The inauguration of Evo Morales, a former coca grower and an avowed socialist, as the still popular president of Bolivia, highlights what appears to be a strongly leftist trend in Latin America. Is this trend real, and is it something U.S. policymakers should address?
Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, says Fidel Castro is his hero and delights in tweaking Uncle Sam’s nose, hosting a World Social Forum in Caracas this week that will feature denunciations of U.S. “imperialism.”
Chile’s new president is Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have elected presidents recently with “backgrounds in social activism,” as a Washington Post story phrased it.
The leading candidate in Peru’s presidential election later this year is an avowed socialist.
Ian Vasquez, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Project on Global Economic Liberty, said there are different kinds of leftist-populists in his native South America. Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales appear to be true believers, who seem convinced that socialism and nationalizing industries will really improve the lot of the poor. Most of the others — da Silva in Brazil comes to mind — may talk the talk, but keep government spending and monetary policies under reasonable discipline.
Chavez can strut his neo-Marxist stuff because Venezuela is a major oil producer that has benefited from the recent run-up in oil prices. A little of that windfall has gone into programs for the poor, but much has been squandered on showpieces like this week’s Yanqui-baiting festival or, worse, corruption.
Chile’s last president, Ricardo Lagos, called himself a socialist but touted free trade and didn’t change the free-market policies that made Chile South America’s most prosperous country.
Morales’ popularity in Bolivia does have a great deal to do with U.S. drug-control policies, which have disrupted traditional agricultural patterns and customs in South America without reducing the flow of cocaine to the United States. The U.S.-promoted war on drugs undermines civil society in Latin America, promotes violence and corruption, and creates opportunities for ruthless people to make large fortunes. It is difficult to find any benefits.
Aside from ending the drug war, there is little the United States can or should do to counter the current Latin American trend. U.S. influence is strictly limited, and attempts to exert it will be spun as imperialism. Aside from rhetoric, however, there is little the new guard of Latin American socialists can do to harm the core interests of the United States.