For those familiar with Latin American politics, the notion that Muammar Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela seemed absurd. Certainly, Chávez and other leftwing Latin American leaders have seemed embarrassed and uncertain how to respond to the events unfolding in Libya. But Chávez has not given explicit support and it is an awkward moment for many governments. In any case, Gaddafi has much better friends in Africa and had some good friends in London as well.
It was interesting to see British Foreign Secretary William Hague bring Chávez briefly back to the centre of attention in Latin American politics. Because, for better or worse, Chávez is much less important in the region than he was a few years ago. And there is a new figure on the scene, now in charge of half of South America’s population, who may be beginning to embody a new strategy for left-of-centre leaders in Latin America.
In her first months as president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, former guerrilla and chosen successor to the wildly popular Lula, has begun to carve out her own style. She took a step back from her country’s friendship with the government of Iran, and has set out to rein in public spending, something she thinks necessary to keep the country’s economic boom going. Her strategy seems to be to maintain pragmatic centrist policies and forge ahead with fast growth, content that it has raised several tens of millions of people out of poverty in the last few years.
For decades the leftwing strategy in Latin America, from Castro to the Sandinistas to Lula’s early presidential campaigns, was to create a radical and alternative project outside of global capitalism and the “imperialist” west. With their economies booming and the US’s so clearly faltering, many in Latin America are finding they can beat the west at its own game – and then use their increased power and wealth to pursue their goals at home and abroad. It’s an approach reminiscent of China; and coincidentally, the boom in many countries comes largely from exporting commodities to China.
In 2005, when Chávez led the openly confrontational campaign to bury George W Bush’s Free Trade Agreement of the Americas – flanked by former Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, no less – the world was a different place. The credit bubble was still expanding in the rich countries, the US was confidently and openly aggressive internationally, and was pushing a trade agreement it seemed they hadn’t bothered to ask Latin Americans about first. Now, the US economy is in the dumps, its politics is beset by internal squabbling, and its leadership has been forced to humbly accept the limits of American power. Meanwhile, Latin American is rushing ahead – its economy is thought to have grown by about 6% last year – and is increasingly confident on the global stage.
Latin leaders used to love to thumb their noses at the west: Chávez called Bush “the devil”, Bolivia’s Evo Morales joked about being included in the “Axis of Evil”, and Lula famously said – to Gordon Brown’s face – that the financial crisis and subsequent international misery was caused by “blue-eyed bankers”. I suspect we will see less of this from Dilma Rousseff, who can carry on quietly confident that everyone knows in whose favour the balance of power is tilting. It’s not yet clear if she will continue in the tradition of maintaining international alliances that infuriate Washington, but her move on Iran suggests she may not.
Of course, Brazil’s current path has its limitations. There is the risk of over-reliance on commodity exports and the death of industry. And posting big increases in GDP, while useful, has not magically solved the often shocking levels of inequality and social exclusion in the country. Many in the very different Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, where no country has Brazil’s shot at being a global power, remain committed to a much more radical approach. But no new solidly leftwing leaders are on the up at the moment, and there is certainly nothing of the kind on the horizon in Brazil. Here, where most people are better-off than they were a few years ago, the attitude seems to be: “If it ain’t broken, why fix it?”
By Vincent Bevins, a frequent contributor to the Financial Times and New Statesman, among other publications.