'The Bolivarian Alternative'

At this hour, the leftist leaders of Argentina and Brazil are meeting with the populist-radicals who run Venezuela and Bolivia.

Topic of discussion: The nationalization by Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and the first indigenous president in Bolivian history, of the international gas companies operating in his country. Morales’ troops, to the cheers of Caracas’ Hugo Chavez, invaded the offices of the companies this week and carted off the books.

Auditors in La Paz are poring over them now to expose the deals between the energy companies and past Bolivian regimes.

Meanwhile, the 82-18 split of gas royalties between the energy companies and the regime, which became 50-50 a year ago, is now 82-18 in favor of the government — on Morales’ orders. And that will be the end of new investment in gas exploration in Bolivia.

As it is Brazil that is dependent on Bolivian gas for half its daily consumption and Brazil’s Petrobras that has the biggest stake in the Bolivian gas fields, why should Morales’ action concern us?

Several reasons. Morales, like Chavez, represents a radicalism that has rising appeal in Latin America and is both anti-American and anti-capitalist. Chavez is offering the Latin Americans a "Bolivarian Alternative" to the Free Trade Association of the Americas backed by the United States. The idea has great appeal among the masses.

Not only do the radicals now control Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, they have allies — Ollanta Humala in Peru, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Lopez Obrador in Mexico — reaching for power.

Ortega is the Marxist Sandinista nemesis of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s who is now favored to win the presidency. Obrador is the former mayor of Mexico City who was running first in the polls for the presidency, but has begun to slip as Vicente Fox’s PAN has been tying him to Hugo Chavez.

But Ollanta Humala is the most arresting figure. Here is how the New York Times editorial, "Peru’s Looming Disaster," describes him:

"Peru may elect the most dangerous leader yet. Last month Ollanta Humala, a military man whose family advocates the shooting of gays, Jews and Chilean investors, came in first in presidential elections. Since Mr. Humala did not get 50 percent, there will be a runoff on (June 4).

"More bad news: The other candidate will be Alan Garcia, a spectacularly irresponsible and corrupt president in the late 1980s who wrecked Peru’s economy and presided over the commission of widespread war crimes. …

"Mr. Humala is no fan of democracy. … He was an army captain in command of a military base during Peru’s war with the Shining Path guerrillas. There is credible testimony from several families in his zone that men directly under his command tortured and killed peasants, and that he participated in terrorizing and ransacking the business of a storeowner who demanded payment from his soldiers. Many of his closest aides have ties to Vladimiro Montesinos, a jailed racketeer."

Not only are these populist revolutions nationalistic, they are in some cases marked by a not-so-subtle racism. During the "A Day Without Immigrants" boycott-strike here on May Day, the masses marched in Mexico City in what was billed as "A Day Without Gringos." Morales speaks often of the "500 years" of exploitation of indigenous peoples, which would take us back to when Columbus and the Europeans first arrived.

In Ecuador, indigenous peoples who helped oust the last three elected presidents are bedeviling President Alfredo Palacio with strikes and roadblocks for negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States. One demand: expulsion of Occidental Petroleum.

In all these populist uprisings, there seems a common cause: to recapture from the global corporations — for the benefit of the peasants and poor — the natural resources of the nation. This is especially true of oil, which is now at $75 a barrel, a run-up in the price of 700 percent since it was going for $10 to $11 a barrel in West Texas in the late 1990s.

To the extent that these populist revolutions and seizures of property spread across the Third World, there is going to be an oil and commodity crisis unlike any we have seen. For whatever one’s politics, populists and Marxist regimes, while big on rhetoric, are notoriously incompetent at producing anything. As a wag observed, if the communists ever got control of the Sahara, there would soon be a shortage of sand.

But it does appear we have entered a post-post-Cold War era. Islamic and Latin American radicals are energetically exploiting the democratic elections President Bush demands — to ride to power and put in place domestic and foreign policies President Bush abhors.

Contrary to Frank ("The End of History") Fukuyama’s famous prediction that liberal democracy had won the struggle for the future of mankind, nationalism, religious fundamentalism, anti-capitalism and even good old-fashioned tribalism seem to be making impressive comebacks.