Latin left shuns Chávez radicalism
Venezuela's private banks remain closed for a second day today as the president threatens to take them over.
Four years after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was hailed as the model for a new wave of leftist leaders in Latin America, some of those following in his footsteps are learning that you can be radical - just don't wear it on your sleeve.Skip to next paragraph
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To his detractors, Mr. Chávez is seen as almost a dictator and a would-be communist. They point to his close relationship with Cuban President Fidel Castro and his occasional trips to Libya and Iraq. As a result, opponents are in the sixth week of a strike aiming to oust the controversial leader.
Observers say that Chávez's radicalism is more rhetoric than reality. But seeing the trouble that Chávez faces - the country's oil industry has ground to a halt, the nations banks have shut down, and the opposition is calling for a referendum on Feb. 2 - other left-leaning Latin leaders are concluding that the best way to bring the change is to work within the system instead of constantly railing against it.
"When he was first elected, Chávez was on the frontline of a new political experiment," says Alfredo Keller, a respected pollster in Caracas. But he has failed at balancing the demands of nationalization and globalization, he says - and the result is a country thrown into economic chaos.
This has meant that other leaders with similar leftist ideologies are having to reconsider how best to tailor their messages and policies in Latin America. The leaders include Brazil's new president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who took office last week and Lucio Gutierrez, who swept Ecuador's presidential election in November. While they talk about distributing their country's wealth more equally, they also want to do so without disrupting their country's economic structure - something Chávez refused to do.
Along with appointing fiscal moderates to key cabinet posts, Mr. da Silva, for instance, allowed certain officials in the previous administration to keep their posts, and he traveled to Washington before meeting with any Latin American leaders.
As well, Mr. Gutierrez last week named a US-educated former bank vice president to be his finance minister, something that would be anathema to Chávez.
Still, to satisfy his constituents, the day after his Jan 1. inauguration, da Silva had breakfast with Chávez and dinner with Mr. Castro. Da Silva says he will consider sending technical workers to Venezuela to get the country's oil company running again.
"I think a lot of that seeming friendliness is driven by internal politics and posturing within Brazil," says Stephen Haber, a Latin American expert at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "After appointing fairly conservative, middle-of-the-road cabinet members, he had to placate the militant wing of his party. And siding with Chávez is low cost."
Dr. Haber says that this idea of a leftist alliance in Latin America is being overplayed, and is nothing like the unified left of the 1960s and '70s.
"The left has a long history in Latin America, and it exists for very good reasons. But this notion of a pan-Latin American left is not what is occurring now," he says.