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.

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.

What is occurring, he says, is a reaction to the free-market model of the 1990s, which many Latin Americans feel left them no better off. In fact, with the exception of Chile, per capita income has not risen since 1980.

That means people are voting their pocketbooks, removing leaders who couldn't make globalization work, and electing ones who stress more nationalistic ideas.

"Latin America is at a critical point right now in terms of the left. I think everyone realizes Chávez has failed, and they are now looking to [da Silva]," says Michael Shifter, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "He represents an evolution towards a more moderate position, and is an important bellwether for the movement."

Still, Mr. Shifter says, it's going to be very difficult for these new leftist leaders to maintain the delicate balance between economic stability and a greater attention to social issues.

Chávez is proof of that. Under him, Venezuela's economy contracted 6 percent last year, and its currency hit a record low against the dollar this week. The country's banks are in the second day of a strike today, and Chávez continues to threaten to nationalize them.

Many experts, however, argue that his inability to arrest a worsening economy is more a result of his ineptitude and mismanagement than ideology.

But many Venezuelans hear only his radically leftist rhetoric, and can't separate his actions from his words. For instance, while he says he is opposed to globalization, Chávez hasn't done anything to disconnect Venezuela from the global economy, says Vladimiro Mujica, a professor at the Central University in Caracas and a representative of Citizens Assembly, a nongovernmental organization working with the opposition.

"Some people in the opposition like to raise the ghost of communism, but I don't think that is what we have," he says. "What we have is a very corrupt regime that is clinging to power." Opponents say that since taking office, Chávez has rewritten the country's Constitution to consolidate more power in his own hands.

Pollster Keller is one of many who accuse Chávez of using state funds to finance other leftist candidates in Latin America, such as those who were recently defeated in Nicaragua and Bolivia - the main funding coming from the state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.

"He wants to use the money of PDVSA as a political weapon," says Jose Manuel Boccardo, a manager at the company before the strike. "He wants PDVSA to be the cash cow for his geopolitical strategy, and we don't want to be part of that."

Keller believes that Chávez won't step down voluntarily because "he is convinced he represents the head of the new left in Latin America."

The left has a strong base in Latin America. Keller points to meetings that took place in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1990 among the far left. At that time, 14 groups attended the Sao Paulo Forum, a left-wing discussion group which da Silva cofounded, aimed at building political strength. Today, there are 140 members of the Forum and polls show that 15 percent of the region is left-leaning. The Forum will reconvene in Porto Allegre, Brazil, at the end of the month.

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