Jabbing the U.S. and leading with his left
Jorge G. Castañeda
Jabbing the U.S. and leading with his left
By Jorge Castañeda, Jorge Castañeda, former foreign minister of Mexico, is author of "Companero," a biography of Che Guevara, and "Utopia Unarmed," about the failures of revolution in Latin America.
Evo morales, Bolivia's new president, is not Latin America's first chief executive of indigenous origins. That was Benito Juárez of Mexico during the second half of the 19th century. And Bolivia is not "Latin" America: It and Guatemala are the only nations in the hemisphere where indigenous peoples are in the majority.
Nonetheless, the importance of Morales' electoral victory should not be underestimated, both because of its symbolic importance and because of its implications for the rest of the hemisphere. In a region where power and wealth have always been outrageously concentrated — and more so than anywhere in the world — having a president belonging to the indigenous communities is not a minor affair.
Bolivia has always been something of a paradigm. The 1952 peasant and tin-miners revolution was one of only four truly popular Latin American revolutions in the 20th century (along with Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua). Tragically and mistakenly, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Régis Debray chose Bolivia in the mid-1960s as a launching pad for guerrilla movements across South America. And Bolivia was, along with Chile, the first country to undergo "structural reforms" or "Reaganomics in the tropics" in the mid-1980s.
Morales' accession to the presidency, with nearly 55% of the vote and a majority behind him in the legislative branch, is the latest instance of the leftward drift in Latin America today, though the shift is not homogeneous. Leftist parties that spring from an old communist, socialist or Castroist tradition tend to have crossed the Rubicon to market economics, representative democracy, respect for human rights and a responsible geopolitical stance. Belonging to this crowd are Chile's Ricardo Lagos and his successor, Michelle Bachelet; Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; and even perhaps Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez.
But those whose roots plunge deep into the Latin American populist tradition — Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner and Morales — are of a different strain. They are far less convinced of the imperatives of globalization and orthodox economics, of the intrinsic value of democracy and respect for human rights. These leaders like nothing better than baiting the White House and, particularly, its current tenants.
The "new left" of Chile, Brazil and Uruguay that comes from the "old left" has not only reconstructed itself after experiencing firsthand the disasters of the former Soviet bloc and Cuba. It also pushes a domestic agenda that harks back to its roots: combating poverty; reducing inequality; improving healthcare, housing, education, etc. On occasion, these governments disagree with Washington — Chile on Iraq, Brazil on trade — but without stridency.
The populist left does not have much of a domestic agenda — populism rarely does, except for giving away or spending money for political purposes. But it burnishes its left-wing credentials the old-fashioned way — with an anti-U.S., pro-Havana foreign policy.
This is the approach that Morales probably will take in Bolivia. He does not have much leeway on such issues as natural gas, U.S. and foreign aid and debt, and support from the World Bank. If he's too radical on any of these fronts, he will not only alienate foreign financial aid and investment but also could intensify quasi-secessionist forces at work in the eastern, more prosperous lowlands of Bolivia around Santa Cruz. Combating extreme poverty in Bolivia will require enormous effort, and the results will not be spectacular in the short run.
So Morales will have to do what populists of his school always do: bash Washington and ingratiate himself with his core constituency — the coca-leaf growers from Chaparé, where he began his political career. He has started off unambiguously: His first trips abroad were to Havana and Caracas, and he will do everything possible to become a member of the "axis of good" founded by Castro and Chávez.
And by not only refusing to continue coca-eradication programs but announcing that he intends to increase acreage under cultivation — because coca leaf is traditionally consumed in the Bolivian highlands — Morales accomplishes two objectives at once: He picks a "politically correct" collision course with Washington and plays to his most extreme base.
Yet Morales probably will not resurrect Guevara or become an Andean Castro. His country is tragically poor (though rich in natural gas reserves), depends heavily on foreign aid and has a history of instability like no other Latin American nation. If the United States plays it cool, and Brazil finally steps up to the plate in hemispheric affairs, Morales will make news but not history. Hopefully, everyone will be able to tell the difference.