The Magazine

Mr. Chavez's Neighborhood

He's not very popular there.

Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Venezuela's cocksure president, Hugo Chávez, might take a sobering glance through the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted this spring and released over the summer. Of the seven Latin American nations polled, large majorities of Chileans (75 percent), Brazilians (74 percent), Peruvians (70 percent), Mexicans (66 percent), and Bolivians (59 percent) express little or no confidence in Chávez "to do the right thing regarding world affairs." As Pew puts it, "He is widely recognized--and widely mistrusted--throughout Latin America." Even in Argentina, perhaps the most anti-American country in the region, a full 43 percent of respondents have little or no confidence in Chávez.

That's not all. Majorities in Brazil (65 percent), Chile (60 percent), Mexico (55 percent), and Bolivia (53 percent), along with a plurality in Peru (47 percent), agree that "most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people are rich and some are poor." Indeed, a whopping 72 percent of Venezuelans agree with that statement. "There is broad support for free-market economic policies across Latin America," Pew reports, "despite the election in the past decade of leftist leaders."

The term "leftist," though often used to describe authoritarian radicals such as Chávez, is also appropriated for left-wing democrats like Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. The leftward drift of many Latin American countries in recent years should not be confused with a massive shift into the Chávez camp. Most Latin governments, whether center-right or center-left, have upheld the institutions of democracy and embraced responsible fiscal policies.

"I don't see this big, looming, radical lurch to the left," says Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She points to the emergence of "market-friendly reformers" in Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and elsewhere. The conservative Otto Reich, who served as a senior diplomat for Latin America under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, stresses that Washington need not fear the "democratic left," epitomized by Bachelet and Lula, which Reich separates from the "extreme," antidemocratic left, epitomized by Chávez. Since 1990, Reich notes, the Chilean economic miracle has been piloted by a center-left coalition, with stunning results. "Chile is a true Latin American success case," which should caution against viewing the Latin left as monolithic.

Chávez may be a throwback to the old South American caudillos, who blended populism, authoritarianism, and military rule. But even his two supposed protégés, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, are hardly carbon copies. In Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega regained power with less than 40 percent of the vote, thanks to election rules that make it possible for a candidate to win the presidency with just 35 percent. But a majority of Nicaraguans voted for one of the two center-right candidates. Thus far, Ortega has accepted the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Talk of a populist surge in the region contains some truth. But Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua are three of Latin America's weakest, poorest countries, never fully integrated into the global economy. As Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society and editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, points out, the elections of Morales and Correa were based less on ideology than on practical grievances. And Ortega's victory was certainly "not a triumph of leftism," but rather "a triumph of electoral manipulation."

While Argentine president Néstor Kirchner has also cast his lot with the Chávez forces, the post-2002 Argentine economic recovery owes much to "neoliberal" policies charted by former finance minister Roberto Lavagna, whom Kirchner sacked in late 2005. Kirchner is not seeking reelection next month, hoping instead to be succeeded by his wife, the Argentine first lady. Opponents lodge credible complaints about their autocratic tendencies.

Argentina may now be part of the Chávez orbit. But Mexico and Peru are not, demonstrating the very real limits of his appeal. During the 2006 Mexican presidential race, center-right candidate Felipe Calderón repeatedly associated his populist opponent with Chávez and wound up rallying to victory. In the 2006 Peruvian election, Chávez lent full-throated support to a radical nationalist named Ollanta Humala. This allowed the more moderate Alan García to frame the election as a choice "between Hugo Chávez and Peru." Thanks in part to the Chávez albatross, García defeated Humala in the runoff. His center-left regime has pursued a sound economic agenda and backed a free trade agreement with the United States.

Indeed, the regional climate as a whole is relatively encouraging, given the financial crises of the 1990s and early 2000s and Latin America's history of coups and political upheaval. The Pew survey found that Latin publics are, on balance, more satisfied with their quality of life and family income than they were five years ago. The Economist reckons that many Latin economies are experiencing their best performance "since the mid-1970s," with solid growth rates and a burgeoning middle class in countries such as Brazil and Mexico. "Economic management has really never been better," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

This is not to paint an overly sanguine picture. Poverty is still a serious problem. Judicial systems need reform, as does education. Corruption, cronyism, and crime remain widespread. Drug cartels are raising havoc in Mexico, murdering journalists and triggering bad memories of Colombia. Guatemala's recent presidential campaign was marred by bloody violence and a raft of political murders. Panama just elected to lead its national assembly a pro-Noriega radical, who has been indicted in the United States for the 1992 killing of an American soldier.

Meanwhile, as the Pew survey notes, "The image of the United States has eroded since 2002 in all six Latin American countries for which trends are available." A breakdown in hemispheric cooperation could yield a power vacuum for Chávez to fill with his oil-soaked "Bolivarian" revolution. Resource-hungry China is also competing for influence. Sabatini worries that a failure by Congress to approve the U.S.-Colombia free trade pact would "signal that the United States is abdicating its leadership in the region." In a recent conversation with Reich, a high-ranking Latin American security official expressed alarm over the consequences of isolating Colombia, whose center-right government is a strong U.S. ally.

Finally, a windfall of petrodollars has given Chávez influence beyond Latin America. Using his vast oil wealth, he has moved closer to Iran and Russia, signing energy and arms deals. This summer Chávez agreed to sell Iran cut-rate gasoline; in 2006, he bought fighter jets and helicopters from Moscow. Among others, former Republican senator Rick Santorum has drawn attention to the potential threats posed by the Tehran-Caracas axis.

Chávez-style radicalism may be present in the Andes, but it is not sweeping the region. "There's a lot of reason to be very optimistic," says Sabatini, especially "about the most powerful countries." Whether Latin governments are left or right is ultimately less important than whether they adopt policies that are forward-looking and modern. "Democratic politics is really very healthy in Latin America," says Hakim. "This is a good period for the region."

Duncan Currie is managing editor of the American.