In Venezuela's poorest barrios, numerous two-story clinics have cropped up where health care once barely existed. There, patients can get medical attention subsidized by the government: although most Cubans receive poor medical care, the BBC reports that Fidel Castro has sent 20,000 Cuban doctors to Venezuela. They are part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's multiple misiones, or populist social programs, fueled by oil dollars and loved by many of the downtrodden.
These programs make Chavez a popular leader, even as many middle- and upper-class Venezuelans dislike his political maneuvering. Powered by Venezuela's oil wealth, Chavez, Castro, and Bolivian President Evo Morales are hardening into a leftist Latin American bloc that opposes Washington.
It could grow as Chavez seeks to influence national elections in the region this fall. Chavez himself will run for president again when Venezuela votes in December, a virtually assured victory.
Leftists are rising in a region once dominated decades ago by right-wing dictators. But the emerging leftists fall into two very different camps. Ken MacHarg, a journalist and long-time missionary to the region, said there is a broad camp of responsible leftists, including Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chilean leader Michelle Bachelet, who "walk a delicate balance between their leftist ideology and the practicality of today's world in which they must maintain a level of democracy, free markets and develop free trade."
Radical leftists like Chavez, on the other hand, "are throwbacks to the old school, who rely on rhetoric and ideology and calls for sovereignty and end up isolating themselves from the rest of the world," he told WORLD. As elections draw near, the question now is whether the Chavez camp will grow.
Chavez's Gains and Losses
Venezuela's oil income the first half of this year was a whopping $30 billion thanks to high oil prices-a windfall that allowed Chavez to double public spending. National oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA will spend $6 billion this year on health, education, and food programs-a plan Chavez calls "Sowing the Oil."
Chavez is also wielding economic influence abroad. In exchange for Cuban doctors, Venezuela ships 90,000 barrels of oil a day to Castro at discount prices. He has bought a bank in Uruguay and $3 billion of Argentine debt over the last 18 months. According to the Heritage Foundation, Chavez has signed deals with Russia for $3 billion in aircraft, Kalashnikov rifles, and surface-to-air missiles. Even more alarming, he is courting rogue regimes such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria. He promised to export more oil to China and formed an "anti-imperialist" pact with Belarus.
In Latin America, however, Chavez has found it more difficult to meddle. By the end of the year, the region will have seen 12 presidential elections since November 2005. But in two nations already-Peru and Mexico-Chavez's interference has backfired. He openly supported leftist candidates there, even funding election campaigns, according to some reports.
In Mexico, he supported leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But when television ads appeared comparing Obrador to Chavez, hinting at a Mexican descent into authoritarianism, the candidate's poll numbers dropped.
Alan Garcia of Peru also won by blasting Chavez's friendship with opponent Ollanta Humala before June elections. Chavez threatened to cut ties to Peru if Garcia won, prompting Garcia to boast in a victory speech about defeating Chavez's efforts "to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America."
"Latin Americans realize that Chavez is working on the income from high oil prices," said MacHarg. "And they know that if and when the oil prices drop, Chavez won't have money to spread around anymore. They also see him as erratic and unreliable, and one who has talked about a lot of things that he hasn't done."
The Other Left: da Silva
Bolivia's leftist president Evo Morales is also bothering his neighbors, notably Brazil. In May Morales ordered the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas industry, giving foreign investors six months to agree to the state taking majority control and most revenues.
That has prompted Brazilian oil company Petrobras, which largely finances a 2,000-mile pipeline that supplies half of Brazil's natural gas needs, to scrap plans to invest further in Bolivia, and it may pull out altogether.
Brazil is in a position to lead a bloc of moderate leftists against Chavez. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is up for reelection Oct. 1 and is almost guaranteed a win. As a longtime union leader and member of the far-left Worker's Party, da Silva tried for the presidency three times before recasting himself as a moderate and winning in 2002. During his first term, he has largely maintained the policies of his center-right predecessor, allowing for slow but steady economic growth and a stabilized currency.
At the same time, appealing to his original base, da Silva has increased social spending. Under his tenure, the minimum wage has increased 25 percent. A cash-transfer program for poor Brazilians now reaches 8.7 million families, a fifth of the population. A hands-off management style and distancing from the corrupt image of his own party have earned him comparisons to Ronald Reagan as the region's "Teflon" president.
Michelle Bachelet of Chile is another center-left leader who has to juggle maintaining successful free-market policies and hiking social spending. An unorthodox choice, she is a single mother of three who in March became the first female president of Chile. Already, her social policies are diverging from Chilean conservatism: In a country that legalized divorce only two years ago, health-care workers are now distributing the morning-after pill to teenagers for free.
No matter what their balancing act, however, center-leftists in Latin America keep strong ties to the United States and international trade, making them less likely to tolerate an encroaching Chavez.
Next: Ecuador and Nicaragua?
Dora Ampuero does not have high ambitions for Oct. 15, when Ecuador elects a new president. Her hope is that the lesser of the two leftists will win. The choice is between frontrunners Rafael Correa, a pro-Chavez former economy minister, and Leon Roldos, a former vice president. For now, Correa is proving more popular.
"He's young, good-looking, and a populist," said Ampuero, who directs the Ecuadorian Institute of Political Economy. "He just repeats what Chavez and Morales are doing." As economy minister, Correa tried to sell $300 million in Ecuador's debt to Venezuela, a deal that fell through. Worse, Ampuero said, Correa squandered an oil stabilization fund meant for debt payments on social spending.
But Correa is speaking the language of revolution, and Ecuador's poor are prone to populist messages and upheaval. Last year, Ecuadorians ousted their seventh president in 10 years. (See "Coup parade," May 7, 2005.)
In Nicaragua, the leftist candidate is a recurring Cold War memory for Americans: Sandinista leader and former president Daniel Ortega. He has kept to his old Marxist polemic, calling President Bush the new Reagan and casting the election as another opportunity for U.S. interference.
He also has ties to Chavez. The Sandinistas are the second-largest party in the National Assembly, and in May Ortega inked a deal with Venezuela to receive subsidized oil. Since the Sandinistas can pay the final 40 percent due over 25 years, opponents see the deal as a thinly veiled attempt to fund Ortega's election campaign. But with his run gaining increasing support, alarmed U.S. officials are warning that a November win for Ortega would yank Nicaragua backwards. Washington prefers Ortega's opponent, the pro-business Eduardo Montealegre.
Unlike South America, however, Central America has shifted to the center-right. An Ortega victory would likely make Nicaragua an anomaly. But even if the radical leftists win in both Ecuador and Nicaragua, the impact may not be strong on Latin America as a whole.
"The new wave of populism is not as damaging as the previous one," said Alejandro Chafuen, president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. In the 1970s, Marxism bound together different countries and indigenous groups. But now, "each of these indigenous tribes does not like to follow the chieftain of the other tribe." Competing national and political interests mean leftists are far less united than before. Though Chavez still plays an enticing populist tune, today's Latin America may not be so quick to follow.