JUST WHEN YOU thought the world couldn’t get any more anti-American, it seems a whole other continent has suddenly lined up against us. While we turned our backs to focus on the Middle East, Latin America went and painted itself red. Last week, Evo Morales—an admirer of Fidel Castro, as well as a proponent of nationalizing industry and decriminalizing coca production— ascended to the Bolivian presidency. Most press accounts portray his election as part of a Latin American socialist revival. These stories point out that Morales’s political mentor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, may soon have other leftist allies implanted in Nicaragua, Peru, and Mexico.
Fortunately, the story line is a bit more complicated than this. Yes, leftist parties have run up an impressive string of election victories. But these disparate political movements are hardly as monolithic as portrayed in newspaper accounts—and U.S. policy ought to avoid the same analytic error. In truth, Latin American leaders are quietly battling one another for leadership of this supposed socialist revival. On one pole stands Chávez. While he claims to represent “socialism of the twenty-first century,” he bows in the direction of the twentieth century variety, idolizing Fidel and Che. Chávez has distressingly little concern for the integrity of long-standing democratic institutions, such as courts or the press, not to mention private property. Above all else, he wants to push the continent into an adversarial relationship with the United States. ”If it occurs to American imperialism, in its desperation, to invade Venezuela, a 100-years’ war will begin,” he likes to intone. On the other pole stand committed democrats like Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. While Lula might pose for pictures with Castro—a sop to his radical base—he practices a brand of socially conscious, fiscally responsible economics that bears more resemblance to Tony Blair’s Third Way.
The United States can’t reverse the hemispheric turn leftward. But the Bush administration can do a far better job of bucking up Lula’s ilk and containing Chávez’s radicalism. In part, this requires the United States to recalibrate its Latin American priorities. While neo-liberal economics may be preferable to state-centric populism, America’s only red line in the region should be democracy. And the United States should acknowledge reality: While open markets and fiscal discipline may be theoretically correct policies, their implementation by Latin American governments in the 1990s did little to prove their virtue; they were hampered by systemic corruption and provided hardly any salve to the continent’s deep poverty. With suspicion of free markets now abounding, we should temporarily lower the Free Trade Area of the Americas several notches on our regional agenda. It has no chance of passing any time soon. And, in the meantime, we should offer to drop our agricultural subsidies, which provide potent evidence to those who claim that free trade is merely a guise for the imposition of U.S. economic interests on the region.
American liberals and conservatives both have other pet solutions to stem the continent’s political drift. The right wants to lump Chávez in the “axis of evil” and challenge him more directly, pulling some moves (like creating an anti-Chávez broadcasting network) from our Cuban playbook. Liberals, on the other hand, like to urge the United States to send aid to the region, reprising John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. But the best temporary response to this crisis may be the easiest: silence. Since the United States isn’t about to confront Chávez seriously, it shouldn’t give the impression that such a policy is in the works. Each time Chávez baits the United States into a verbal duel, his continental myth grows, encouraging others like Morales to follow his example. It lends credibility to his favorite story line: Chávez, the second coming of Simon Bolivar, battling the Americans, the second coming of Spanish colonialism. Even more than Castro, Chávez has proved to be a master at marketing himself to the Latin American masses, with his flamboyant persona and keen understanding of the news media.
Chávez hopes to bend the pragmatists to his more radical agenda. Preventing this fate won’t be easy. But, while the region might not pose the same strategic risks as we face in the Middle East, we can’t afford to squander its energy reserves or its cooperation in stamping out narco-trafficking. And, even more importantly, now that democracy is the basis for our foreign policy, we can’t allow Latin America, one of the greatest democratic success stories of our time, to revert to the dark ways of its past.
This article appeared in the February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine.