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Clash of visions for Latin America

It's Bush vs. Chavez as 33 heads of state meet Friday for Summit of the Americas.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2005


President Bush has a vision for Latin America: Build prosperity and stability through open economies and entrepreneurship, more hemispheric trade, and stronger democracies.

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Mr. Bush will tout that formula when he meets with 32 leaders from the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas in the Argentine resort of Mar del Plata beginning Friday.

Jostling for center stage will be a competing vision for Latin America from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the man who would be this century's Fidel Castro, spreading what he calls "21st-century socialism" across the continent. With Venezuela's burgeoning oil revenues to subsidize his vision, the red-bereted Mr. Chávez offers this alternative to Bush's capitalism: heavy state economic intervention and social spending. In his worldview, economic integration means South America, shutting out the giant imperialist to the north.

"If Chávez has his way, Mar del Plata will be the battleground of models for Latin America's future," says Elías Pino Iturrieta, a historian at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, Venezuela. "He's made it very clear that his goal [for the summit] is to bury the proposal for a free-trade area of the Americas for good, and to slay imperialism while he's at it."

The clash of visions may well dominate the summit, in part because no dramatic conclusions are expected from the two-day gathering. But another key factor is that much of the Latin American public is skeptical of the US-backed open-economy model and is tempted - after decades of stubbornly high rates of poverty and joblessness - by an alternative. Chávez - who plans to join Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales, and other luminaries at a "counter summit" of Latin leftists and anti-imperialists - says he expects the debate of visions to be "beautiful."

Indeed, Chávez may have reason to believe he has the southern winds in his sails. Latin America is leaning left, electing more left-of-center leaders promoting new ways to reduce poverty and preserve a disappearing middle class.

About half of the leaders Bush will meet were elected since the last regular Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, and a number of them, including the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, now hail from the left. That trend is likely to continue, with nearly a dozen countries holding presidential elections over the next year, many experts say. Polls show Bolivia (voting next month) and Mexico (next summer) favoring leftist replacements of conservative leaders.

"If you look back to the Quebec summit, Chávez was the only leader criticizing the project for a free-trade area of the Americas and tight fiscal limits on government action while advocating more social spending," says Miguel Tinker Salas, Latin America specialist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "Now those ideas have taken the stage."

Still waiting for capitalism to work

One glaring problem for the Bush vision is that the economic model the president is selling has not lifted the masses of the population during the roughly two decades it has been applied. Economies are growing, but income gaps that make Latin America the world's least equitable region have not closed. Tens of millions of people live on less than $2 a day, while unemployment averages more than double the US rate and a majority of new jobs are created in the black market.