- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Latin America’s passionate embrace of democracy and free enterprise, which transformed the region 30 years ago, has settled into a much more complicated — and at times conflicted — long-term relationship.

But when discussing regional attitudes on government, popular sovereignty and free-market economics, Chilean pollster Marta Lagos said the biggest outlier in the data has nothing to do with conventional politics.

“The biggest difference is trust. Latin Americans are more distrustful of others, even today, than any other region,” she told a small Capitol Hill briefing last week on her latest survey.

“It remains a major cultural hindrance for Latin America, because it makes democratic reforms that much harder,” said Mrs. Lagos, the founding director of Latinobarometro, a comprehensive annual survey of popular sentiment in 18 Latin American countries.

In East Asia, for example, just 42 percent of those polled agreed with the statement: “You can never be too careful when dealing with others.”

The percentage of the skeptical rose to 51 percent in Africa and 56 percent in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe.

By contrast, three decades after countries across Latin America began dumping dictatorships and military juntas for elected governments, fully 75 percent of those polled said that most people can not be trusted.

That, in turn, leads to some ambivalent popular attitudes about democratic rule, Mrs. Lagos said.

In 12 years of polling data from 1995 to 2007, between 55 percent and 60 percent of Latin Americans say they support democracy as the most preferable form of government.

At the same time, just under 40 percent say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in their particular country, a low figure unaffected by the surging economic growth across the hemisphere since 2003.

Mixed on markets

In a similar vein, the Latinobarometro data show highly mixed attitudes toward the other revolutions of the recent past — the move by country after country to a more free-market economic system.

“People do not see a relation between democratic government and a good economy,” Mrs. Lagos said, “while those without money or access to state services tend to have a low opinion of democracy as well.”

In 2005, some 64 percent of those polled said they favored a free market-based economic system. By 2007, despite strong growth, the figure fell to 54 percent.

Although the gains of the past 30 years have not been rolled back, “democratization in the region has been slow and heterogeneous,” Mrs. Lagos said. “Although people see some positive changes, so far these have been insufficient to achieve the kind of transformation in governance or social and economic structures that would help consolidate democracy.”

Such conflicted attitudes could pose a challenge to the next U.S. president, who will have to chart a course in a region where President Bush shares the bottom rungs of Latin American popularity polls with ailing leftist icon Fidel Castro of Cuba and Venezuela’s fiercely anti-American populist president, Hugo Chavez.

The next president faces a challenge in revitalizing broader U.S. ties in the region, while dealing with rising powers such as Brazil and the ambitions of Mr. Chavez.

“Political relations between the United States and South America vary sharply from country to country, but for the most part are not robust, especially compared with a dozen years ago,” Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said in an interview earlier this month with Bolivia’s La Prensa newspaper.

No left turn

But Mark Feierstein, a partner with the Washington polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and a former Clinton administration official, said fears of an anti-U.S. swing to the left in Latin American politics in recent years have been overstated.

“There’s no evidence in the data that the hemisphere is shifting to the left,” Mr. Feierstein said at last week’s Capitol Hill briefing.

Voter self-identification polls even show a slight conservative bias, the pollster said, with 42 percent of voters calling themselves centrists, 22 percent right-wing and just 16 percent putting themselves on the left.

Unlike the Latinobarometro findings, Mr. Feierstein said his polling showed an “extraordinary transformation” of popular attitudes in the region in just the past few years, with more people saying their country is “headed in the right direction” than in the past.

“That as much as anything helps to explain the electoral trends of the last few years,” he said. “What we saw in 2005 and 2006 was not so much a shift to the left, but a pro-incumbent trend.”

The populist Mr. Chavez won a new term, but so did conservative Colombian incumbent President Alvaro Uribe, a key U.S. ally in the region. Brazil’s center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won a second term, while Mexico’s conservative National Action Party held on to power with the narrow election of President Felipe Calderon in 2006.

“Excepting Venezuela, Latin American politics are not nearly as polarized as people think,” the pollster said. “There’s nothing like the divisions you saw 20 or 25 years ago, and a lot of the hot-button social issues aren’t as prominent as they are in U.S. elections.”

Mr. Feierstein said even the region’s anti-Americanism tends to be overstated, despite the low rankings for Mr. Bush.

Mr. Chavez has carved out an international reputation as a thorn in Washington’s side, but opinion surveys inside Venezuela find that his outspoken, often personal attacks on the United States cost him votes.

In Nicaragua as well, former leftist guerrilla Daniel Ortega’s 2006 comeback win in the presidential vote came despite widespread fears among voters that his election would hurt relations with Washington.

“That’s not to say that Latin Americans love the United States and its government, but the feeling is much more pragmatic,” Mr. Feierstein said.

Mr. Feierstein said popular surveys show that the burning question for voters in Latin America is not politics or ideology, but corruption and crime.

Trade trouble

Latin American opinion polls do suggest that the region is watching closely as the United States weighs a free-trade accord with Colombia.

Mr. Uribe has been Mr. Bush’s closest ally in South America, battling leftist guerrillas and narco-traffickers at home while contending with Mr. Chavez for influence in the region.

The free-trade deal is seen in Bogota as a reward for Colombia’s struggle, but it is opposed by U.S. labor unions and by the two remaining Democratic political contenders, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has blocked a vote on the trade pact in the House. Mr. Bush at a Cabinet meeting said the move was hurting a critical U.S. ally.

“It’s not in our country’s interests that we stiff an ally like Colombia,” Mr. Bush said.

U.S. opponents of the pact say they want stiffer labor, environment and human rights conditions attached to the trade deal, but Mr. Feierstein said rejection — for whatever reason — is unlikely to go down well south of the border.

“Any question we ask on trade, on foreign investment, we’re likely to get a 90 percent positive response,” he said.

“Anything the U.S. does against free trade will be interpreted very negatively, not just in Colombia, but across Latin America,” he said.

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