Is the U.S. going to have to deal with a neighborhood to its South that is increasingly hostile and "un-neighborly?"
Based on recent elections for leaders in major Latin American countries, the common denominator in the continent’s politics is far-left ideology and anti-Americanism. As my friend Jim Whelan — a foreign correspondent for more than forty years and author of the definitive book on modern Chile Out of the Ashes — warned in a letter from Santiago: "[T]here is a strong and seemingly irreversible trend to the Left in Latin America, creating the ‘vaunted Axis of the Left,’ running from Havana through Caracas, and now Bolivia and — next month — likely through Lima."
Whelan was referring to the presidential election in Peru this Sunday (April 9) and the increasingly likely election of retired Col. Ollanta Humala, whose background and leftwing politics have invited comparisons to Venezuela’s strongman President Hugo Chavez (who is gradually dismantling his country’s democratic machinery) and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, another radical leftist who has championed the cocoa growers of his country since his election as president in December.
Humala, according to the London Financial Times, "wants to nationalize infrastructure, rewrite contracts with foreign investors, renegotiate the national debt and industrialize the production of cocoa, the traditional stimulant that is also the raw material for cocaine." Humala, who proudly calls himself a nationalist and speaks of defending Peru’s national markets and national interests, says he admires Napoleon, Charles DeGaulle, and General Juan Velasco, the left-wing dictator of Peru from 1968-75.
Humala’s veneration of Velasco, who seized power in a military coup in 1968, is most revealing. In his epic book A Fish in the Water, a memoir of his unsuccessful run for President of Peru in 1990, famed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa blames Velasco’s massive nationalization of Peruvian resources and businesses for the country’s subsequent decades of economic doldrums and decline as a player in international markets. ("Velasco Lives!" is the slogan on one Humala poster).
Velasco’s overthrow of an elected regime in 1968 led to a dozen years of strongman military rule — first under Velasco himself and then under a successor-general who deposed him in 1975. Humala, who himself led an unsuccessful coup against then-President Alberto Fujimori in 2000, is contemptuous of democracy, which he dismisses as "purely procedural and electoral. It’s very weak in terms of institutions and citizenship."
Vargas-Llosa, his country’s most famous writer, recently warned that a Humala victory over conservative Lourdes Flores Sunday could mean "a return to authoritarianism, to the systematic violation of human rights, and a subjugated press." Noting that Humala speaks of a constituent assembly to replace the elected Congress (as both Chavez and Morales have overseen in their countries), Marcial Ayaipoma, president of the Peruvian Congress, recently charged that Humala was planning "a coup d’etat with a democratic face."
Should a "President Humala" attempt to abort his country’s democratic system, he might well do so with relatively little public protest. Three times in the last sixty years — 1948, 1968, and 1992 (when Fujimori seized power and dissolved Congress, ruling until he was deposed in ’01) — Peru has scrapped its democratic system and permitted caudillos (strongmen) to rule virtually unchecked. With his country racked by unemployment and inflation (and where half the population lives on $2 a day), President Alejandro Toledo is highly unpopular and one poll showed more than 70% of Peruvians in support of a more authoritarian government. Interesingly, one of Humala’s campaign promises is to reinvigorate the armed forces.
What Lies Ahead
As to what Humala’s Peru, Bolivia’s Morales, and Venezuela’s Chavez could do to injure the United States, that is unclear. "Chavez would be a tin-horn comic opera figure were it not for all that oil money," Jim Whelan writes me, referring to Venezuela’s status as the largest non-Arab oil producing nation in the world, "which he spends just exactly as though it belonged to him — and that means stirring up trouble for the hapless U.S."
Embraces of the cocoa growers by Morales and Chavez in their respective countries could easily lead to a major clash with the United States and its War on Drugs. Whelan sees as even more dangerous the elections following Peru’s. "Far more dangerous is the likelihood (at this point) that the far left candidate will win the July [presidential] elections in Mexico," he writes,"“The former Sandanista dictator Daniel Ortega looks like a shoo-in to win the presidential elections coming up shortly in Nicaragua." He also points out that Argentine President Nestor Kirchner "insulted George Bush to his face at the last Summit of the Americas" and that Chile’s newly-elected President Michelle Bachelet "come[s] from the hard left of that (very hard left) Party. Indeed, in the 1988 plebiscite, she backed NOT the Socialist/Christian Democrat-led coalition which came to power (and has remained in power ever since), but a tiny terrorist group led by the Communist Party." He also notes that the last Socialists in power in Chile — those of Salvador Allende — "had absolutely nothing — zero — in common with European or other conventional Socialists, but in their passion for total power, by any means specifically and explicitly including through armed violence — were more akin to Maoists. Michele Bachelet spent most of her adult life consorting with — when not actively promoting — those ‘socialists.’" (The three previous ‘Concentracion’ governments were all coalitions; this one is technically a coalition, but it is the first since Allende where the winning candidate ran as a Socialist)
All told, it is not clear if this "Axis of the Left" will cause major harm to the U.S. or not. At this point, the most we can say is: "There goes the neighborhood."