BY SUSAN KAUFMAN PURCELL
President Hugo Chavez’s power and influence in Latin America seem to have peaked. The turning point was his failure to win the so-called Latin American seat on the U.N. Security Council, despite waging a long and expensive campaign to achieve his goal. His lack of success at the United Nations was preceded by the defeat of the candidates he had publicly supported in presidential elections in Mexico and Peru. At the same time, the price of oil has precipitously declined by approximately 20 percent during the past several weeks. At least one analyst estimates that a further decline- to $47 a barrel or less- would create economic as well as political problems for Chavez within Venezuela and make it considerably more difficult for him to pursue his revolutionary “Bolivarian” agenda at home and abroad.
An equally important but less analyzed cause of Chavez’s declining power and influence, however, is the deteriorating health of Fidel Castro. Ironically, Fidel’s illness was initially regarded as a stroke of good luck for Chavez. Just as rapidly increasing oil prices gave Chavez new economic clout, Fidel Castro was obliged to cede his position as the most important revolutionary leader in Latin America to his younger Venezuelan protégé.
It now appears, however, that Fidel’s talents as a strategist were a crucial component of Chavez’s early political successes. Brian Latell, Senior Research Associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and author of the book “After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader,” argues in a new paper that Fidel played a key role in overturning the 2002 attempted coup against Chavez. He also notes that Chavez’s recent reversal of fortune, both at the United Nations and in recent Latin American presidential elections, coincides with the period during which Fidel’s illness kept Chavez from consulting “efficiently about tactics with the ailing Castro.” Latell also believes that Raul Castro does not have Fidel’s strategic abilities and therefore will be of little use to Chavez in this area, even if he wanted to help Chavez, which is not at all clear.
Chavez’s difficulties, however, do not mean that Latin America’s new democratic presidents will have an easy time governing. Even with a weakened Chavez, they face significant challenges of governability. None has an absolute majority in Congress. This means that they will have to construct ad hoc coalitions to pass needed legislation. This will involve compromise. It is particularly difficult to form majority coalitions, however, when as the election results indicated, half the population wants a radical break with what it regards as failing policies, while the other half supports the economic and fiscal policies that have brought financial stability and predictability to the region’s economies.
Compounding these problems is Latin America’s declining global competitiveness, which will require implementation of additional economic and political reforms that will not be easy to achieve. In addition, new communication technologies, such as the Internet and cell phones, have made it relatively easy to rapidly mobilize masses of dissatisfied people to pressure or bring down democratically-elected governments .
There is, however, a positive side to the recent polarized and close elections in Latin America. Large sectors of the population now understand how close they came to losing many of the hard-won achievements of recent years. Stated differently, they realize that time is running out to solve the problems of poverty, unemployment and injustice. Even though the more radical, authoritarian and populist candidates have been narrowly defeated in several of the region’s elections, they or other candidates like them will undoubtedly be back to offer radical solutions if little is accomplished over the next few years.
Latin America’s democracies are therefore at an important turning point. Their political and economic leaders have two basic choices: They can set aside some of their differences in order to reach the compromises necessary to implement needed political, economic and social reforms. Or, they can refuse to work together and thereby run the risk of having all that they worked for be destroyed by radical authoritarian leaders with very different visions for the future of their countries.
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.