Uncle Sam and His Hostile Latin Relations

So far from God, so close to the United States, runs the classic Mexican complaint. These days virtually everyone in Latin America seems to believe that the U.S. is too close. The average Central or South American politician wants an embrace by Washington about as much as he or she would desire a kiss from Judas.

As a result, there isn’t much for Washington to cheer about in the region. Mexico recently elected conservative Felipe Calderon as president, but just barely. And his left-wing opponent, Manuel Lopez Obrador, has yet to concede defeat; to the contrary, Lopez Obrador hopes to use a parallel “inaugural” and sustained protests to drive the new incumbent from office.

Last year Bolivia forthrightly chose the radical candidate, Evo Morales. He has unsettled energy and financial markets by promising to nationalize private oil and gas ventures. He is a political protégé of Venezuelan President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias.

Nicaragua has returned to its presidency Daniel Ortega, the communist revolutionary and Reagan administration bete noire who in 1990 foolishly called an election which he lost. “Ortega is a tiger who has not changed his stripes,” U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli warned Nicaraguan voters before the ballot, but to no avail. Ortega won a plurality in a fractured field. His victory reflects a vote of no confidence in Washington, the supposed benefactor of democratic Nicaragua.

Ecuador just elected a left-wing candidate who promises to close America’s military base – the last one in the region – drop anti-drug cooperation with Washington, rejoin OPEC, and renegotiate his country’s debt. He, too, is friendly with Chavez.

Then there is Chavez, the continent’s leading radical and confidante of Fidel Castro of Cuba. Elected in 1998, Chavez is likely to win reelection on December 3rd. An authoritarian but not a traditional dictator, he touts “participatory” rather than “representative” democracy. Explains Javier Corrales of Amherst College:

"[W]hen it comes to accountability and limits on presidential power, the picture grows dark. Chavez has achieved absolute control of all state institutions that might check his power. In 1999, he engineered a new constitution that did away with the Senate, thereby reducing from two to one the number of chambers with which he must negotiate. Because Chavez only has a limited majority in this unicameral legislature, he revised the rules of congress so that major legislation can pass with only a simple, rather than a two-thirds, majority. Using that rule, Chavez secured congressional approval for an expansion of the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 justices and filled the new posts with unabashed revolucionarios, as Chavistas call themselves."

Chavez is an enthusiastic critic of Washington, which backed a coup d’etat in 2002 and has funneled millions of dollars to groups critical of him. He routinely uses the U.S. as a political foil. Notes Corrales, “trashing the superpower serves the same purpose as antagonizing the domestic opposition: It helps to unite and distract his large coalition – with one added advantage. It endears him to the international left.” In his ongoing reelection campaign Chavez has attacked the Bush administration far more often than he has his leading opponent, state governor Manuel Rosales. Although Chavez has shamelessly used all manner of state power, employment, and revenue to enhance his position, his wide lead in the polls also reflects his nationalist appeal.

Alas, few Washington policymakers seem to even remember history, let alone learn from it. Past U.S. intervention in Latin America often has proved to be counterproductive. America spent much the Cold War supporting brutal and corrupt dictators – Somoza, Duvalier, Batista, and others. U.S. pressure often created resentment, evident in the famed Mexican aphorism. Most dramatically, Washington managed to turn a minor dictator into major international figure when it anointed Fidel Castro as its Latin American Enemy Number One.

Now Washington has similarly aided Chavez, paying him far too much attention. Indeed, the U.S. government has spared no opportunity to criticize Caracas. For instance, American officials, representing the most heavily armed nation on the planet, accounting for half of all military spending on earth – who have been working assiduously to push Chavez from office – complained when Venezuela began purchasing weapons, including AK-47s. The sheer audacity of Venezuela, deciding to arm itself!

True, some analysts see Caracas as a potential aggressor. Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation worries about “the possibility of a conventional war between Venezuela and its neighbor Colombia, the U.S.’ main regional ally. At a minimum, Venezuela’s oil-induced buying binge could set off a regional arms race.” Several other Heritage Foundation analysts advocate that Washington “strengthen regional alliances to prevent aggression, sanction Chavez in international forums, and press suppliers like Russia to withhold sales of offensive weapons systems.”

Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy would go even further, banning the sale of civilian aircraft by Spain in America to retaliate for Spanish military sales to Venezuela. He writes: “The Bush Administration has made it clear that we have compelling interests in stopping the arms buildup in Venezuela. Congress should step in to make sure that our allies understand the message. When it comes to buying planes from supposed allies like Spain, Congress should just say no.”

Is Venezuela really so important to the world’s sole superpower? If Colombia is an ally, it is one for no purpose, since America faces no security threats in South America. If Bogota deserves aid and attention, it is only because the misguided U.S. drug war has created a criminal narco-empire which threatens to swamp the Colombian state and wreck Colombian society. Washington could most help Colombia by decriminalizing drug use.

Chavez-led attempts at aggression and subversion are possible, but Venezuelan imperialism has proved to be no more popular than Yankee imperialism in the region. Conquering South America obviously is beyond Venezuela’s capabilities; attacking even one country could result in national suicide. Venezuela’s ambitions can be contained by its neighbors.

Chavez has proved little more effective in propagandizing on behalf of left-wing revolution. His more radical allies have had a tough time. Mexico’s Lopez Obrador has steadily lost support after refusing to concede a close but apparently fair election. Bolivia’s Morales has had to backtrack on some of his initiatives in the face of rising public dissatisfaction and legislative opposition. State governors also have begun organizing against him.

In fact, most of Latin America’s victorious leftists – in Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay – are relative moderates, generally committed to economic liberalism. Even the Ortega of 2006 is not the Ortega of 1990. Notes the Independent Institute’s Alvaro Vargas Llosa: “The Sandinista leader shed his Marxist rhetoric and, conscious of the need to seduce a profoundly Catholic nation, mended his fences with the Roman Catholic Church he had once persecuted.”

Chavez may believe himself to be the continent’s leading figure, but few other heads of state accept his leadership. For instance, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner recently forced the recall of the Venezuelan ambassador, who had criticized Argentina for issuing arrest warrants against Iranians implicated in the bombing of a Jewish cultural center.

Even some of Chavez’s friends hold him at arms’ length. Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has worked with Chavez to promote regional economic integration, but eschews Chavez’s radical and anti-American rhetoric. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who faces an opposition-dominated Congress, says Chavez is only a friend who won’t be “in charge.” Correa adds that he would be pleased to shake the hand of President Bush, the “representative of the American people.”

Moreover, Chavez’s meddling in the internal affairs of other nations has generally backfired. In both Mexico and Peru the more conservative candidates turned Chavez’s endorsement into winning election issues. In the latter, where the Venezuelan leader’s popularity rating was just 17 percent, Alan Garcia promised to prevent Peru from becoming “a colony of Venezuela.” Even in Ecuador, where the left-wing candidate won, Chavez’s intervention boosted the conservative contender.

More dramatic still was the failure of Chavez’s attempt to expand his reach to the international stage. Only because of international resentment aroused by the Bush administration’s misguided foreign policies did Venezuela, which explicitly claimed to be competing “with the biggest power on the planet,” have a shot of winning a seat on the UN Security Council. Guatemala’s UN ambassador Jorge Skinner-Klee admitted that American support for his nation was a dubious aid: “Sticking fingers in the eye of the U.S. is popular again.”

Nevertheless, few of Washington’s critics were impressed when Chavez took to the stage to denounce President George W. Bush as not just “the Devil,” but “the sulfurous Devil.” Venezuela consistently trailed Guatemala in the balloting; both eventually dropped out in favor of Panama. Guatemala previously defeated Venezuela for a spot on the UN Human Rights Council.

Chavez’s greatest opportunity to cause mischief comes from his control of Venezuela’s abundant oil revenues. He can’t cut off America’s energy supply, since petroleum is both fungible and an international commodity. But his nation’s relative wealth allows him to subsidize hostile regimes, such as Cuba. Caracas is hardly unique in this regard, however. Russia and Saudi Arabia have equally significant energy resources and equally adverse objectives at times, at least.

All told, despite the international attention which Chavez has received, he hasn’t accomplished much. Efren Andrades, a university professor who previously served as a minister in Chavez’s government, admits: “We haven’t achieved [politically] what we thought was going to be achieved at the beginning of the year.”

Of course, Latin America would benefit from fewer left-wing populists. Despite their routine avowals to combat corruption and poverty, both demagogues and dictators have a very poor track record. Chavez is no different. Gustavo Coronel of Transparency International observes: “Corruption has dominated the Hugo Chavez government as never before in Venezuela’s history. The reasons seem clear. Corruption occurs when there is motive, opportunity, and impunity of act. In the case of the government of Hugo Chavez, all three of those factors are present to a large degree.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. has little credibility to oppose Chavez, having spent decades backing a variety of autocratic and kleptocratic regimes. Rather than hectoring and pressuring both governments and peoples in Latin America to do its will, Washington should simply leave them alone. The problem is not that Latin Americans don’t know what America wants. The problem is that they don’t care what it wants.

The best strategy for Washington would be to emphasize trade liberalization and economic integration. Observes Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue: “If you really look at the U.S. agenda in Latin America, trade is the only positive. The rest is immigration, anti-narcotics. It’s all negative.”

In late November Washington signed a new free trade agreement with Colombia. An earlier FTA with Peru (already ratified by that nation’s legislature) also awaits congressional approval. Alas, ratification of these sort of freer (as opposed to truly free) trade regimes has proved increasingly difficult in the Republican Congress. Approval will become much harder with a Democratic majority. Indeed, incoming Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has demanded that the agreements be renegotiated.

However, saying no to Colombia and Peru would humiliate – publicly, on an international stage – two of the Latin American leaders most critical of Chavez. And to do so after they have gone out of their way to ingratiate themselves with the U.S. For instance, Peru has dropped a partial ban on American beef because Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mt.) will chair the Senate Finance Committee in the new year. Warns Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto: if the pact “does not go through, it will strengthen the hand of the Chavez-type sympathizers we have in Latin America, the very old arguments that we can’t rely on you Americans and free trade doesn’t really work.” Should the U.S. back away, disaffected Latin Americans might also look to China, which has been expanding its reach in the region, as a potential partner and patron.

U.S. foreign policy is a wreck most everywhere today, so no one should expect Latin America to be any different. But it need not be so. The Bush administration should reflect on Venezuela’s missteps. While attending the June 2006 meeting of the Organization of American States, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick lauded Peru’s criticism of Venezuelan interference in its internal affairs and declared: “It is encouraging that the democracies of Latin America that feel that Venezuela has been infringing on their own democratic process are speaking up on their own.”

Yes, and those very same Latin American democracies have long similarly criticized American meddling. The U.S. will have more, and better, friends in the region if it does more listening than lecturing for a change. That also would be the most effective strategy in dealing with the specter of Hugo Chavez.

Read more by Doug Bandow