With the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, the constant stream of headlines emanating out of Hugo Chavez, and the continued subsistence of Fidel Castro, Latin America is in the spotlight to a degree that we have not seen since the Cold War developments of the 1980’s. While few in the United States have ever heard of Sebastian Pinera and Jos Serra, as Latin America continues to disappoint politically and drift farther to the Left, these two names will become synonymous with America’s interests in the region. With upcoming elections in Brazil and Chile, these two candidates will help shape the future of relations between the United States and our southern neighbors. As is the case throughout much of Latin America, the strategic balance is up for grabs.
The election of Morales in Bolivia on December 4 rounded out an Axis of Socialism in the Western Hemisphere that will surely shape the United States’ policy in the region for the foreseeable future. The Southern Cone is the politically strategic epicenter of South America, but Brazil has become the continent’s hegemon. There is little potential to alter the Castro, Chavez, and Morales alliance; therefore, it is essential that the United States applies sufficient effort to counter their growing influence. The locations of an American counter-offensive could not be more evident.
Brazil has grown at a modest rate of only three percent in the past few years, but nonetheless has attained the status of a Latin American India, as it is broadly considered a future economic power. Nevertheless, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has seemed to welcome the shifting tide to the Left in his country’s surrounding territories. On January 19 Lula will host Hugo Chavez in Brasilia with energy issues headlining the agenda. This comes as little surprise as the relationship between the two was build on the solid foundation of Chavez’s petro-dollars funding the Brazilian president’s 2002 election.
However, most instructive of the intentions of the Lula government has been its approach to Paraguay. Paraguay lies on the southwest border of Brazil, historically functioning as a buffer state between the country and Argentina. As a result of President Nicanor Duarte’s pro-marker policies and strong relations with the United States, the Paraguayan president has become increasingly isolated.
Castro dispatched 700 Cuban agents masquerading as doctors in an attempt the depose Duarte and put in place a socialist government. By August the plot was uncovered and the agents were expelled. Castro’s comrade Chavez also makes little attempt to disguise his displeasure for a rightist government on his continent. On April 8, 2005, the Paraguayan ambassador to Caracas, Ana Maria Figueredo, was beaten unconscious in broad-daylight in the streets of Caracas only to find the Venezuelan foreign ministry unwilling to help her after she regained consciousness. No apology was offered by Chavez’s government until a weak after the incident.
While these events have failed to impact relations between Brasilia and its socialist neighbors, Lula’s concern seems to rest on the policies of Paraguay instead of the more disturbing actions of Latin America’s Axis of Socialism. The United States recently agreed to send 400 troops to Paraguay during the visit of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This development, along with Duarte’s flirtations with joining the United States driven Free Trade of the America’s, resulted in Brazil’s command that Duarte align his state with the Brasilia dominated MercoSur trading bloc and reveal all military relations with the United States. Thus, Brazil under Lula has become increasingly assertive in geopolitical affairs, overwhelmingly resulting in negative outcomes for the United States.
Brazil’s quest for hegemony in Latin America would have unacceptable consequences if they were to succeed. Lula has displayed a willingness to establish strong relationships with anti-American leftist and his efforts for regional leadership naturally put him at odds with the United States. The good news for the Bush administration is that October 1 presidential elections in Brazil may well bring to power a government that could dramatically reverse the current trends in South America.
The forerunners against Lula – if he does indeed decide to run for reelection – are two pro-market candidates from the opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). In fact, one positive development emanating from Latin America has been the early polling results in Brazil. Jos Serra, a former mayor of Sao Paulo, defeated Lula in the latest polling and another PSDB potential candidate, Gerardo Alckmin, finished third. These were the only contenders to receive figures upwards of five percent.
The news is not as encouraging in Chile. The early favorite in the forthcoming elections is a female socialist by the name of Michelle Bachelet. This former torture victim of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship has been involved in various socialist movements from her years as a student in the early 1970’s. While her radicalism reaches nowhere near the level of Chavez, her political orientation certainly leans closer to him and his ilk than to the United States. Furthermore, Bachelet will act as a walking reminder of the United States’ support for Pinichet’s 1973 coup, something that is hardly looked fondly upon in many circles of the Chilean population.
While most early polls have Bachelet’s opponent, Sebastian Pinera, trailing in the run-off scheduled for January 15, the battle for the center of the political spectrum continues with many young Chileans encouraged by Pinera’s enormous entrepreneurial success. Pinera has also recently stepped up criticism of the Latin American Left by warning against “the populism that could produce problems” for Chile and the region. Clearly Morales – who exclaimed to Chinese President Hu Jintao that he was a “great admirer of Mao TseTung’s proletarian revolution” – would feel less emboldened with a moderate presence on his border than a newly elected fellow socialist.
There are several additional benefits of a Pinera victory. First, Argentina and Chile are the two current and traditional leaders of South America’s Southern Cone. Argentina’s president Nestor Kirchner is at the height of his popularity after hosting the Summit of the Americas and leading a country that has experienced three years with an average growth of nine percent. However, as the liberal New York Times noted on January 3, “Kirchner appears to be concentrating more power in his own hands and steering his government to the left.” The paper added – surely a foreshadow of what’s to come should leftists prevail in Chile and Brazil – that the Argentine president “has also moved to establish an alliance with Venezuela’s populist leader, Hugo Chavez, and, as a traditional Peronist, to extend the hand of the state deeper into the economy, the judiciary, and the news media.”
Chile must act as a counterweight, rather than a placating counterpart, to an Argentina drifting towards our unfriendly southern neighbors. A Bachelet triumph later this month would solidify a region about as politically diverse as an Ivy League faculty board. However, a failed bid by Bachelet would signal to those reviving old socialist habits, and drifting farther away from the United States, that they may be on the wrong side of history once again.
A Pinera victory is has other advantages as well. The current left-leaning government of Chile under Ricardo Lagos has refused to agree to a bilateral treaty with the United States over exempting U.S. citizens from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and a Bachelet government is likely to follow suit. Pinera’s pro-market positions would draw positive relations with the United States and inevitably lead to new negotiations regarding a bilateral agreement on the ICC. This is not only imperative in ensuring the protections of service members and government officials from politically motivated trials, but also effects which states will receive aid from the United States.
Although exceptions are made, Congress passed a law that requires a cutoff in aid to any state that endorses the ICC and fails to sign an Article 98 agreement (treaties on ICC exemptions) with the United States. A future restriction in aid to Chile would only contribute to a severing of ties that would open up the doors for the increasingly intrusive China. As Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation accurately wrote last October, China’s growing influence in Latin America is centered on resources, challenging the United States, and isolating Taiwan. In 1979 Jimmy Carter ceded American control of the Panama Canal, only to now have it be controlled by the Chinese. We must not make a similar mistake now.
A serious focus has returned to Latin America just in time. Hugo Chavez’s antics and Morales’ election have served a catalyst for increased attention on our own hemisphere. Perhaps if socialists win in Brazil and Chile it will not make a difference in the long run. But the present Latin American slide into the tired rhetoric of socialism and the ever-persistent anti-Americanism so common among underachievers may have dire consequences for the United States. Without victories by pro-American forces in Brazil and Chile, short-term U.S. influence will unquestionably fade and the long-term viability of United States hegemony in the Western Hemisphere will be in intolerable peril. Thus, the United States is at the beginning of what will inevitably be a long struggle to counter Latin America’s Axis of Socialism.
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