Jorge G. Castañeda

An Answer for Hugo Chávez

Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez meet in January.
Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez meet in January. (Juventud Rebelde Via Associated Press)

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By Jorge G. Castañeda
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

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.

The good news is that there is someone who can do the job, if he receives political cover and international financial support for the task. Mexico's Felipe Calderón is ideally suited to engage Chávez and the Castro brothers in the inevitable ideological fisticuffs. He believes in human rights and democracy, and he understands macroeconomic policy and the need for effective anti-poverty programs. He also knows he has to get along with his northern neighbor.

Calderón, young and a forceful debater, is a better option than Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela. Brazil's left wing would not allow Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to take on Chávez, even if Lula wanted to. Chile is a splendid example of the success of sensible, socially minded policies, but President Michele Bachelet has proved unwilling to sing their praises. And while Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has the personal prestige and experience, his country does not.

Yet, even Calderón has a problem. His predecessors' public debates with Castro, Chávez and Kirchner played well with some Mexicans but went down terribly with the country's traditional establishment: the pro-Cuban PRD and the nationalist PRI old guard. Declared an illegitimate leader by his rival for the presidency and elected with only 35 percent of the vote, Calderón is understandably reluctant to brave the chattering classes without some guarantee that Bush will not leave him hanging on immigration, as he did Vicente Fox. Some believe that Calderón is thinking of throwing in the towel on the ideological debate and mending fences with Caracas, Havana and Buenos Aires, democracy and human rights violations notwithstanding.

But if Bush finally brings with him to Mexico a firm commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, and the bipartisan backing of House and Senate leaders to approve it promptly, Calderón would enjoy the necessary leeway to wage the battle of ideas with the region's populist tide. That would be the best way to contain it: with the ideas of Mexico and its friends, not with Washington's attempts at force.

The writer was Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, under President Vicente Fox, and is now a professor of politics and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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