Comparing Latin Giants

Latin America today can be likened to a train with giant engines on either end - pulling in opposite directions.

The region's two giants, Mexico and Brazil, have been ably pulling toward better democracy and growth economies, while the two lesser giants, Argentina and Venezuela, are heading toward a dark tunnel.

Argentina, whose natural resources should make it rich, has thumbed its nose at creditors such as the World Bank - defaulting on an $800 million loan last week - because its politicians won't stop spending money they don't have.

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In Venezuela, which should be rich because it's the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, is in political chaos as rioters, police, and the Army clash in the nation's capital. The key issue is the elected but now unpopular, autocratic, coup-ridden president, Hugo Chavez, and whether to hold a referendum soon on his legitimacy.

What a contrast. Voters in Mexico and Brazil have used the ballot box well to move their countries in new directions. But elections in Argentina and Venezuela have only produced leaders who have failed to understand international markets and the need for austere, effective government.

All four countries face similar problems of wealth disparity, poor education, corruption, and other common Latin American ailments. They all bought into the promise of the 1980s to open their markets. Yet in Argentina and Venezuela, the promise of natural abundance has created a culture of high expectations that's led to a high level of political corruption. Leaders there promise too much, and then run for cover when they don't deliver, or just don't pay their debts.

Venezuela is in such a violent mess that its main hope rests on the mediation of the Organization of American States, which has become a force for maintaining Latin America's recent gains in democracy.

Argentina, however, faces a skeptical International Monetary Fund and the US, both reluctant to bail it out again, even with its promises of no more budget busting.

One hope may lie in grass-roots renewal of responsibility. Young Argentines and civic groups, fed up with current politicians and realizing Argentina is not a developed country, are pushing reforms that would make elected leaders more accountable and decisions more transparent. They are helping rebuild the social trust any country needs.

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