Hugo Chavez, More Caudillo than Leftist

Despite the mythology, Hugo Chavez is not contributing to a regional surge of the left, and he is a mere shade of Castro.

The recently reelected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is widely seen as part of the potentially dangerous surge of the left in the region. But Chavez is more caudillo than leftist, and his popularity is propelled by people's desire to see quick fixes to age-old problems, rather than a special affinity for specifically leftist solutions. And though Chavez would like to ape his mentor Fidel Castro and become president for life, the parallel is limited: the Cuban dictator dwarfs Chavez in savvy and foresight.

Public opinion polls show that most Latins have pragmatic concerns: more and better food and housing, jobs with higher incomes, serious education for their kids and equal opportunities and security under impartial law. However ideal Hispanic civilization may be in some ways, for centuries the vast majority of its leaders, parties, ideas and institutions have failed to respond to these popular needs and aspirations. The failures have stoked immense popular frustration, now often leading to massive demonstrations that topple governments or electoral victories for probably well-meaning, yet scapegoating demagogues like Chavez and his foreign acolytes.

Latin America Leans Left?

Calling Latin leaders and movements "leftist" explains little. Yes, members of socialist-type parties and fronts are now presidents in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Peru. But their economic policies, with their emphasis on monetary stability and market growth, owe far more to Milton Friedman than to Karl Marx.

Most Americans who are concerned about the region point to what is usually called the "new left", inspired by old leftist Castro, now led by Chavez. But while Chavez can con and sometimes actually help some of the poor of Venezuela-and elsewhere-he and his followers lack Castro's savvy when it comes to dealing with the world. Fidel had no grip on economic realities, but he had a coherent game-plan and could think ahead and follow through. Chavez, by contrast, displays more ambition and spleen than coherent ideology and judgment. He has risen in the region because of Venezuela's vast oil wealth, an advantage Fidel never had, and because he has made himself the noisiest spokesperson for Latin America's current wave of frustration and anti-Americanism.

Hating America

Chavez and his Latin American acolytes tend to be demagogic, improvisational, super-nationalistic, advocating populist/fascist economic policies that failed in the past and will fail in the future. And they are anti-American, which in Latin America has always been common both on the left and right.

We are an obvious target. We have long been the dominant economic, political and sometimes military power in the Americas and while some of our impact has been positive, some has not. Like others, we have often taken advantage of the enduring structure of Latin civilization, where the real development problems lie, and used it to our own advantage. We supported dictators during the Cold War and trade arrangements that history suggests largely benefit the elites.

Today one must add that anti-Americanism is obviously rampant throughout the world, both a reaction to our hyper-power status itself but also to how we use our influence and military power, particularly to what most consider arrogant and counterproductive wars in Iraq and against drugs. To many, these and other actions seem to confirm what Castro, Chavez and many others call the self-serving, predatory nature of "U.S. imperialism." 

The Feel-Good Cop-Out.

This brings us to one of oldest and most debilitating characteristics of many Latin Americans, namely the compulsion to blame their problems on someone else. Kishore Mahbubani, a prominent diplomat in the little powerhouse of Singapore, once drew up a list of commandments for countries that want to develop. The first: don't blame others for your past failures. Doing so guarantees that a country will never objectively analyze its past and thus will repeat it. 

Scapegoating has long been a national pastime in Latin America. In the twentieth century, the United States was usually the scapegoat of choice. We still are, though as China's economic contacts expand in the region, Latins in some countries increasingly blame the Chinese too for their problems. 

The wisest thing Bolivian President Evo Morales has said is that inequality in Bolivia dates back hundreds of years. But while he is right that the foundations of inequality are long-term, cultural and institutional, he still demonizes the United States. Most recently, while visiting Havana he said Latin America should form a "grand alliance with the countries of the Middle East in order to break with North American imperialism." But here he slips into the cop-out mode. If one believes that the root of Latin America's economic failures is mainly in its Iberian heritage, why have so many generations of Latin American leaders and people failed to break free? That isn't mainly America's fault.

Chavez's Impact in the Americas

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is correct in saying that Evo Morales was "made in America" because he became known in Bolivia for his opposition to U.S. drug policies. But Morales also received a major electoral boost from his association with Chavez. Chavez's later involvement in other Latin elections had mixed results. His favorites won in Ecuador and Nicaragua and they did well but lost in Peru and Mexico, where many voters responded negatively toward the Venezuelan involvement. Still those losers may win next time if current leaders seem to fail to satisfy, which is likely.