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January 14, 2006

12 elections in 12 months
Posted by Adam Isacson

The twelve months between November 2005 and November 2006 will witness the most intense period of electoral activity in Latin America and the Caribbean since dictatorships gave way to elected civilian rule about twenty years ago. Like the planets of the solar system lining up as their orbits coincide, twelve countries in the region are choosing new presidents in rapid succession. (Nearly every country in the region has a presidential, not a parliamentary, system.)

Sounds like great news for democracy in the developing world, doesn’t it? Well, not everyone in the United States thinks so. The trouble, you see, is that there are a lot of left-wingers in the running, and they’re popular.

“A leftist-populist alliance is engulfing most of South America,” Otto Reich, President Bush’s first assistant secretary of State for the hemisphere, wrote last May in National Review. “Some Andean and Central American countries are sliding back from economic reforms and narcotics eradication, and the Caribbean remains irrationally hostile to the U.S.” In a Washington Times column this week, former Republican House staffer and ex-Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics Bobby Charles warned of “a neo-socialist coalition of enlightened South American Neo-Mensheviks,” whatever that means. “[Fidel Castro] at age 79 must believe he is finally seeing the emergence of the totalitarian bloc he and Che Guevara tried and failed to create in the 1960s,” wrote Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post two weeks ago.

Now, let’s be clear that there are reasons for concern about how Hugo Chávez is governing in Venezuela. While Javier Corrales’ cover story in the current Foreign Policy includes many exaggerations and downright inaccuracies, its general thrust – that checks on executive power are disappearing in Venezuela – is hard to deny. I would add more concern about the politicization of the Venezuelan military and its insertion into a host of new internal roles.

But it doesn’t follow that Latin America is turning into a bunch of carbon copies of “radical populist” regimes modeled on Chávez’s “Bolivarian” vision. In the few minutes per week that they spend thinking about Latin America (am I giving them too much credit?), top foreign policymakers in the administration and Congress would do well to stop and take a deep breath. They will only do more damage if they find themselves hyperventilating about a “leftist wave” or a new “hemispheric axis of evil.” Let’s keep a few things in mind:

  • Many countries will not be electing leftists. Some don’t even have anyone on the ballot who is to the left of, say, Hillary Clinton or Tony Blair. In others, the left-of-center candidate is either far behind or not at all guaranteed victory.

    A general rule of thumb seems to be security: if people feel personally insecure – due to guerrillas, paramilitaries, gangs or generalized crime – they are likely to vote for the candidate who promises to crack down with a mano dura, and that means they will choose a right-winger. On the other hand, if polls show security taking a back seat to economic concerns like unemployment or poverty, the left has the advantage. (Sort of like the United States in 2004, when the Democrats were more trusted with managing the economy but Bush was seen as stronger on the “war on terror.” Unlike the United States, “values” issues like abortion or gay marriage haven’t played a role in Latin America, where a socially conservative, Catholic consensus still holds.)

  • Few if any leftists are as radical and anti-U.S. as Hugo Chávez. Even before this election cycle, Latin American voters had sent several left-of-center leaders to their countries’ presidential palaces. Besides Chávez (who, for all his faults, has been fairly elected and re-elected), leaders from the left already rule in Argentina (Néstor Kirchner), Brazil (Luis Inacio Lula da Silva), and Uruguay (Tabaré Vásquez), and from the center-left in Chile (Ricardo Lagos) and Ecuador (Alfredo Palacio). All have been much more moderate, and far less eager to confront Washington, than Chávez.

  • Where leftists are being elected, Castro and Chávez are not the masterminds. Yes, some candidates’ campaigns may be getting Venezuelan funding or Cuban political advice, though that is almost impossible to prove. But what if they are? The question that should really worry us is why a radical, anti-U.S. option is appealing to so many voters in Latin America, and what the United States can do about that. Much has been written already about frustrations with neoliberalism in Latin America – growth without poverty reduction in the world’s most economically unequal region – which feed anger at the United States, the main promoter of the so-called “Washington Consensus.” But it is important to keep in mind that the popular support behind leftist candidates in Latin America is homegrown, not imposed from without.

  • In most cases, electing leftists is a sign that democracies are maturing. Thirty years ago, nearly every country participating in the current election season was either a military dictatorship or a semi-democracy limited to one or two parties, with outsiders repressed. Many candidates in the running now – or elected recently – would have been jailed or disappeared under the previous regimes. Indeed, many of today’s leaders –Lula, Kirchner, Vásquez, Lagos – were imprisoned during their countries’ “dirty war” years. On several occasions during the Cold War – Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 – democracies gave way to military dictatorships (with U.S. support) after they elected leftist leaders. We should be greatly encouraged, then – not wringing our hands with concern – if people with left-of-center views finally have the political space to campaign, be elected, and govern without interference from their militaries, traditional conservative elites, and the United States.

Here is a quick overview of this very crowded election season. For current polling data, I recommend consulting blogger Boz, who regularly posts roundups of voter preferences and approval ratings throughout the region.

Honduras (November 27, 2005, 4-year term): This was a close election between two wealthy candidates from the two traditional parties that have held power since democracy’s 1981 restoration. Centrist Manuel “Mel” Zelaya from the opposition Liberal Party narrowly defeated center-right candidate Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo from the ruling National Party. The main issues were security – Honduras has a severe gang-related crime problem – and rampant corruption.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: no, though Lobo’s choice to run from the right, including a Rovian strategy of relentless attacks and attempts to paint Zelaya as soft on crime, clearly backfired.

Bolivia (December 18, 2005, 5-year term): Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian who rose to political prominence as head of Bolivia’s coca-growers’ federation, surprised everyone – himself included – by winning a first-round victory with 54 percent of the vote. (Polls had showed him in the 35 percent range.) He trounced his main rival, Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, a center-right former interim president and the clear U.S. favorite. Morales was buoyed by a wave of popular anger at corruption and persistent poverty, as well as nationalist discontent with policies perceived as imposed on Bolivia from without, from forced coca eradication to foreign control of the country’s vast natural-gas reserves to the entire “Washington Consensus.” Morales – who was often photographed at campaign stops wearing garlands of coca leaves – wants to put a stop to the eradication of coca, which has been used traditionally in Bolivia since before the Spanish conquest. He also wants to re-nationalize Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves. Though he promises to redouble cocaine interdiction efforts and only seeks to nationalize the oil and gas in the ground – not the pipelines, wells, and other installations belonging to foreign companies – policies like these are likely to put Morales on a collision course with the Bush administration.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: yes. All observers are wondering, though, how radical or pragmatic Evo Morales will end up being. Clearly, Chávez sees him as a new “Bolivarian” ally in the region, and has made generous offers of aid (the United States, on the other hand, has not). On the other hand, President Lula in neighboring Brazil (and Brazilian fuel giant PetroBras, which has lots of investments in Bolivia) will try to keep Evo on a more centrist path. Meanwhile, in order to win 54 percent, Evo had to have picked up the support of many moderate Bolivians, and he knows that to lurch in a more populist direction would likely cost him that support.

Chile (December 11, 2005 / runoff election January 15, 2006, 4-year term): Tomorrow’s runoff pits Michelle Bachelet from the ruling Socialist Party against conservative businessman Sebastián Piñera. The polls favor Bachelet, who won 45.9 percent in the first round of voting, by 5 percent or more. It is remarkable that Bachelet – a woman who is agnostic, separated, and had children out of wedlock – is so popular in Chile, perhaps the most socially conservative country in the entire region (they only legalized divorce last year). This is in part a testament to the Socialists’ record of good governance; the party of Salvador Allende has stayed near the center, keeping the business community happy (by signing numerous free-trade agreements, for instance), while also making a priority of poverty reduction. Her popularity also owes to Bachelet’s own ability to work across party lines and with would-be adversaries; while serving as Chile’s first female defense minister, for example, she had good relations with the still-powerful army (an institution that in fact imprisoned and tortured her during the “dirty war” years). Meanwhile, Chile’s right has taken hits in popular opinion as it tries to run away from association with its longtime hero, former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who at age 90 is under house arrest while he faces prosecution for recently revealed corruption and – finally – for human rights abuses during his regime.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: probably, though the party in power will not change if Bachelet wins, and she looks to be about as moderate as her predecessor, Ricardo Lagos.

Costa Rica (February 5, 2006, 4-year term): Polls indicate a likely first-round victory for Oscar Arias, a former president who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his effort to end Central America’s 1980s civil wars. Costa Rica’s Congress amended the constitution to allow re-election at the urging of Arias, one of the country’s most popular figures, and former President Rafael Calderón (who was later brought down by the same corruption scandal that consumed Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who was OAS Secretary General for a couple of weeks in 2005). Arias is a free-trade advocate who opposes militarism (Costa Rica has no army) and is a strong critic of the Bush administration. He needs 45 percent of the vote to avoid a second-round runoff; polls show him near that figure with no other opponent above 25 percent. (Full disclosure: I worked at Arias’ Foundation in San José during the mid-1990s.)
Part of the “leftist wave?”: not really; Arias believes in free markets and is a strong admirer of the United States. His relations with the Bush administration, however, will likely be distant – as they were with the Reagan administration, which initially opposed his peace plan. Bush’s deputy national security advisor, neocon mainstay Elliott Abrams, feuded with Arias when he served as Reagan’s assistant secretary of State for the Americas.

Haiti (February 7, 2006, 5-year term): The poorest, worst-governed country in the hemisphere this week delayed its election date for the fifth time. Whoever is chosen will be the first elected president since the 2000 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist who was forced from power by a mid-2004 uprising. While Aristide remains in exile, René Préval – the former Aristide associate who held the presidency from 1995 to 2000 – leads polls among the 35 declared candidates. Préval says that he has distanced himself from Aristide. Whoever wins will face the nearly insurmountable task of rebuilding failed institutions, defeating gangs, warlords and narco-thugs to guarantee security, and finding a way to revive a resource-depleted economy for a largely unskilled population. UN peacekeepers are likely to remain in Haiti for some time.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: not applicable, really. As a “failed state” trying to turn itself around, Haiti is a rather unique case. Plus, no left-populist movement appears to have momentum, though the remnants of Aristide’s Lavalas Family movement remain powerful.

Peru (April 9, 2006, 5-year term): Keep an eye on this election. Until recently, center-right congresswoman Lourdes Flores had a solid lead in the polls, though she was having trouble getting her percentage of likely voters to increase beyond the low 30s. Seemingly out of nowhere, however, has come Ollanta Humala, an indigenous former military officer who led an abortive coup attempt against dictator-president Alberto Fujimori in 2000. Running as a nationalist populist, Humala is now tied with Flores in the polls, and may still have momentum. He is openly and enthusiastically supported by Hugo Chávez. Humala may be successfully tapping into popular rage in a country where outgoing President Alejandro Toledo hasn’t seen his approval ratings exceed 20 percent in years. People are angry at a culture of corruption at the very top, plus years of stellar economic growth with almost no poverty reduction.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: if Humala wins, absolutely. People in the Bush administration will be in a panic.

Colombia (May 28, 2006, 4-year term): This looks like a clear re-election victory for rightist President Álvaro Uribe, who is polling well over 60 percent while none of his opponents exceed 15 percent. Uribe’s popularity is a result of his tough security policies. Experts do not tire of pointing out that guerrilla and paramilitary attacks are almost as intense as ever, and that human rights are very much at risk. But Uribe has managed to push most of the fighting into zones of the country where fewer people live; the majority of the population, 70 percent of whom live in urban areas, feels less susceptible to kidnappings, bombings and power blackouts, and road travel is, in most places, once again possible. Uribe does have Achilles’ heels – guerrilla violence is increasing again, attempts to negotiate with rightist paramilitaries are making unsteady progress and may not actually demobilize the groups, and poverty and underemployment haven’t budged. The question, though, isn’t whether these problems will defeat Uribe, but whether they might force him into a second-round runoff against another candidate.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: no, although we can expect a candidate of Colombia’s newly unified left to get more votes than any other previous leftist (which isn’t saying much), and leftist candidates may perform well in March legislative elections.

Mexico (July 2, 2006, 6-year term): The campaign is intensifying to determine who will succeed Vicente Fox, the center-right president who, in 2000, ended over 70 years of corrupt one-party rule by the oxymoronically named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Until recently, the leftist candidate, popular Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, appeared to be on his way toward winning in a cakewalk. However, polls now show him in a statistical dead heat with Felipe Calderón, the candidate of Fox’s National Action Party, whose ratings have been rising swiftly. Concerns about rampant crime, much of it gang and narco-related, may be increasing support for the conservative businessman. Not too far behind, however, is the candidate of the still-strong PRI machine, Roberto Madrazo. It’s a three-way race, with no candidate polling above 30-35 percent. Polling has been sporadic so far, though, and more accurate measurements will be available soon.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: yes, if López Obrador wins, though he is not regarded as likely to govern from the far left. The candidate can capitalize on resentment of U.S. immigration policy; the House’s recent passage of a bill to extend a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was a gift to López Obrador, who says that he has never set foot in the United States.

Brazil (October 1, 2006, 4-year term): President Lula da Silva is personally popular and stands a good chance of being re-elected. However, he has been battered by an election-money corruption scandal that has taken down several longtime associates who are prominent members of Lula’s Worker’s Party. A December poll in fact has Lula trailing centrist Sao Paulo Mayor José Serra by a slim margin.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: sort of, if Lula is re-elected, though none expect him to abandon the course of cautious reform that has won him favor with the Bush administration and foreign investors while enraging many of his longtime supporters on Brazil’s left.

Ecuador (October 2006, 4-year term): In 2002 Ecuadorians elected Lucio Gutiérrez, a former military officer who ran as a left-populist. After his inauguration, Gutiérrez immediately ran to the right, courting the Bush administration and pursuing orthodox economic policies. His erstwhile supporters – including the increasingly influential indigenous movement – abandoned him, and charges of corruption and dictatorial behavior brought protestors onto the streets. By April 2005, unrest forced Gutiérrez from office. No Ecuadorian president has finished his term in office since Sixto Durán (1992-1996). Right now Gutiérrez’s successor, former vice-president Alfredo Palacio, has a 21 percent approval rating, the Congress is polling at an incredible 4 percent, and the political crisis continues. Ecuadorians aren’t really focused on the next elections yet, but a December poll showed the business-friendly mayor of Guayaquil, Jaime Nebot, leading with 24 percent. Running second is track-and-field athlete Jefferson Pérez, the winner of Ecuador’s only Olympic gold medal.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: probably not, though the ground may be fertile for the emergence of a left-populist leader.

Nicaragua (November 5, 2006, 5-year term): Nicaragua is the only case in which a center-left candidate is competing against a far-left candidate – a Lula versus a Chávez, if you want to make a gross oversimplification. Herty Lewites, a popular former mayor of Managua, is a longtime Sandinista who, like many other prominent members of the party, was kicked out for opposing longtime boss and former President Daniel Ortega. While Ortega is once again the candidate of the Sandinista Front (FSLN), his poll numbers are abysmal. Nicaraguans, including many former Sandinistas, have been turned off by Ortega’s adherence to an unseemly political power-sharing “pact” with right-wing, grossly corrupt former President Arnoldo Alemán. However, the power of the FSLN get-out-the-vote machinery and organizational capacity, especially in the countryside, cannot be underestimated. A December Gallup poll had Lewites and center-right candidate Eduardo Montealegre tied with 22 percent each, with 14 percent for Ortega.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: perhaps, though how far left depends on whether Lewites or Ortega wins. Relations with the United States would likely be cordial if Lewites wins, but abysmal if Ortega wins.

Venezuela (November-December 2006, 6-year term): Right now, it’s hard to bet against Chávez, who is popular, has a lot of oil money to spend, controls the Congress, influences the electoral system, and faces a divided opposition, many of whose members are discredited by association with corrupt past regimes.
Part of the “leftist wave?”: likely.


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Another post to Democracy Arsenal, this one about upcoming elections in Latin America and the Caribbean: In the few minutes per week that they spend thinking about Latin America (am I giving them too much credit?), top foreign policymakers in... [Read More]

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Thanks for the link. I try to post the Latin America poll number roundup every Thursday evening, so Friday morning is usually a good time to check for it.

The term "anti-U.S." is a propaganda term. As Noam Chomsky once noted, "the concept 'anti-American' is particularly striking, the very hallmark of a totalitarian mentality." (Chomsky wrote an excellent article about this subject, which can be viewed here: ).

Hugo Chavez is not "anti-U.S." He's anti-imperialist, which means that he opposes the efforts of U.S. political and economic elites to dictate other countries' policies.

In the wake of the U.S. Katrina disaster, the Venezuelan government stepped up shipments of gasoline to the U.S. gulf coast region to help alleviate shortages triggered by the hurricane. In the face of skyrocketing heating costs, the Venezuelan government has begun shipping heating oil and diesel fuel at below market prices to poor communities throughout the United States.

Given the author's logic, would it not be consistent to describe these efforts on the part of Venezuela's government as "pro-U.S."? Or do Katrina victims and poor U.S. communities no longer constitute part of the "United States"?

"Hugo Chavez is not "anti-U.S." He's anti-imperialist""

At the moment it's hard to do the latter without the former.

The USA isn't a traditional empire, but if you're looking for an empire to oppose the USA will do until some better empire displaces us.

I don't understand how we as a society can tolerate the arena party governing in El Salvador. It is tantamount to the nazis being viable as a party in Israel. The Arena party murdered the beloved Archbishop Romero, dissapeared thousands, and swung childred like baseball bats against walls so their heads would explode, etc.. I personally will continue with Romero's mission to stop these horrible transnational corporations from fleecing the poor people under false banners like "were fighting communism, narco traffickers, or terrorism" lies that need exposing. Romero will always live in this way.

Correction: In Costa Rica, the leading presidential candidate needs forty percent (not 45) to win in a single round.

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