Much has been said recently about Evo Morales' election victory in the Bolivian presidential race. Publius is somewhat worried
at the outcome of the election, as are some of the other bloggers linked to by Publius. One of these, however, is less than concerned
Morales will be a headache for the US, that much is for sure - the same way fifty years of populist leaders in Latin America have been headaches for the United States. Since the end of the Soviet threat in Latin America, however, a total of two of these governments have been truly worthy of American concern: Castro and Chavez. Morales' election does not make three.
For more than a decade now, Latin America has been electing leaders based on who gave the most rousing, charismatic speech from a balcony. These have included leaders both on the left and the right, although the former has been more common. Let's count them. Most recently they have included Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, Lula in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela. Past populists have included Alan Garcia and Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Carlos Menem in Argentina, Mexico City's current mayor and possible contender for the Mexican presidency next year Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Alfonso Portillo in Guatemala, and the list goes on. And this was only within the last twenty years or so!
Most of these leaders came to power on platforms of anti-imperialism and standing up to the yanqui
and the "Washington Consensus." Some, like Lula and Kirchener have enjoyed more success than others (although Lula has spent the past year or so trying to distance himself from major corruption within his administration) and it's no coincidence that these two are among the few of the Latin American populist class who recognized the necessity of working with Washington, and the added benefits of doing so.
As for the others, Garcia's Peru suffered skyrocketing inflation and some of the worst human rights abuses during the government's fight against the Maoist terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso. Fujimori's presidency was not much better. Although he deserves credit for defeating Sendero and cutting down on state human rights abuses in the process (although admittedly not by the most democratic of means), his presidency ended in charges of massive corruption including top administration officials buying support from numerous congressmen. Fujimori fled Peru and has spent the last 5 years in exile in Japan with a Peruvian warrant out for his arrest. Menem's "free market reforms" were built on a platform of scandals and corruption, especially in privatization of state-owned industries. His corrupt "reforms" set the stage for the collapse of the Argentinian economy in 2001.
Portillo's Guatemala suffered through 5 years of one scandal after another, including money laundering and the creation of bank accounts in Panama, the US and Mexico that served as slush funds for administration officials. Gutierrez was driven out of Ecuador by the Congress earlier this year on a plethora of charges, including violent repression of demonstrators taking part in oil strikes, funnelling public funds to political allies, politicizing the judicial system to pardon past presidentsfacing charges of corruption, to name a few charges. Much like Fujimori in Peru, he is currently under arrest following his return to Ecuador in a delusional attempt to regain power.
By legalizing coca and befriending Chavez, Morales will be sure to present the United States with a headache it doesn't need. But the best option the US can take is to sit back and watch the Morales regime self-destruct. Chavez will certainly shovel money to Bolivia, but he is not going to get the same bang-for-the-buck, so to speak, that he gets by shoveling money to Castro, the yanqui
imperialist's age-old enemy in the Western Hemisphere. Morales will certainly continue with the rhetoric that he has already started by calling Bush a terrorist
, but eventually no one is going to care. Chavez gets attention because he has money and oil, and because idiots like Pat Robertson help Chavez make his case. Castro gets the attention, well, because he's Castro. But Morales? Who cares? Who's he?
Morales has actually been on the scene in La Paz long before the recent election. He was leading the masses to the streets to protest the imperialist-ties of the previous two governments, leading to their eventual downfall. But it's not just America he's been protesting, which is yet another reason why he's bound to fail: he'll be causing more than a mere annoyance to his own neighbors
Relations with other South American leaders have not been as warm [as with Chavez' Venezuela]. On Monday, Morales said that he had asked President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil to return to Bolivian control two refineries Brazil's state-run oil company, Petrobras, bought from Bolivia in 1999.
Brazil is actually one of Bolivia's largest foreign investors in the oil and gas industry, along with Britain, France, Spain and Argentina. The United States isn't even that high on the same list of investors. Now, with Morales' rhetoric about nationalization
and "re-negotiating contracts" with foreign firms, he's not likely to make many friends.
The problem: Morales is trumpeting a vague plan to "nationalize" a gas exploration and production industry dominated by foreign companies, but Bolivia doesn't have the cash or expertise to take over the job, Latin American experts and oil analysts say.
Morales clearly needs allies. Bolivia's cash-strapped state-owned natural gas company -- Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos -- would need billions of dollars and technology to go solo as a legitimate explorer and producer of natural gas.
Furthermore, Morales and Chavez both recognize that they won't be able to count on Venezuela's petrodollars forever, nor will Venezuelan companies be of much help in Bolivia.
Chavez has lavished petrodollars across South America, trading oil for cows with Argentina, pledging to help finance a $2.5 billion refinery in Brazil and promising to work with other nations on a pipeline linking Venezuela with Brazil, Argentina and possibly Bolivia.
But experts say Venezuela's PDVSA lacks experience in natural gas extraction. And while Venezuela is rolling in cash as the world's fifth-largest petroleum exporter, Chavez is also spending huge amounts at home to bankroll programs for the poor based on socialist ideals
"Chavez hasn't reached his financial limit, but he is nearing it," said Patrick Esteruelas, a Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group in New York City.
So Morales' policies could end up making things worse for Bolivia, given the pool of natural gas upon which Bolivia currently sits.
Deep under the earth in Bolivia lies enough natural gas to supply South American consumers and industry for years, a windfall that could ease the astonishing poverty in one of the continent's poorest countries.
But hurting Bolivians' economic fortunes has been a habit of Morales' for some time, mostly under the banner of political expediency. As Russell Crandall, political science professor and former Director for Western Hemisphere Initiatives at the NSC pointed out
in early 2004, Morales capitalized on a century of mistrust between Bolivians and Chileans to kill a deal to run a pipeline through Chile to the sea, a deal that would have created numerous jobs and millions of dollars in annual revenue for Bolivia.
The controversial plan to export Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves (Bolivia holds Latin America’s second-largest gas reserves) through a pipeline that would end at a Chilean port prompted Sánchez de Lozada’s opponents into the streets. Evo Morales and his supporters painted the pipeline proposal as yet one more way that the country’s economic fortunes were being sacrificed at the altar of globalization. Morales pressed this case despite the fact that the pipeline would generate numerous jobs and an estimated US$500 million in annual revenue for the Bolivian government, capital that Bolivia desperately needs if it is going to improve its health and education systems. The project will require around US$3 billion in investment, most of which will need to come from foreign sources of capital as Bolivia is a severely capital-deprived country.
Relying on Bolivia’s historic dislike of Chile, following Bolivia’s defeat at the hands of the Chileans in the War of the Pacific in the late 19th century, Evo Morales instead has demanded that Bolivia must instead “industrialize” the reserves by using the gas in value-added processes. While this alternative certainly resonates intuitively and emotionally with many in Bolivia who have not fully benefited from the country’s economic liberalization process, there is little to indicate that this strategy would be more beneficial than the pipeline and would likely worsen the situation of the poor majority. Carlos Mesa, the interim president who replaced Sánchez de Lozada as president, has announced that he will hold a referendum on the pipeline issue. The problem with this solution, however, is that so much of the opposition to the pipeline is based on emotion and hysteria whipped up by the likes of Evo Morales. Compounding the problem even more is that indigenous leaders have promised to return to their “ideology of fury” and “more blood, more fighting and more rebellions” if Mesa does not meet their demands.
This has sadly been a political trend in Latin America for decades. Chalk "the populist temptation" up to the "Ibero-Catholic familial-centered culture", as Samuel Huntington
and Lawrence Harrison
(to name a few) have done, and to some degree that is the case. This is overstated, however, as Catholicism has nothing to do with it (as seen in, say, Ireland), and there are plenty of Latin American governments that have been far more successful, disproving the notion that capitalist democracy is somehow antithetical to Latin American culture. Likewise, as I wrote on last month
, a recent poll of Latin Americans shows overwhelming support for free market capitalism and democracy, and less overt, but still overall support for the United States and the Bush administration.
What's the answer then? Maybe there isn't one, which is of course the cop-out explanation. The populist pattern tends to follow a more or less consistent pattern, with the populist making a mess, the relatively more free-market president doing its best to clean it up and put the country back on the right track, followed again by the charismatic, pragmatic politician. As Crandall pointed out:
With its paternalism, lofty goals and emotive rhetoric, populism has tended to capture the hearts of Latin Americans as well as observers of Latin America. Indeed, few non-populist leaders can compete in the romantic category with populists such as Castro, Chávez or even Morales. Yet, while youth around the world might not wear their likenesses on t-shirts or berets, in recent years it has been the more plodding, often charismatically-challenged leaders such as Ernesto Zedillo in Mexico, Ricardo Lagos and Eduardo Frei in Chile, and Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso who have done the most to address the many ills that face the region’s normal populist constituency—the poor. In Brazil, for example, hunger alleviation is an integral component of Lula’s current political agenda. While that goal is certainly noble, it is worth remembering that it is strongly predicated upon the success of President Cardoso’s elimination of hyperinflation in the mid-1990s, which remains Brazil’s most effective social policy in its modern history.
Perhaps the answer is in part psychological. As longtime Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz used to say, "Poor Mexico! So far from God, yet so close to the United States." Despite the accuracy of the statement, and given that Mexico is singing a different tune now with wide open borders witnessing a steady stream of illegal immigration northwards, this sentiment has been oft-adapted by many a Latin American populist leader, but perhaps has yet to be separated in the Latin American mind from the financial mess so often created by the same leaders, who tend to continue their rise to power with promises to fight yanqui
imperialism, be it real or imagined.
Whatever the reason, until the repercussions of concrete actions give the United States more of a reason to think so, Morales' electoral victory should not be treated with too much undue concern. The real danger will be to the Bolivian people. With any luck, he'll come to realize, like Lula and Kirchener, that the only benefits Chavez can provide him would only provide short-term fixes. If not, Morales has no reason to think his fate will be any different than the string of Latin American populist leaders who came into power with "mandates" and left power amid scandal, corruption and economic collapse.