South America's Power Vacuum

The region is backsliding on its commitment to democracy. And only Brazil can save it.

Regardless of who wins Sunday's presidential election in Venezuela, Latin America lives in a post-Chavez era. Now is the time for Brazil to step up.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has been generous to his allies. At the height of his power, from 2005–2009, Chávez blanketed friendly countries across Latin America with Venezuelan aid.

The money had its desired effect, creating an expressly anti-American bloc in Latin America. However, Chávez has never fully recovered from the 2008 drop in oil prices, and the internal contradiction of Chavismo has been lost on its followers. Chávez said rather a lot about opposing the West over the years, but he’s been a surprisingly rational actor on the world stage, especially when it comes to keeping the oil flowing.

Today, with financial support from Caracas dwindling, leftist leaders across South America are being forced to pick their own fights. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s expropriation of the gas company YPF from Spain’s Repsol earlier this year was a clear asset grab. On the other hand, the Cuban government continues to tinker with promarket reforms. Of course, some of these developments are more positive than others, but together they are proof that Latin America lives in a post-Chávez era, regardless of who wins Sunday's presidential election.

The result: there is a power vacuum in South America.

“Power vacuum” tends to conjure up images of arms races and insurgent attacks. But, remarkably, the security scene in South America is improving, albeit tentatively. Defense spending has declined throughout the region over the last three years. Venezuela has started to cooperate with Colombia and even the United States to halt drug trafficking, as indicated most recently by the arrest in Venezuela of Daniel Barrera, Colombia’s last major cocaine kingpin. Even the triborder region of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, long rumored to be a hotbed of Islamist insurgency, appears to be more sedate.

Instead, the region is backsliding on its commitment to democracy. Since 2009, fairly elected governments in Honduras and Paraguay have been deposed. A failed coup in Ecuador in 2010 has given President Rafael Correa excuse for a brusque crackdown on freedom of speech. Long a testing ground for populism of various sorts, the newest dystopian pastime appears to be perfecting what some have called the “golpeachment”—part golpe (coup), part impeachment and part exuberantly broadcasted sport.

At the same time, South America wants for an economic-development model. Over the last decade, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela all opted for closer trade ties to China as a quick fix to high tariffs and uncompetitive industry. These countries are thoroughly unprepared for the Chinese slowdown underway.

A solution to these problems can only emanate from one place: Brazil.

In the past, Brazil didn’t shy away from coercive diplomacy in order to keep its backyard stable and democratic. From April 22–26, 1996, Paraguay’s civilian government teetered under threat of a military coup. Brazil’s deputy foreign minister committed to visiting the embattled Paraguayan president, and Brazil made it clear that Paraguay would be booted from the newfound Mercosur (Mercosul) trade zone should the country lose its democratic status. Shortly thereafter the coup plotters were arrested. Political scientists, including Jorge Dominguez at Harvard and Arturo Valenzuela at Georgetown, subsequently hailed Brazil’s role in “the coup that didn’t happen” as proof that international institutions can safeguard democracy.

This time around, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff only mustered a lukewarm denunciation of President Fernando Lugo’s dubious removal by the Paraguayan Senate in June. At a Mercosur meeting a week later, recognition was refused to the delegate from Paraguay’s illegitimate government. Then came the letdown: Paraguay wasn’t kicked out of Mercosur, but because its delegate was not recognized and because Paraguay was the only Mercosur member that had objected to Venezuela’s full admission into the trade bloc, Brazil used the meeting to usher Venezuela into the pact. The Economist in turn asked: “Mercosur RIP?”

On the economic front, Brazil has responded to its own slowdown with mounting trade violations, variously directed at Mexico and China. Such unprincipled policy has signaled that most options are still on the table for coup plotters and beggar-thy-neighbor protectionists alike.

Clear and consistent Brazilian foreign policy would no doubt be translated in certain Spanish-speaking corners as a sign of hegemony. But that interpretation is already being made: “The new imperialists have arrived, and they speak Portuguese” goes one sneer. This is probably inevitable given that Brazil’s economy dwarfs that of the rest of the region. Now the only thing to fear from leadership is stability.

Sean Goforth is author of Axis of Unity: Venezuela, Iran and the Threat to America (Potomac Books, 2012).

Image: Dilma Rousseff