Last month, Alejandro Peña Esclusa waded through a joyful throng here in Santa Cruz celebrating the victory in the first of four referendums on increased autonomy from the socialist government of Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales.
He shook hands with voters, slapped them on the backs. "I identify with you, I'm on your side," he told them.
Never mind that he is not a Bolivian opposition leader, or even Bolivian. The Venezuelan, who unsuccessfully ran against that country's leftist President Hugo Chávez and is now one of his most vociferous foes, says that supporting the opposition across Latin America is crucial to democracy continent-wide.
As presidents from Venezuela to Ecuador and Bolivia vow that they, for the very first time, are governing for the poor, the oppressed, and the indigenous, Latin America is in the midst of a power struggle. Conservative leaders say it is their new responsibility to double up efforts to stem the tide of Mr. Chávez and his leftist coalition – which they claim is not addressing the welfare of those most in need, but attempting to consolidate power and undermine liberties across the region.
"We don't want this to end here," says Carlos Pablo Klinsky, the president of the caucus of legislators in Santa Cruz who helped usher in the autonomy referendum. On Sunday, Bolivians in the Amazonian states of Beni and Pando overwhelmingly voted for more autonomy. With three victories and a fourth vote planned for June 22, Bolivia is emerging as an epicenter of a growing pushback against Latin America's left.
"We want this to spread not just to the rest of the country but to Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua as well, to end with this centralism throughout Latin America," says Mr. Klinsky.
Opposition unites across states
In a twist, the region's traditional outsiders have suddenly become the insiders, says Michael Shifter, of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. Led and financed almost entirely by oil-rich Venezuela, they have formed an alliance in their pledge to create a new Latin America.
And now the longtime insiders have risen as Latin America's "opposition." In many countries, the opposition is a frayed bunch, and those who are united are often fixated against the ruling president or focused on domestic issues. But many say there is opportunity for symbiosis.
Yon Goicoechea, who led the student movement against Chávez's failed constitutional reform in December, has since traveled around the region speaking with student leaders. In January he was in Bolivia to share the methodologies of his campaign.
"They also have a constitutional reform restricting liberties, and actually threatening democracy," says Mr. Goicoechea, who resists being tied to Venezuela's traditional opposition and was recently awarded $500,000 from the Cato Institute in Washington. He wants to use the money to set up a foundation to form a network of young political aspirants across Latin America.
For now, however, these cross-national efforts are incipient, says Mr. Peña Esclusa, who was born in Washington and concedes that even some members of Venezuela's opposition call him radical. He says he is unapologetic for any ties he has formed with the US, which he considers a "friend."
Peña Esclusa, who runs a nongovernmental organization in Caracas called Fuerza Solidaria that resists the "cubanization" of Venezuela, says he would like to take cooperation much further. In Bolivia he met with opposition leaders and media outlets to gather support for a cross-national body he wants to form called the Organization for the Defense of America.
"We used to just do politics internally inside our own countries," he says. But the atmosphere is changing with the elections of left-wing governments across the region, he says. "That is why the opposition in Latin America has started to work together because we are facing an international enemy. It's not just Chávez. It is him and all his friends."
Bolivia: the epicenter of protest
Perhaps the boldest opposition in Latin America today stems from the lowlands of Bolivia, where conservative leaders pushed forward with the referendum vote even though the government had declared it illegal. Last month in Santa Cruz, when announcing their victory to shield the province from Morales's draft constitution that would create a new society based on socialist and indigenous values, they stood united, their arms held high in the air.
"This is not the end of the process," declared Gov. Ruben Costas, in Santa Cruz's central plaza where Peña Esclusa was reveling in the celebration. "With your vote, we have begun the most transcendental reform in national memory."
In other countries, the opposition has failed to gain such traction. In Nicaragua, where US cold-war nemesis Daniel Ortega is back in power, opposition leaders formed a "bloc against the dictatorship" in December in the National Assembly but it has made little headway. Lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro says that the opposition shares political and ideological views, but that personal interests get in the way. "Everyone wants to be a general; no one wants to be a soldier," says Mr. Navarro, who has run unsuccessfully for both president and mayor of Managua.
In Ecuador, too, the opposition has basically collapsed, says Adrian Bonilla, a political analyst at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito. "They haven't had an agenda in the last year and a half, they have just opposed every issue coming from the president," he says.
In many cases, the opposition in Latin America has been stunted because they have not "come to grips" with the deep-seated shift under way in the region, says Mr. Shifter.
Yet, in part spurred on by Chávez's ideological war against the traditional elites, the opposition has moved into defense mode. In Venezuela, it has been unable to counter his influence, financed by oil wealth that he lavishly spends in other countries. He has formed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, known as ALBA – a trade alliance with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia to reduce dependence on institutions such as the World Bank.
To opposition leaders in Bolivia, this is proof enough that they must start acting. "Chávez owns the Bolivian government, and is the biggest threat to democracy in Latin America," says Jorge Quiroga, a former Bolivian president who heads Bolivia's main opposition party.
It is a sentiment that some say is overblown, but which he is convinced is real, based on his travels across the region, talking with students, business leaders, and politicians. "What happens [in Venezuela] affects us all," he said in an interview in Santa Cruz recently. "This will be a long struggle, but I know it will prevail."
Some have little faith that the opposition will be able to create a united front, and if they do, their efforts could backfire. "Their idea of a solid Chávez-led axis in the region could become a self-fulfilling prophecy," Shifter says. "Perhaps inadvertently they will be giving Chávez the sort of aggrandizing role that he has been seeking."
• Tim Rogers reported from Nicaragua.