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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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.