News Highlight

To the Left, March!

Jan. 9, 2006

Evo Morales once quipped that the coca leaf should be Bolivia's "new national flag." It almost looks as if he has fulfilled his prediction as he parties into the night wearing coca-leaf wreaths during the weeks leading up to his Jan. 22 inauguration as Bolivia's President. The leftist Morales, 46, won a stunning landslide in last month's election in no small part because he pledged to legalize far more cultivation of coca, which Aymara Indians like him have chewed for centuries for traditional medicinal purposes and which the U.S. has tried for decades to eradicate in Bolivia because drug traffickers use it to make cocaine. Morales impishly claims that coca-leaf extract is part of the formula of the classic American beverage Coca-Cola (a legend the company has consistently declined to comment on) and adds, "It's not right that exporting coca is legal for Coca-Cola but not for the rest of us!"

The Yankee baiting is part of Morales' stated intention to be the U.S.'s "worst nightmare." He flatters himself, given that Bolivia is, after Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. But the Bush Administration has reason to be spooked. Morales' win has helped build momentum for a resurgence of leftist and often anti-U.S. candidates around Latin America. At least nine presidential races are slated for the region this year, and leftists could win at least five--including those in the two most populous countries, Brazil and Mexico, as well as in coca producers like Peru and Ecuador. Leftists have toppled conservative governments in Uruguay and Honduras, and socialist Michelle Bachelet is favored to win Chile's presidential runoff on Jan. 15. To punctuate the situation, the radical left-wing President of oil-rich Venezuela, Hugo Chávez--the "new mayor of the Latin American street," says Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs--is all but certain to be re-elected at year's end.

The White House helped raise Chávez's profile when Washington was widely believed to have backed a failed coup in 2002 against the democratically elected revolutionary (a charge the Bush Administration denies). Since then, despite what critics call Chávez's penchant for authoritarian rule, his popularity has risen--not only in Latin America but also in some parts of U.S. cities like Boston and New York, where the Venezuelan government--owned company Citgo is providing low-income residents with cheap heating oil this winter. Chávez has surpassed his good friend Fidel Castro as the anti-U.S . idol of the Latin American masses--and as a model for other populist leaders in the region, although few have his petroleum resources to use as a cudgel.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush's appeal is at a low ebb with America's neighbors. Last fall the U.S. President met violent street protests at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, where his hemispheric free-trade proposal was buried--and where Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, another leftist, heads a growing revolt against the U.S.-backed debt policies of the International Monetary Fund. For much of the 1990s, governments from Mexico City to Buenos Aires embraced the free-market reforms known as the Washington Consensus. But that is no longer true. In 1998 the richest 10% of Latin America's population earned 40% of the income; by 2003 it had jumped to 48%. A third of the population earns less than $2 a day. "We have been living through a schizophrenic period," says Carlos Toranzo, a Bolivian political analyst. "We have more democracy, more respect for human rights but also increased inequality and higher unemployment." And the popular blame is being directed at what many in Latin America think of as the sponsor of globalization, the U.S. "I've not seen anything quite like this sudden loss of face," says Terry Karl, a Latin America expert at Stanford University. "The U.S. just isn't setting the agenda anymore in Latin America."

The U.S. preoccupation with the war on terrorism has deepened the malaise. Close allies like Mexican President Vicente Fox have been ignored. Plans for liberalizing immigration went back to the drawing board. "One day Bush was our mejor amigo, and the next he wouldn't take our phone calls," says a former Fox aide. Now the distinctly anti-U.S. former mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is the front runner for the July 2 presidential election. Being a friend of America has become a political liability.

In Bolivia, Morales got his boost by being the enemy of the enemy. In 2002 the former coca growers' union chief and head of the Movement Toward Socialism Party was just another presidential candidate--until the U.S. threatened to cut economic aid to Bolivia if Morales won. That backfired, catapulting Morales into a runoff vote he narrowly lost. The often violent demonstrations that followed led to the resignation of two successive Bolivian Presidents. But now Morales faces his own unrest. His economically shaky plans to nationalize Bolivia's natural-gas reserves--which are South America's second largest and coveted by foreign energy investors--could lead the whiter, more affluent population of eastern Bolivia, where most of the gas is situated, to secede. Morales met with business leaders there last week to calm their fears, but he insisted to TIME that "the foreign companies have to be subordinate to the Bolivian people. We need them to be partners and not patrónes [owners] of our natural resources."

Such mantras are raising the prospects of other left-leaning politicians. Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, a retired army lieutenant colonel, says the nation should re-examine agreements that sold off state-owned companies and review the lucrative tax-stability contracts that have been luring foreign investors. After Morales' victory, Humala last week scored 23% in a respected poll for April's presidential election--a 10-point bounce that brings him within 3 points of the front runner.

But Humala enjoys a more telling poll figure: 58% of those in the survey like the fact that he doesn't belong to one of Peru's traditional and often notoriously corrupt political parties. Corruption is the hottest button for Latin voters, and it is biting pols to the left as well, especially Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose re-election prospects next October look dimmer with his party mired in a campaign-finance scandal. Latin American political experts say Bush should focus on rewarding clean government rather than raising the ideological temperature. His recent selection of Thomas Shannon as the new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs is widely regarded as a positive step, since Shannon, as a career diplomat, is less polarizing. Even Shannon's staunch anti-left predecessor, Roger Noriega, concedes that U.S. officials now "will be trying to avoid confrontation" with Bolivia's Morales. They don't have to sit down and chew coca with him, but maybe they could all share some Coca-Cola.

—With reporting by With reporting by Lucien Chauvin/Lima, Cristóbal Edwards/Santiago, Bill Faries/La Paz

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