Monday, November 07, 2005

The Chavez Challenge

President Bush Discusses Democracy in the Western Hemisphere

The Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata in Argentina - bringing together the 34 countries of North and Latin America - failed to bring the long-discussed America-wide free trade area forward. One of the reasons for this is the distinct rise of a new populism in large parts of Latin America.

It's a populism primarily challenging the liberal economic policies that brought so much success to much of Latin America during the past few decades, but it's a populism that could well develop into a new challenge also to the liberal political order in most of the continent.

It's President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela that is leading the charge. His populism backed by the billions of oil income that is now rolling in is slowly destroying his own country and spreading its message of illiberalism to other parts of the continent.

But in addition to being helped by the oil billions rolling in, there is no doubt that he has been helped by the political effects of the financial shocks that have hit the young democracies of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina in recent years and led to a certain disenchatment with the reform policies previously pursued.

And this is now leading to new concerns that Latin America might be entering a more turbulent period.

In a speech in Brasilia yesterday, President Bush outlined parts of the US agenda in terms of Latin America. It's an agenda that commands broad bipartisan support in the United States.

There is no doubt that he wanted to see it as a challenge to the Chavez message:

"Ensuring social justice for the Americas requires choosing between two competing visions."

"One offers a vision of hope -- it is founded on representative government, integration into the world community, and a faith in the transformative power of freedom in individual lives."

"The other seeks to roll back the democratic progress of the past two decades by playing to fear, pitting neighbor against neighbor -- and blaming others for their own failures to provide for their people."

The populist legacy in Latin America is strong - and represents the probably most serious of threats to its future development.

But that makes it even more important to make the countries of Latin America more and more integrated in the international community. This can contain their populist tendencies at the least to some extent.

The United States has an important role to play. So has the European Union.

And the upcoming trade talks in Hong Kong are certainly of great importance in this regard as well.