No One to Counter Chavez

(International Relations and Security Network, 23/02/2007)


For over two decades, the prevailing ideology in Latin America was neo-liberalism, a Washington-born idea that claimed the power of open markets would lift the region’s poor from misery. It did not, and corruption ran rampant.


While democracy still remains strong, resentful voters ushered in a new generation of neo-populist leaders touting a new idea: a form of socialism, called Bolivarianism, that has slowly but surely become the loudest and most prevalent ideology.


Bolivarianism is anti-capitalist, supports nationalization, regional trade with like-minded countries and above all, suggests that a country should rely on itself or fellow socialist states, not imperialist powers, as a source of the economic growth that will lift all from poverty. It is a sort of refurbished socialism that is not a guiding light for the future.


Latin America cannot readily absorb the economic shock of open markets, nor can it get bogged down in the trappings of old socialist ideas. A blended ideology must be promoted, but the problem is that no one is strong enough to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the leader of Bolivarianism.


Chavez calls it Socialism for the 21st Century. Cuba's Fidel Castro passed him the torch. Leaders around the region pay homage to their own past as socialist upstarts through hugging and laughing with Chavez on the international stage while taking care of often pro-capitalist, neo-liberal business at home.


Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva is a perfect example. He has the leftist background and eye for fiscal conservatism to become a great ideological counterweight to Chavez. His politics represent an ideal blend for the region. But his politically weak position at home and strong voices from his own left deter any would be shouting match with Chavez.


Within a week after winning his second term in office, Lula visited Chavez for a photo opportunity on a bridge linking both countries. That was in November, and it looks like Lula’s administration will remain bogged down until March as he struggles to get past his party’s sordid past and form a working cabinet willing to share the same table.


Argentina of the past could have been a counter weight to the Bolivarian ideology. But since Nestor Kirchner has come to power, Argentina has become a Venezuelan puppet.


Chavez has literally bought the support of his southern neighbor with over US$3 billion in purchases of Argentine debt. The most recent purchase occurred on 16 February, when Venezuela dumped another US$750 million into Argentine government coffers.


Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has the politics to promote an ideological battle with Chavez. Colombia has been a model of economic growth through a mixture of neo-liberal policies and social programs. But Uribe has serious problems.


Political allies are falling like dominos due to links with former paramilitary leaders. And if Uribe took the time to speak out for neo-liberalism and against Chavez, he would be dismissed as another of Washington's puppets. Colombia is a top recipient of US aid.


The only other leader who could take up an ideological fight with Chavez is Mexican President Felipe Calderon. He has the right politics and his country has a history of not blindly supporting the US. Voting against the US invasion of Iraq at the UN is a clear indication. But Calderon won on the thinnest possible mandate. His opposition controls enough seats in the Mexican Congress to block any unwanted initiative, and his focus is on Mexican organized crime, not on verbal sword play with Chavez.


Finally, the US has launched a diplomatic offensive in the region. This is to be a year of engagement, but the US president is clearly obsessed with the war in Iraq, not with putting a muzzle on Venezuela’s leader for the sake of the region’s future. Washington is doubly discredited, first for promoting an ideology that clearly did not work, and second for doing nothing about it.


Latin America needs an independent leader willing to stand up to Chavez, but that leader does not exist on the region’s geopolitical map. Bolivarianism will continue to seep into the minds and hearts of millions across Latin America. Chavez and his pool of allies will control the headlines until the next round of presidential elections tell the world how the region has embraced this new ideology.


As Chavez puts it, Socialism for the 21st Century is just getting started. If that is true, then he will continue to trumpet his ideology until Latin Americans learn, the hard way, that Bolivarianism did not carry them much farther from poverty than neo-liberalism. Disillusionment with reality may then spread faster than hope for the future.