Latin America's lurch to the left

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The recent inauguration in Bolivia of indigenous leader Evo Morales is being interpreted by many as a sign of a hemispheric lurch to the left. Indeed, with 12 presidential elections in 14 months, 2006 could well be a watershed for the region, recasting US policy toward its neighbors.

Yet, characterizing the region as hopelessly drifting away from US interests or as uniformly jettisoning the market economy "model" underestimates the complexity of both US relations and democracy in the region.

To look at what will be the most intense election year in Latin American history as a question of left-right orientation misses important differences among the leaders and obscures the democratic progress that many of these electoral contests represent. For many countries, the dozen presidential contests that started with Honduras last November will be a stable exercise in popular will. In only two of the countries, Nicaragua (November 2006) and Venezuela (December 2006), have observers raised questions about the fairness of the electoral process.

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Throughout the region, candidates of both the left and the right are placing greater emphasis on reducing poverty and income inequality, a democratic reflection of growing popular concerns over economic security. But these demands should not be confused with a widespread rejection of the market economy model. According to Latinobarometer surveys, 63 percent of the citizens in the region agreed that the market economy was the only means to develop their countries.

For the most part, election results this year will bear out such public sentiment. In Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil - four of the closest friends of the United States - elections have already or probably will produce governments that will persist on their current path of fiscal responsibility and continued integration into the global economy. It's too early to tell what will be the outcome of Peru's presidential election in April.

In Chile, socialist Michelle Bachelet won the Jan. 15 runoff election and, if anything, represents the political establishment in Chile. A member of the center-left coalition that has governed Chile since the country's transition to democracy, President-elect Bachelet has demonstrated her moderate credentials as the health and defense minister in the previous government. On the campaign trail, before becoming Chile's first elected woman president, Ms. Bachelet repeatedly emphasized her commitment to following and expanding the pro-market, free-trade economic model pursued by the past three governments.

Since assuming office five years ago in Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has also proven to be a market champion, sticking to the orthodox fiscal and trade policies pursued by his predecessor. Despite corruption scandals, the one-time labor leader is still the candidate to beat in October 2006.

Of the others leading in the polls, the greatest question mark is Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In his administration and campaign, the former mayor of Mexico City has demonstrated both pragmatic and populist tendencies in his politics and in his rhetoric. Nonetheless, Mexico's membership in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the close integration of the country's economy with the economies of its northern neighbors will limit any future Mexican president's latitude in fiscal and economic matters.

Bolivia is a different matter. It is too early to know the direction in which President Morales will take the country. But beyond a stated commitment to addressing poverty, there is little that unites the left-wing Bolivian president to the new president of Chile or candidates in Mexico and Brazil. During his campaign, the leader of street protests that brought down two governments promised to renationalize gas fields held by international investors and to end the US policy to eradicate coca, the leaf used to produce cocaine. These positions, and his close relationship to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Cuban president Fidel Castro, have caused consternation throughout the region.

Now facing the responsibility of working with international investors and regional governments, the newly elected president will have to balance his ambitious promise to restore Bolivian natural resources to local ownership with the need to ensure a steady flow of capital to support much needed social programs.

As the hemisphere embarks on this election year, US policy must be designed to keep open avenues of discussion with emerging candidates and newly elected leaders, some of whom, at first blush, may not reflect every aspect of the US policy agenda. Part of this process, for policymakers and observers alike, is not to exaggerate this leftward drift. Rather than focus on the region in the aggregate or through an ideological lens, the US should examine the complex political, economic, and even personal relations and interests in each country.

In the end, elections in the hemisphere will produce governments with which the US will share more in common than not. The trick will be to remain engaged with those governments as they tackle the difficult problems of addressing structural poverty, exclusion, and inequality with respect for democratic institutions and rights. Ultimately, it is a practical - not ideological - decision each country will have to make; one which, if done democratically, deserves US support.

Christopher A. Sabatini is senior director for policy of the Americas Society in New York. Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington and a former White House foreign policy adviser from 1995-98.

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