The United States has been losing influence in Latin America throughout the last decade. Although it still has lots of friends, even in countries with hostile regimes, such as Venezuela (see my article: “Misreading Venezuela”), the United States has become the country many Latin Americans love to hate, mainly due to the neglect of the region shown by recent U.S. political administrations. This has allowed extreme leftists such as Hugo Chavez to gain followers.
The case of Chavez is particularly important for the U.S. because his main political objective is to destroy what he calls the “Empire.” Paradoxically, in order to accomplish this objective he has been using the significant income largely provided by his exports of oil to this country.
Chavez has scored some important points in his “Crush the Empire” geopolitical game. Today, many Latin American countries have leaders who only rarely support the US, are more often neutral and, even more often, strongly opposed to the United States. The combination of a prodigal distribution of oil money and of a vague ideology he calls “Socialism for the XXI century” has gained Chavez many friends in the region, willing to receive his handouts if not always willing to do his bidding. His main success has been in the Andean region, where he has obtained a large measure of control over Bolivia and Ecuador, while keeping the government of Peru essentially neutralized and establishing close ties with the Colombian narco-terrorists in his efforts to destabilize the democratic Colombian government.
Chavez also holds much influence over Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and is clearly intervening in El Salvador, where he finances the presidential candidacy of the extreme left. He has also made friends with the small Caribbean and Central American states by giving most of them subsidized petroleum products. All in all, the presence of Hugo Chavez in the Western Hemisphere already seems to loom larger than that of the United States.
Two weeks ago the presidency of Paraguay went to the hands of former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo, who has shown much sympathy for Chavez and has spoken enthusiastically, although with little grasp of its meaning, about “Socialism for the XXI century.” It seems that Paraguay represents yet another domino falling into the growing socialist camp of Hugo Chavez. Lugo is already being advised by members of the Chavez’s club of followers, including Argentinean Heda Bonafini, a woman who expressed delight at the destruction of the New York twin towers in September 2001. He has already received Chavez’s congratulations and his promises of an early meeting.
However, the Lugo presidency will face immediate and formidable challenges. His victory should be seen more as a rejection of the ruling Colorado party that has been in power in Paraguay for 61 years and had reached very high levels of corruption and inefficiency than as a show of true support for him. The winning coalition is a very heterogeneous group of ten political parties and twenty small organizations of civil society, representing the most varied ideologies and interests, from the right to the extreme left.
Senator Alfredo Jaeggli, one of the spokespersons of the Liberal-Radicals, the main party in the coalition, calls Lugo: “a necessary evil, an accident.” Jaeggli told me during a fact-finding visit to Paraguay last October that they “did not see eye to eye with Lugo in many issues but, in order to get rid of the Colorado party, they were determined to make an alliance with the devil, if this was what it took.” This coalition could well be short-lived, after Lugo becomes president. Lugo will not enjoy a majority in Congress and every one of his decisions will have to be taken on the basis of a careful and time-consuming negotiation process. There is no way he can take Paraguay through drastic political or economic changes, as Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela, having total control of all political institutions in the country made possible by oil money.
Chavez is already conscious that, in Lugo, more than a powerful ally, he might be getting just another political mouth to feed. When added to the already significant burden of financing Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, the Castro regime in Cuba, Ortega in Nicaragua and the Kirchners in Argentina, he could be exceeding his financial capabilities. The mounting economic and political problems he is already facing in Venezuela have to do, precisely, with the immense financial commitments he has been forced to make, in order to stay on top of the Latin American political heap. As Paraguay is added to his payroll he might find that the domino effect could still work, but in the opposite direction from the one he intends.