- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

With 10 leadership elections in 2006, Latin America faced a potential shake up. The election of Evo Morales in December 2005 could have been a harbinger of that shift. The protege of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a former coca grower who supported nationalization of Bolivia’s oil resources and pledged during his campaign to be a nightmare for the United States. A year later, the election results have not borne this out. What continued to emerge in Latin America were two different molds of leftist government — supporters of free-market and free-trade policy with a commitment to democracy, and authoritarian leftists who consolidate political power and state control of natural resources.

Illustrative of the former is Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the free-marketeer with populist appeal who won re-election handily in a runoff. Similar to Mr. Lula da Silva in her commitment to free trade is Michelle Bachelet, the first woman elected president of Chile. During her first year, she inked free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and neighboring Peru, where a reformed Alan Garcia was re-elected 16 years after the end of his economically and politically disastrous presidency. So far, Mr. Garcia has stayed away from the dismal policies, including an effort to nationalize Peru’s banks, that sent inflation soaring to around 7,000 percent and crippled the country.

Also significant in the Peruvian election was the traction Mr. Garcia was able to gain by highlighting the ideological similarities and likely political alliance of his opponent, ultra-nationalist Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala, with Mr. Chavez. In Mexico, center-right candidate Felipe Calderon found some early campaign success with the same tactic. Mr. Calderon’s opponent, Mexico City chief Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, vehemently denied the connection, calling it mere propaganda. Even in countries where the far-left agendas of Col. Humala or Mr. Lopez Obrador garner widespread support (Mr. Lopez Obrador lost by the narrowest of margins), the Chavez model is not broadly embraced.

The region saw center-right candidates elected in Honduras, Costa Rica and (re-elected) in Colombia. Discouragingly, on the other hand, Mr. Chavez easily won re-election, Rafael Correa won in a runoff in Ecuador and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, however, political collusion to lower the vote threshold required for a first-round victory and a split of the center-right votes between two candidates — not an ideological referendum — returned Mr. Ortega to power.

Mexico’s disputed election, which was successfully resolved through legal process, was the only hiccup in the otherwise smooth transfers of power. The Latin American political landscape that emerged after 2006 is, with a few notable exceptions, composed of governments that are seemingly more amenable to the Summit of the Americas agenda — free trade and healthy, working relations with the Washington — than they are with Mr. Chavez’s agenda. The results could have been worse. Washington should remain circumspect, but not alarmed.

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