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Although Chavez claims that he is doing all this to help the poor and destroy the “elites,” the immediate effect is to polarize the region along class and racial lines, scare off needed foreign investment and make it harder for democratic governments to govern.

BY SUSAN KAUFMAN PURCELL

Fidel Castro’s illness has not only triggered a political transition in Cuba. It has also enabled Hugo Chavez to take over Castro’s position as Latin America’s leading revolutionary. Political analysts have tended to point out that this is particularly bad news for the United States. What has been less noted is that it is also very bad news for Latin America.

Latin America has made significant progress over the past fifteen years. Its electoral processes are more transparent and less subject to fraud. Inflation has been significantly reduced and floating currencies have stabilized the region’s economies. As a result, more people have been able to join the middle class. Lowered trade barriers and free trade agreements have increased exports and attracted new foreign investment and technology. Information-based technologies are being incorporated into the daily lives of ever more Latin Americans. Although much still remains to be done, particularly in terms of reducing poverty and increasing opportunity and social mobility, the foundation for continued success has been laid.

It is unfortunate that at precisely this time, a young charismatic Latin American caudillo has appeared on the scene to slow the momentum of the region’s political and economic transformation. And unlike his predecessor, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez is awash in oil revenues and does not have to depend on another country to bankroll his ambitions.

NOT VIABLE

His first goal is to undermine U.S. influence in the region, which involves his opposing existing free trade agreements in which the United States is a partner. Instead he has created a counter free trade bloc, so far with countries that are either rich in energy, such as Bolivia, or recipients of Chavez’s largesse, such as Cuba. Given the fact that none of its members is implementing policies that can lead to sustained growth and development, Chavez’s strategy is not a viable alternative for the region.

Another Chavez priority is to undermine democratic governments that are friendly to the United States. High on his list are the Uribe government in Colombia and the incoming Calderon government in Mexico. He has also been working hard to destroy Brazil’s leadership role in the Americas. He encouraged the Morales government in Bolivia to nationalize two Brazilian refineries as well as take other steps to humiliate and weaken Brazil. He is encouraging Evo Morales to follow his lead in using democratic processes to destroy democracy. While Chavez criticizes U.S. imperialism, his advice to Morales is destroying Bolivia’s economy and increasing its dependence on Venezuela.

POLARIZATION

Other Chavez policies that work against Latin America’s interests include his unprecedented arms buildup, which is triggering another arms race in the region, as well as his support of guerrilla groups in Colombia. His welcoming of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s efforts to “peacefully” undermine Mexico’s political institutions, as well as his backing of authoritarian populist leaders elsewhere in the region,  also are not helpful. Although Chavez claims that he is doing all this to help the poor and destroy the “elites,” the immediate effect is to polarize the region along class and racial lines, scare off needed foreign investment and make it harder for democratic governments to govern.

So far, Latin America has not tried hard to prevent Chavez from implementing his regional and global agenda. Perhaps this is the result of fear of reprisals, dependence on Chavez’s largesse or a sense of helplessness. Or perhaps strong anti-American sentiment in the region is taking precedence over other priorities. Whatever the reason, Latin America has little to gain and much to lose if Hugo Chavez becomes the new embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of Latin America in the twenty-first century.

Susan Kaufman Purcell, is director of the University of Miami's Center on Hemispheric Policy and the author of several books on Latin America, including Mexico Under Fox and Cuba: The Contours of Change. Prior to her current position, she was vice president of the Council of the Americas for 16 years and has also served as senior fellow and director of the Latin America Project at the Council of Foreign Relations. This column originally appeared in Spanish in AmericaEconomia magazine.

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