- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

BUENOS AIRES — The rise of indigenous left-of-center leader Evo Morales will embolden leftist groups in an upcoming string of elections that could reconfigure Latin America’s political map for years to come, according to analysts.

The intense election cycle, which started in November and will run to the end of 2006, includes 12 presidential and 13 legislative contests.

Brazil and Mexico, two of Latin America’s largest nations, will elect a president next year, as will Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.

Mr. Morales won a decisive majority in Sunday’s election, running on a strongly anti-U.S. platform.

The latest results from Sunday’s election gave Mr. Morales a higher-than-expected 51percent of the vote, owed in large measure to support from the peasantry wanting to end U.S. anti-drug operations aimed at eradicating Bolivia’s coca crops.

In recent years, South American voters have favored leftist governments over those supporting neoliberal economic models backed by Washington during the 1990s.

Mr. Morales underscores the rising role of nationalism in Latin American politics, and his victory will have a symbolic impact on an “ethnic political agenda” that is “absolutely new in Latin American, and especially South American, politics,” said Juan Tokatlian, a political scientist at the University of San Andres in Buenos Aires.

“As part of that, we are seeing more intense demands for more state, less market and a new social and ethnic agenda that was either overshadowed by other issues or repressed or co-opted by traditional elites,” Mr. Tokatlian said.

In resource-rich nations such as Ecuador and Bolivia, ethnic agendas have centered on efforts to nationalize natural resources such as gas and oil, leading to the ouster of free-market presidents favored by the United States.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and now Bolivia are controlled by governments that fall, to varying degrees, left of center.

Right-of-center governments are in power in Peru, Colombia, Mexico and the bulk of Central America.

The Bolivian example could shift the dynamic.

“A Morales victory will add steam to the prospects for leftist victories in Nicaragua and Mexico in 2006,” said David Dent, political scientist at Towson State University. “If the trend plays out in this fashion, Washington will decide the Latin American ‘hot spots’ deserve more attention.”

In recent years, many Washington observers have cited the region’s leftist turns as evidence that Washington is losing influence over “America’s back door.”

In February, CIA Director Porter J. Goss referenced the upcoming election cycle in Senate testimony. In Venezuela, Mr. Goss said, President Hugo Chavez “is consolidating his power by using technically legal tactics to target his opponents and meddling in the region, supported by [Cuban President Fidel] Castro.”

Mr. Goss said Colombia’s “progress against counternarcotics and terrorism” under President Alvaro Uribe, a key U.S. ally, could be affected by its election in March.

He also warned that presidential campaigning in Mexico “is likely to stall progress on fiscal, labor and energy reforms.”

Michael Shifter, analyst at Washington’s Inter-American Dialogue, said references to a leftward drift across Latin America are too simplistic and stressed that leaders, including Mr. Morales, will vary sharply in approaches, depending on political and economic pressures.

“What is common throughout the region is widespread disenchantment with politics of all colorations and a need for new policies to remedy mediocre economic growth, scant job creation, and stubborn poverty,” he said.

Mr. Morales’ victory in tiny, poor Bolivia is seen as a win for his proclaimed ideological mentor, Mr. Chavez. But larger, more developed nations such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile have shied from hard leftward turns, opting instead to blend free-market principles with deepened emphasis on social spending.

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