A Pragmatic Left in Latin America

By Jaime Daremblum
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, December 13, 2006; 12:00 AM

Not so long ago, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva was widely considered a Castroite intent on a Communist-style centralization of Brazil's economy and the subversion of neighboring democracies. Yet after four years of surprisingly responsible governance, Lula no longer sets off alarm bells in Washington. American policymakers should keep him in mind before dismissing the new leaders of Nicaragua and Ecuador as authoritarian extremists in the same vein as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Those leaders, Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa, are both well known men of the left. As the boss of Nicaragua's Sandinista party, Ortega spent much of the 1980s turning his country into a Soviet client state, while fighting off the U.S.-backed Contra rebels. Correa, meanwhile, is a self-described "personal friend" of Chavez who wants to fundamentally overhaul the Ecuadorian constitution.

While Mr. Chavez will likely continue his anti-American antics, there are signs that Ortega and Correa have more practical, pro-growth, pro-U.S. positions in mind.

In any event, a well reasoned, innovative and more active U.S. diplomacy towards Latin America could further reduce Chavez's ability to spread his so-called revolution to other Latin American nations. American policymakers should therefore avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to the region and opt for case-by-case decisions instead. America should also reward good governance by giving economic and social assistance to moderate Latin American leaders, a point well made this week by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias during a visit to Washington.

It is helpful to understand how leftist candidates arrived in office. These men have attracted voters most affected by minimal economic opportunities, namely the poor. Some 40 percent of Latin Americans live below the poverty line, and inequality rates remain the worst in the world: The lowest fifth of the population receives 4.5 percent of national income, while the highest fifth accounts for 55 percent, according to studies conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). This poverty is concentrated especially in the rural population, women, and indigenous people. A quarter of poor people in Latin America are indigenous, a proportion reaching 60 percent in the Andean and Middle American countries -- a huge swath of the electorate. Political turbulence therefore increases with the extent that the population is indigenous.

Through democracy, the poor -- once the most disenfranchised populations in Latin America -- have become the most powerful political force. Leftist leaders have been quick to endorse new programs and entitlement for the poor. Add this to the prevailing disappointment with traditional ruling elites, and the election results are no surprise. Chavez's decisive reelection on December 3 shows how heavily these factors still weight in some Latin American nations.

Chavez, however, has touted this populist theme at home and abroad so much, and with so much anti-Americanism, that being too close to him is becoming a political liability. Correa, for example, was favored to win his election in the first round, but his friendship with Chavez landed him in second place. To prevail in the run-off, he had to distance himself from the Venezuelan. Earlier this year, Ollanta Humala in Peru had looked like a shoo-in, but lost precisely because of the open interference of Chavez in his favor. And in this year's Mexican election, mere comparisons with Chavez by his opponent contributed to the defeat of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- albeit by a whisker.

Even in Venezuela Mr. Chavez now faces more challenging political circumstances, despite his overwhelming victory last Sunday. His opponent, Manuel Rosales, ran a strong campaign and unified the anti-Chavez voters for the first time in many years. Whether or not the official results reflect the whole reality, the undeniable fact is that Rosales forced Chavez to fight for his election, something that a few months ago looked all but impossible. From now on, Chavez will have to focus more on (and direct more of his oil money to) his own country and focus less on his dreams of world leadership. Two days after being reelected, in a public statement, he echoed Raul Castro's speech on Fidel's 80th birthday, calling for negotiations with the U.S. to resolve their differences.

Lately American diplomacy seems to have resonated in Ecuador, creating an opening for Mr. Correa to steer toward the political center. Tellingly, in recent days he publicized his telephone conversation with President Bush, as well as the visit paid to him by American Ambassador Linda Jewell and the announcement of an extension of the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA). Correa earned a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and knows well the importance of preferential access to the U.S. market and the invigorating impact of remittances from abroad --- mostly from the U.S. -- worth $2 billion a year. Since Correa's Alianza PAIS party lacks representation in the new Congress, he will have to tread carefully while trying to improve the lot of impoverished countrymen as fast as possible, which requires continued economic growth.

In Nicaragua, Ortega has devoted himself to assuring investors, both foreign and local, that he intends to respect the CAFTA free trade agreement with the U.S. and to follow responsible economic policies. He has also made public his desire to develop a good working relationship with the U.S. Scalded by the 16 years he was kept out of power due to the ruinous policies of his radical past, he sounds more like a pragmatist -- or an opportunist -- than a revolutionary.

Under pressure from the high expectations of their respective constituencies, the new administrations in Ecuador and Nicaragua can be expected to promote social projects aimed at fighting poverty and diminishing political instability. Like Lula in Brazil, Ortega and Correa will probably keep up some of the rhetoric of international anti-imperialism, but without becoming part of a serious bloc inimical to the United States.

We have reached a stage in Inter-American relations where the U.S. should apply more finesse when dealing with the new pragmatic left of the region. More engagement, more cooperation and more support to Latin American programs for the poor such as education and health care, and a minimum of lecturing and posturing, will make radical populism less tempting for the two newly elected leaders.

Jaime Daremblum is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Hudson Institute.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company