- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

The political left is inheriting Latin America. Still, leftist leaders should not become overconfident about their political longevity.

Latin Americans have become a hypermobilized people, in the thrall of a newfound sense of enfranchisement. It is almost as if, by some stroke of magical realism, the barriers that impeded mass social movement suddenly disappeared. Electorates are demanding social justice, accountability and, generally, greater power over policy.

The problem is that the mobilization is not the result of a gradual awakening, but rather justifiable outrage about the corruption and impunity of ruling elites. The movement is unpredictable and could not only undercut long-term prospects for sustainable prosperity but could also turn even on leftist governments that are not seen delivering what the populace believes it is owed.

To understand the indignation and mobilization of the region, it is necessary to take a historical detour. Many Latin Americans still feel they were denied the “socialist experiment” by U.S.-supported military regimes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The electorates are demonstrating socialist sentiment can be coerced away only for a limited time. Military coups now appear to have only bought time. The future of the region’s leftist governments will define how successful that stall proves to be.

After countries successfully democratized, the future seemed promising. Electorates supported sacrificing economic policies — such as Argentina’s peso-dollar peg, called the Convertibility Plan—which was described as the path to sustainable development. As Argentines bore the tightening of the Convertibility Plan, President Carlos Menem and his cronies ransacked treasuries while Washington not only turned a blind eye but applauded the government with irrational exuberance.

The Clinton administration made Argentina a major non-NATO ally in 1998 and in 1997 Michel Camdessus, then the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), called Argentina’s Convertibility Plan a ” ‘Credibility Plan’ par excellence.”

Argentina’s 2001 economic catastrophe destroyed its social compact and alarmed the region. Although the country was once notably safe, violent crime and social upheaval continue to rage. The Menem government’s rapaciousness contributed to the downfall of not only Argentina, but also the street credibility of economic liberalism.

The next event to traumatize the region was Bolivia’s 1999 decision, promoted by the World Bank and IMF, to privatize the public water system of the city of Cochabamba.

The privatization, amazingly enough, even covered wells which the communities, not the Bolivian government, had built themselves. Water prices were immediately raised sharply.

The country’s poor protested the policy en masse, and the government cracked down brutally. In 2000, an Army captain opened fire on a protest, killing a 17-year-old student, which fueled further outrage and ultimately forced Bolivia to abandon the privatization. Much of the region was horrified to see the government so forcefully repress demands for water.

Despite the efficiencies that may have been created, privatizing a resource on which a desperately poor people depend for physical survival was ill-conceived, to put it mildly.

Critics have cited the left’s resurgence as proof of Bush administration failure to engage the region, but that view appears unfounded. The left was already ascendant. And U.S. interventions in the region are usually counterproductive.

The bipartisan U.S. “war on drugs” has failed to curb the influx of narcotics but has severely alienated the region’s people. U.S. criticism of Bolivian President Evo Morales — who champions the growing of coca (the raw material for cocaine) as national vindication and a route to prosperity — catapulted his popularity in the 2002 election and provided the momentum for his victory last December.

Still, Bush administration foreign policy not directed toward Latin America — particularly the Iraq War — has been profoundly felt there. A fierce rejection of the Bush doctrine invigorated the massive anti-Bush, anti-globalization protests in Argentina during the November Summit of the Americas. The Latin American elite has also largely opposed the war and has watched in dismay as it bolsters leftist contenders.

Some argue Latin America is moving toward its natural leftward tilt, but the region is more specifically responding to its history. The region, after all, has been host to demagogues, strongmen and other blights on progress across the political spectrum.

Alberto Fujimori’s counter-terror caudilloism in Peru was significantly popular in its day, as was Mr. Menem’s crony-capitalist liberalization and, further back, Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile.

Also, while speaking the language of the left has become a political imperative in Latin America, there are various kinds of leftist governments in the region. The governments of Chile and Uruguay appear fairly centrist and Brazil’s president has been no more “leftist” than his centrist predecessor.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, meanwhile, is in a category all his own. He has been particularly adept at harnessing frustration with oligarchic corruption to pioneer his radical-leftist “Bolivarian” authoritarianism.

The United States has limited control over but much at stake in Latin America’s evolution, or devolution. If leftist governments cannot deliver, either chaos or opportunity could ensue. The Bush administration should continue supporting NGOs and further its interests by acting in concert with other leaders. America can try to guide the region, but must allow Latin America to find its own way forward this time.

Ximena Ortiz is the executive editor of the National Interest.

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