Latin America challenges the Washington
by Nadia Martinez
In These Times magazine, April
The presidential palaces of Latin America
are famous for their imposing Spanish colonial grandeur. Not long
ago these marble edifices on grand plazas were inhabited mostly
by military strongmen. That these leaders were elites of European
descent went virtually without question.
Today, Chile's presidential palace, La
Moneda, is the home of a single mother and torture survivor. In
Buenos Aires' famous Casa Rosada lives a man who is perhaps the
biggest thorn in the side of the International Monetary Fund.
In Bolivia it is an indigenous coca farmer, in Brazil a metalworker
and in Uruguay a former leader of left social movements who call
these palaces home.
In election after election, Latin Americans
are choosing leaders who promise a shift from traditional elite-driven
politics to more participatory and active democracies that focus
on fulfilling the needs of the poor. With nearly a dozen national
elections coming up this year, including especially significant
ones in Mexico and Brazil, this is an important time to assess
how far the new leaders of Latin American politics, diverse as
they may be, are likely to go in achieving real change. And at
a time of virtually one-party rule in the United States, the prospects
for real democracy in Latin America offer an intriguing model
for the rest of the world.
Under the U.S. radar
To the extent that U.S. officials have
paid any attention to the new Latin American leadership, it has
been largely fixated on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
In February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played the Hitler
card, describing Chávez as "a person who was elected
legally-just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally-and then consolidated
power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro
and Mr. Morales and others." Other U.S. officials have used
Chávez' fiery attacks on President Bush to raise the specter
of a Cuban socialist model being imposed by Chávez and
his new allies throughout Latin America.
In general, however, Latin America is
low on the Bush administration's radar screen. Although the U.S.
government was deeply involved in Latin America during the '80s,
providing military and other assistance to governments fighting
internal civil wars, successive administrations have been less
concerned with the region since the fighting there stopped. The
war in Iraq has pushed Latin America even lower on the priority
According to Adam Isacson, a senior policy
associate at the D.C.-based Center for International Policy, U.S.
military assistance to Latin America has not dried up. Rather
it has been refocused "to fight the war on drugs and efforts
to maintain close contact with the militaries of countries that
are lifting trade barriers, privatizing and pursuing laissez-faire
By pulling back from direct political
involvement in the region, the U.S. government created an opening
for Latin American social movements of small farmers, trade unionists,
human rights activists and urban poor to organize and elect new
leadership. Their efforts have been bolstered by the failure of
the policies that the U.S. government has pushed in the region-fighting
drugs and expanding free market reforms. On drugs, the U.S. government's
attempt to crack down on Latin American suppliers was key to the
rise of Bolivia's newly elected president, Evo Morales. A native
Aymara and leader of the country's coca farmers union, Morales
is a staunch opponent of U.S. coca crop eradication programs.
Although the coca plant is used to produce cocaine, for Bolivians
coca in its natural form is as much a part of their culture as
coffee is to ours. His courage to stand up to the United States
in defending the rights of coca farmers made him a national celebrity
even before he went into politics.
In February, shortly after taking office,
Morales urged the United States to change its drug war policy
in Bolivia. He said, "The [U.S.] zero-coca policies haven't
worked. We don't want a false drug war." Then, during Chile's
presidential inauguration in March, Morales gave Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice a traditional Bolivian musical instrument
called the charango, decorated with coca leaves-a symbolic reminder
that coca farming is legal in Bolivia.
The U.S. coca eradication efforts in Bolivia
and elsewhere have had little to no effect on cocaine use at home
or on coca cultivation. Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute
for Policy Studies, explains that after the United States put
the squeeze on Bolivia and Peru in the early '90s, coca cultivation
exploded in Colombia. Now, after five years of hammering at Colombia,
production is moving back to Peru, Bolivia and other countries.
"The drug war hasn't been able to solve this balloon effect,"
he says. "In fact, constricting global supply simply creates
greater financial incentives for more campesinos to plant coca,
and in a region where there is so much poverty, we will never
make coca disappear by making it more valuable. Morales' victory
should be occasion for Washington to re-evaluate its failed drug
war rather than to propagate alarmist rhetoric."
While he is committed to pushing for a
political program that will benefit the poor and indigenous populations
that make up the majority of Bolivians, Morales has shown consistent
respect for the democratic process. Morales is the first indigenous
president in Bolivia's 180-year independent history. With 54 percent
of the popular vote, he's also the first president ever to win
an election with a clear majority in the first voting round, starting
his term with a strong mandate and high expectations.
Backlash against World Bank and IMF
Morales also got a huge boost from U.S.
support for the policies of the World Bank and International Monetary
Fund (IMF). Following on the heels of the Reagan-era's "trickle-down"
economics, which posited that benefits for the rich will "trickle
down" to the rest, Washington has used its power of the purse
and its leading position within international lending institutions
to guide Latin American governments toward economic policies that
restrict public spending, increase the role for the private sector,
and dismantle the system of import taxes and other tariffs in
order to facilitate international trade.
Lending agreements from the IMF and the
World Bank during the '80s and '90s came riddled with conditions
for countries to manage fiscal deficits by lowering government
spending on social programs, including health and education. "Cutting
public expenditures by any large degree cannot be done without
affecting the poor who rely on public services, or provoking huge
rebellions," says Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center
in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Yet in 2003, the IMF demanded Bolivia
cut more than $250 million, or 8 percent, of the national budget.
In Deadly Consequences: How the IMF Provoked Bolivia into Bloody
Crisis, Shultz details how the Bolivian government tried to warn
the IMF that this would incite popular unrest. Bolivians deposed
two presidents in as many years through protests against these
types of policies and then elected Morales.
Argentine President Néstor Kirchner
also owes much of his success and popularity to his resistance
to the IMF. Since assuming office in 2003, Kirchner has been a
tough negotiator with the IMF. He has resisted demands to slash
spending, lift controls on public utility prices and implement
banking and tax reforms, and instead he has pushed for investment
in the public sector and protection of Argentina's poor.
Argentina, once the poster child of the
IMF, has made a remarkable comeback since its economy collapsed
in 2001 after a decade of closely following IMF and World Bank
prescriptions. While in 2000 growth was a negative 0.8 percent,
growth from 2003 to 2005 under Kirchner's watch exceeded 8 percent,
with low inflation and falling unemployment and poverty. Consequently,
Kirchner now commands a stunning 80 percent approval rating in
Brazil, too, has reaped considerable benefits
from its government's determination to balance external pressures
to adopt a cautious macroeconomic strategy with internal demands
for higher standards of living for all Brazilians. Economic growth
in 2004 was the highest since 1986, with gross domestic product
(GDP) increasing 5.2 percent.
The U.S. government's aggressive push
to expand free trade in Latin America also helped catapult other
new leaders into the presidential palaces. Luiz Inácio
"Lula" da Silva in Brazil made his opposition to a proposed
hemispheric trade deal, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)
a centerpiece of his 2002 election campaign, calling it an "annexation
agreement" rather than an integration agreement. He then
helped lead resistance to the FTAA among other wary developing
countries, resulting in a deadlock for the past several years.
Likewise, in Costa Rica, opposition candidate Ottón Solís
nearly pulled off a stunning upset in that country's February
election, thanks to his popular position against the Central American
Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). CAFTA passed the U.S. House of Representatives
last summer by only two votes.
Lula and Solís were riding a wave
of widespread outrage against the failure of trade and investment
liberalization policies (often called the "Washington Consensus")
imposed on the region since the '80s. No region of the world had
gone further to adopt these reforms, and yet, while promoters
argued this would lead to prosperity, Latin America has experienced
rising poverty and inequality. The World Bank estimates that the
number of Latin Americans living on less then $2 per day increased
from 99 million in 1981 to 128 million in 2001. According to the
United Nations, the gap between rich and poor has continued to
grow and Latin America has the most unequal wealth distribution
of any region in the world.
The democratic opening that occurred after
the infamous era of military dictatorships allowed social movements
to express their discontent. The traditional conservative elites
who were aligned with the United Sates were voted out, and replaced
by socially minded, left-leaning leaders.
Right versus Left?
It is somewhat simplistic to characterize
the changes taking place in Latin America as purely right versus
left, but it is undeniable that there is a general shift toward
the left. However, in Latin America the political spectrum is
relatively wide and what are considered left governments vary
greatly from country to country. Their common thread is that they
all support state involvement in pursuing economic and social
policies focused on improving the lives of the poor.
For example, Bolivia's Morales has pledged
to regain national control of partially privatized state enterprises,
like the energy industry. Chile's new president, Michelle Bachelet,
campaigned on a platform of continuing her predecessor's free
market policies, but promising to increase social benefits in
order to reduce the country's gap between rich and poor. During
her inaugural speech on March 12, Bachelet vowed to "reach
the year 2010 with an extensive social welfare system."
Both Venezuela's Chávez and Uruguay's
Tabaré Vázquez are self-proclaimed socialists, but
Chávez is a far more aggressive opponent of U.S. trade
and investment policies, once calling the proposed FTAA "the
cauldron of hell itself." He has also plowed massive amounts
of government money into health and education programs, part of
what he calls "socialism for the 21st century." On the
other hand, Vásquez has thus far kept fairly intact the
Washington-friendly economic policies he inherited, and recently
signed a bilateral investment deal with the Bush administration.
Unlike oil-rich Venezuela, Uruguay is constrained by a massive
debt burden, equivalent to roughly 90 percent of its gross domestic
product. Likewise, Bolivia is the second poorest country in South
America, and part of the World Bank's highly indebted poor countries
(HIPC) initiative to reduce external debt. Morales will likely
face similar restraints in his choices for revenue allocation-whether
to increase teachers' salaries or make debt payments is not an
uncommon choice for Latin American presidents.
The wave of the future
Nearly a dozen national elections are
slated to take place this year in Latin America, and candidates
of the left are leading contenders in many of them. Two elections
in particular have important implications for the United States:
Mexico and Brazil. Together, they are home to 60 percent of Latin
America's population and represent more than two-thirds of economic
power in the region.
Mexico shares a 2,000-mile border with
the United States and is the country's largest trading partner
in Latin America. This year's presidential election, scheduled
for July, is only the second since 2000, when the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI) was voted out after 71 years of undefeated
rule. The candidate of the left, Mexico City Mayor Andrés
Manuel López Obrador, has been the front-runner since the
start of the official campaign season in January of this year
and continues to lead in the polls.
According to David Brooks, U.S. bureau
chief of the Mexican daily La Jornada, the election is particularly
key for the United States since so many pressing issues on the
U.S. domestic agenda, such as "agricultural trade, narco-trafficking,
and energy policy, are really international issues, and have to
do with Washington's relationship with its southern neighbors,
López Obrador has pledged to block
attempts to open the oil and gas industry-which is state-owned-to
private investment. This is a controversial issue for President
Bush, whose pledge to shift the U.S. oil reliance away from the
Middle East depends on Latin American exporters like Mexico remaining
loyal to their number one client. Ensuring that American oil companies
have access to Mexico's huge reserves would make that job much
It is also the first time in Mexican electoral
history that citizens living outside the country will be able
to vote from abroad. This adds a potential four million outside
voters just this year, 85 percent of whom are living in the United
States and have tremendous influence back home. Last year, Mexicans
sent over $20 billion to their friends and families in Mexico.
"Depending on how you measure it,
remittances are the second or third revenue stream for Mexico,
after oil exports and tourism," says Brooks. "Mexicans
in the United States care about what happens at home." This
point has not been lost on Mexican political hopefuls, who have
routinely campaigned in Chicago and other U.S. cities even before
the large communities of Mexican immigrants there were allowed
When current Mexican President Vicente
Fox came into office in 2001, he managed to get Bush to promise
to overhaul the current immigration legislation, and to strike
a deal with Mexico on special work programs and possible amnesty
for undocumented immigrants. The Bush administration has failed
to do either, which will likely have a high political cost for
Fox's party, the National Action Party (PAN), to the benefit of
In Brazil, Lula is seeking another term.
Although he has been critically weakened by a series of corruption
scandals in his Workers' Party (PT), the latest opinion polls
show him in the lead. This year, the PT's main contender is the
more conservative Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB), which
governed from 1994 to 2002.
Although Lula has not been personally
implicated in the scandals, many feel he should have done more
to fight corruption. There is also considerable disappointment
that he has not gone further to follow the example of his neighbor
in Argentina to challenge the IMF. Nevertheless, the former union
leader's victory in 2002 is still widely viewed as a decisive
step in the direction of stronger democratic rule in Brazil.
"Whether or not Lula wins again is
not what's important," says Atila Roque, a Brazilian citizen
and executive director of ActionAid USA, an international development
agency based in Washington D.C. "The point is that people
are deciding now who best represents their interests, so if the
left doesn't perform they'll be removed too. That's incredible
Latin America's rejection of Washington's
favored model of economic management has caused strained relations
with the White House. Public opinion polls in the region consistently
show people's preference for a break with Washington. Many Latin
Americans think that the United States is largely to blame for
their countries' increasing poverty and inequality.
Anti-American sentiment has also risen
since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the scandals of prisoner abuse
at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Public sentiment holds that
the United States is not following international norms and is
not playing by the rules, as other countries are expected to.
According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a series of world-wide
public opinion surveys, "rising anti-Americanism is not confined
to Western Europe and predominantly Muslim countries." A
recent Pew survey shows that while 52 percent of Brazilians expressed
a favorable opinion of the United States in 2002, by 2003 that
number had dropped to 34 percent. In the minds of many, the Iraq
war has only confirmed the worst stereotypes about U.S. militarism,
unilateralism and imperialism. A sense of mistrust toward American
corporations doing business in Latin America is also prevalent.
"The U.S. government's decision to
attack Iraq has been a critical factor in the growing disdain
for the U.S. in Latin America," says Fabian Pacheco, an advisor
to Abel Pacheco, the outgoing president of Costa Rica. "We're
seeing increasing popular pressure on the few governments who
still support this war to distance themselves from the U.S."
The Bush administration should be paying
close attention to what is happening in Latin America, without
repeating the mistakes of the past. It should define a clear policy
for the region that is based on supporting democratic processes
and institutions, and should seek to ensure that democratic governments
like that of Evo Morales in Bolivia succeed. The United States
should be more tolerant of those leaders who do not necessarily
toe Washington's line, and show that it is committed to democracy,
regardless of what candidate the people choose. After all, economically
successful neighbors make reliable trading partners, and politically
stable governments make good global allies.
Still, it remains to be seen if the New
Left in Latin American will be able to overcome the endemic problem
of poverty by fashioning bold solutions in Bolivia and beyond.
Efforts such as Argentina's attempts to
work more closely with Brazil, Venezuela and others are hopeful
signs. Last year, Kirchner paid off the last of its debt to the
IMF, with the help of Venezuela. Other countries, such as Ecuador
and Bolivia are also trying to break free from the shackles of
the IMF, with help from their neighbors. It's just a start, but
this may give governments a little breathing room to deal with
urgent issues of poverty and misery in their countries.
Roque of ActionAid explains that if the
United States doesn't allow the space for governments to experiment
with alternatives, such as increasing social protections or promoting
national industry, it will be preparing the ground for all kinds
of dangerous repercussions. Any attempt by Washington to tie the
hands of these new leaders when they make economic decisions they
believe are in the best interests of their people will only increase
public frustration, and that can lead to extreme populism, from
the right or the left. Although not a bad thing per se, populism
can be used to promote radical ideologies that claim to represent
the majority of the population.
To Roque, expanding and consolidating
a strong democracy is more critical than whoever resides in Latin
America's presidential palaces. "Democracy must go beyond
elections of the president and the parliament," he says.
"Democracy is the freedom to make innovative economic decisions
that will improve people's lives."
Nadia Martinez was born and raised in
Panama. She is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy
Network, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.