick wrote that, “rightist authoritarian regimes can be transformed peacefully into democracies, but totalitarian Marxist ones cannot. They can be changed only by aiding armed opponents of communism. In the final analysis these enemies of freedom can only be deterred from greater aggression . . . by the military capacities of the United States.” Translation: better dead than red. It was precisely this jesuitic justification for supporting any tin-horn dictator or death squads that simply claimed to be anti-communist that lead to U.S. complicity in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Central America’s “dirty wars” of the 80s.
Though the current administration has so far not done anything as brazen in Latin America as Nixon and Kissinger routinely did in terms of destroying democracy in order to save it, when confronted with a choice between backing authoritarian regimes friendly to U.S. interests or free-wheeling democracies, it has unfailingly opted for the former. In 2002, the Bush administration, after having channeled funds to the Venezuelan opposition, openly endorsed the coup against Chávez before hastily retracting that position once the coup failed. As usual in interventions of this kind, U.S. support of the minority opposition resulted directly into swelling the majority of the population’s support for Washington’s self-denominated foe.
In February of last year, the administration arranged the de facto ouster of Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since then, it has failed to publicly condemn human rights violations under interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s bankrupt regime, nor has it tried to ensure that the island’s majority party, Fanmi Lavalas, can participate safely in next fall’s scheduled elections. These examples demonstrate that contrary to President Bush’s words in his last inaugural address that “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way,” his administration is quite firmly prepared to sabotage Latin America’s ‘own way’ to democracy if it differs from Washington’s.
But Just How Left-wing Are They?
In contrast to right-wing jitters over Latin America’s “rising red tide,” a sober look at these governments – certainly Brazil, Argentina and even Venezuela – reveals a significant gap between their anti-neoliberal rhetoric and their actual economic policies. While bashing the IMF and the World Bank has become the region’s polemical norm, no leader – not even Chávez – is seriously contemplating a wholesale rejection of the basic principles of Keynesian economics even if some, like Kirchner, challenge IMF mandates. What this means is that Latin America’s new left governments will favor mixed markets modeled on the post World War II monetarist policies of social democratic European states, like Clement Atlee’s Britain. Befitting this pattern, as Latin America’s new left-of-center states go about creating safety nets for the poor, they continue to court foreign investment and encourage capitalist ventures to help pay for them. As the Economist rightly notes, “While Mr. Castro makes it spitefully difficult to set up even the smallest of micro-enterprises as a private business, his Venezuelan counterpart is cheerfully ploughing funds into the creation of as many small entrepreneurs as possible.”
Latin America’s New Deal
On the gap between the theory and practice of the new left in Latin America, as can be seen in Chávez’s government, Dr. James Petras of the University of New York at Binghamton has written that, “The euphoria of the left prevents them from observing the pendulum shifts in Chávez’s discourse and the heterodox social welfare and neoliberal economic politics he has consistently practiced.” Confirming Chávez’s progressive bona fides while at the same time calling attention to his standard Keynesian economic policy, Professor Petras writes that the Venezuelan leader’s “policy has always followed a careful balancing act between rejecting vassalage to the U.S. and local oligarchic rentiers on the one hand and trying to harness a coalition of foreign national investors . . . He is closer to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal than Castro’s Socialist revolution.”
None of the above is meant to suggest that the region’s leaders have not made significant strides towards alleviating poverty and hunger. To the contrary, Lula and Chávez have enacted some of South America’s bolder initiatives in order to reduce the region’s draconian levels of inequality. The important point is that while the new left-of-center governments are launching many New Deal-style reformist initiatives, the core free market structures remain intact. Accordingly, if Vázquez follows Latin America’s other neo New Dealers, we can expect the following from his Broad Front administration: first, a neoliberal economic policy coupled with a politically left agenda; second, interest in revivifying the Pan-American ideal, currently modeled on Chávez’s Bolivarian dream of South America as a regional economic hegemon; third, a gradual turning away from Washington politically, if not economically. An amalgam of these three creedal beliefs – Keynesian economics hitched to left-of-center politics, intra rather than interhemispheric integration and a gradual shift towards Europe and Asia is probably the most apt description of the new variant of leftism being displayed in Latin America today. If Vázquez ends up fitting this mold, then we can expect him to be far more like Lula and even Chávez than Fox and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia.
The Drive Toward Intrahemispheric Trade
Though efforts to strengthen MERCOSUR, the South American Common Market, have been somewhat disappointing, Brazil and Venezuela have retarded and maybe even shut down Washington’s push for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). This integrationist approach is likely to advance at least as long as Washington continues its duplicitous subsidization of U.S. agriculture while preaching the virtues of free trade to its southern neighbors. As part of the region’s Pan-American drive for Latin unity, we will see further moves toward solidifying a South American trade bloc, such as Chavez’s proposal for ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for America. Eduardo Duhalde, former president of Argentina, already has declared that “our mirror will be the European Union, with all its institutions.” Following this trend, on March 2, Vázquez signed the “Declaration of Montevideo” with Chávez. The significance of this agreement, which brings Uruguay into Venezuela-sponsored Petrosur, is that it is one more step, albeit a small one, in the direction of intrahemispheric trade and cooperation and away from Washington’s preferred plans for multilateral, interhemispheric trade.
What to Look for in the Future
Could the next step be a single South American currency modeled after the euro? If López Obrador wins, that possibility could be on the docket and certainly Chávez –notwithstanding Washington’s fear of another debilitating blow against the dollar, as happened with the advent of the euro – will continue pushing for it. Meanwhile, the danger Latin America’s New Dealers face is that Bush’s cabal of neoconservatives does not seem to realize that having an occasional dinner with Castro does not make one a Che Guevara. In Professor Smith’s words, “Vázquez needs to court Castro because if he can’t deliver to his base materially then he can at least deliver symbolically. But politically, he will throw his lot in with Kirchner and Lula.” Unfortunately, if the past is to be our guide, there is no indication that Washington has the patience or wisdom to interpret such courting as merely symbolic.
This analysis was authored by COHA Senior Research Fellow, Seth R. DeLong, Ph.D.
March 8, 2005
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