Battle for the Soul of Latin America

As the United States President tours six key states in South America, the continental shadow of Venezuela's acclaimed populist leader, Hugo Chávez, looms large over George Bush's bid to boost his country's waning influence in what Washington used to call its backyard.

The recent pastoral letter of Bishop Mario Moronta Rodríguez of San Cristóbal will not have gone down well with the more prosperous members of the flock in his remote Andean diocese, nor indeed with the rich in Venezuela as a whole. His message went directly counter to their bitter and sustained criticism of the democratically elected and popular President Hugo Chávez and his promotion of what he calls “twenty-first-century socialism”.

Far from launching an anathema against political strategies that have dreadfully upset the comfortable in Chávez’s newly named Bolivarian Republic, the bishop, whose first two dioceses included some of the worst slums in this oil-rich country, made a more considered, commonsensical point. He wanted “twenty-first-century socialism to be lit by the social doctrine of the Church, centred on the importance of faith in God and the human person”, adding: “Socialism is something perfectible when it does not set aside the essential, which is the dignity of the human person.”

Such ideas are not welcome to the affluent minority in a country where about a third of the population live in indigence among immense oil wealth. Yet he rubbed it in. The idea of a “New Man”, popular in Communist circles, antedated Marxism and indeed Christianity as, he said, it was to be found in the rabbinical texts of the Old Testament. And he reminded his listeners that “the economy needed to be run for the good of the people, not of a particular group or party”.

It does not demand much imagination to hear the cries of “Ouch!” that Don Mario’s words must have provoked from some Venezuelan pews, drawing rooms and shopping malls. A similar reaction must have come from a decidedly anti-Chávez Washington this week. President George W. Bush was starting a tour around Latin America trying to restore a United States position severely damaged not just by Chávez’s insubordination but also by Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib scandals, the federal foreign kidnapping policy (euphemistically termed “extraordinary rendition”) and the military and political reverses Washington is suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chávez is a particularly difficult person for the United States to deal with. He has been democratically elected and is immensely popular locally and regionally. He is beginning to weld Venezuelans into a more homogeneous society, raising the poorest towards a standard of living which oil riches could long since have afforded them but which incompetent and venal governments never troubled to provide. In 1998, 49 per cent of Venezuelans lived in poverty. The latest figures, from last year, show that this proportion has fallen to 33.9 per cent.

Public education has improved and, with the help of some 20,000 Cuban health workers, country people most of whom rarely saw a doctor now have the rudiments of a health service. In addition Cuba and Venezuela are offering eye treatment in Cuba to anyone in the western hemisphere: there is no charge for treatment, hospitalisation or the return air fare. Patients can even bring a helper free. Many have already been treated and the political effect of this policy – like the sale of cheap heating oil to the poor in the United States – is enormous.

Hugo Chávez undoubtedly embodies – rather noisily perhaps – a new-found self-respect that is spreading over Latin America as the memories of past dictatorships give way to constitutional governments: Pinochet is dead, many of the former Argentine military torturers are behind bars, the Somozas and other Western-backed regimes are a distant nightmare. The baleful “national security” strategies, which were promoted by Washington during the Cold War and became a tyrant’s charter, are dead.

A new political generation of leaders – Lula in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia, Vázquez in Uruguay, Bachelet in Chile, Correa in Ecuador and Chávez himself – have thrown aside yesterday’s bureaucratic Marxist-Leninist dogmatism for broadly social democratic programmes. Despite rivalries, the countries are fashioning a sort of unity by creating their own Latin nationalism to challenge the US nationalism that has been dominant for so long. The Mercosur trading bloc is binding Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay into a somewhat fragile economic unit while a boom in all sorts of commodities, from crude oil to soya beans, is bringing the region a new prosperity.

The new international weight of the region is shown, for instance, in Beijing’s unrelenting courtship of it as China searches for new sources of oil, iron ore and food for its 1,300 million inhabitants and, to a lesser extent, in the graduating of Brazil, South America’s largest economy, into Wall Street jargon. With Russia, India and China it is part of the so-called BRIC group of countries which investors are told they should particularly keep their eyes on.

Chávez has therefore been the object of character assassination – not least in Britain – which suggests, mendaciously, that he is an anti-Semitic dictator who is impoverishing his people and aggressive towards his neighbours. President Bush’s dislike of the Venezuelan leader was echoed in London by Dr Denis MacShane, then a junior Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister, who called him “a ranting, populist demagogue” when Chávez was deposed in a right-wing putsch in April 2002. Sadly for Dr MacShane, Chávez was restored to the presidency by loyalist forces within 48 hours.

Chávez has certainly committed diplomatic blunders – his reference last year to the US President as “the Devil” who had left a smell of sulphur at the podium in the United Nations was a crass error that robbed him of any opportunity of obtaining a seat on the Security Council for his country.

Yet he is swimming with a powerful new tide in Latin America. Like many thinking Latin Americans, he wants to cast off the neo-liberal “Washington Consensus” of pro-business economics in the late twentieth century, which only worsened the gap between rich and poor in a region of the world that was already far too wide but also aborted the growth of healthy, broad-based markets made up of people with enough money to buy food.

He has kept democratic forms and won a series of votes fairly and with aplomb. Despite a campaign by Chávez’s opponents to portray him as a dictator, Venezuelan elections are fair, as attested to by the European Union and such bodies as the American Atlanta-based Carter Center. Indeed the people’s voice is better heard than in Florida, for instance, not to mention Egypt and the central Asian dictatorships, which have over the years strangely escaped official censure from the US and Britain.

On Thursday George Bush was scheduled to begin a six-day tour taking him to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico aimed at recovering some of the political initiative seized by Chávez. In a speech in Washington last Monday, he set out a range of US initiatives to help Latin America’s poor in the fields of education, health and encouraging small businesses; while in Montevideo he is expected to do his best to tempt the Uruguayans out of Mercosur. Yet the irrepressible Venezuelan has chosen Bush’s presence in Uruguay as the moment to fly to see the Argentine President, Néstor Kirchner, across the River Plate in Buenos Aires. It is a fair bet that Bush and Chávez will bandy sharp words across that sluggish waterway.

Nevertheless Chávez’s shadow will pursue the US leader to his last South American stop, Venezuela’s neighbour Colombia. There President Álvaro Uribe, a critic of chavismo, an ally in Washington’s faltering “war on drugs” and the beneficiary of billions of dollars of US aid, is in severe difficulties. He has had to sack his Foreign Minister, María Consuelo Araujo, after both her father and her brother were charged with kidnapping, and his intelligence chief was charged with murder and collaboration with right-wing terrorists. The worst rumours about the Uribe Government are proving true. Meanwhile, the continental duel continues.

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