Some attention to Latin America?
An Answer for Hugo Chávez
By Jorge G. Castañeda Washington Post
Wednesday, March 7, 2007; Page A17
MEXICO CITY -- Each stop on President Bush's upcoming swing through Latin America has its own mini-agenda: ethanol and the Doha round with Brazil; a Trade Framework Agreement in Uruguay; Plan Colombia and drug enforcement in Bogotá; immigration and security with Mexico and Guatemala. But there is an overall agenda for which this trip may well represent too little, too late: Chávez containment.
The balance of forces in the region has shifted. Not only has the leftward tilt persisted -- with electoral victories in Nicaragua and Ecuador, unprecedented near-misses in Mexico and Peru, unexpected advances in Colombia -- but the Venezuelan president's influence has expanded. Hugo Chávez has found his sea legs and assembled an impressive array of tools to seduce the region. His "21st-century socialism" is a strange blend of a state-run economy, blanket social subsidies, a perpetual presidency, government by decree, and authoritarian theory and practices, as well as endless quarrels with Washington.
Thanks to unlimited oil revenue (for now) and an endless stream of Cuban doctors, educators and security personnel -- and soon, bountiful supplies of Russian arms made in Venezuela -- the new Caribbean caudillo is on a roll. Chávez has skillfully exploited the disappointment of the region's poor with the economic reforms of the past two decades; he is (for now) delivering the goods: bare-bones health care, literacy campaigns, price controls on food staples. Chávez has extended his reach to Bolivia, where Evo Morales worships him; to Argentina, where he and his populist colleague Néstor Kirchner are preparing a massive anti-Bush rally to coincide with the American president's arrival across the bay in Montevideo; and increasingly to Ecuador and Nicaragua, through generous handouts. Guatemala and Paraguay could be next.
While much of Chávez's socialism is either rhetorical or rooted in economic policy, it entails serious backsliding on human rights and representative democracy. Ultimately, if Chávez wants to wreck Venezuela's economy, that is the Venezuelan people's business; but if he seeks to extend his concentration of power in Venezuela or elsewhere, that is everybody's business. It is time for others to say so and to undertake the necessary ideological and political struggle to check Chávez and Havana, both rebutting their populist fallacies and failures and vaunting the merits of the democratic alternative, a globalized market economy, imperfect as it may be.
George W. Bush is the least appropriate person on Earth for this mission; he is immensely unpopular in Latin America -- not since Richard Nixon's trip to Caracas in 1959 have so many protests been likely -- and since Sept. 11, 2001, he has neglected the hemisphere. Many snicker that if he defends democracy in Latin America as well as he has in Iraq, only God can help Latin American democrats...