The whole idea of a massive shift to the left in Latin America was overblown by the media from the beginning. It became a convenient story for journalists and way to bash the Bush administration, but the truth is that the electoral results that swept the Western Hemisphere in 2005 and 2006 were neither left nor right. They were a demonstration of a broader process of change and inclusion that defied left-right categories.
Now journalists and bloggers are talking about a shift to the center. But much of this was evident in public opinion polls a few years ago. In countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia—the supposed bastions of extreme leftism in the region—the majority continues to support the fundamentals of “neo-liberalism,” such as free trade and markets. The reasons are not difficult to discern: neither of these countries truly experienced open, free and fair markets. So while some leaders would rail against imperialism and neo-liberalism, for many of the voters in the countries those terms had become synonymous with privilege, exclusion and monopoly. But their inverse didn’t mean Bolivarianism.
Now we’re beginning to see the evidence.
The November 23, 2008, local elections in Venezuela demonstrated that the much -ballyhooed extreme leftist tide in Latin America was really an illusion. Yes, the Chavistas won a majority of the states. The remarkable thing, though, is the showing of the opposition in the poorer neighborhoods in Caracas and other cities, while Chavista candidates continued to do well in the sparsely populated rural districts. For an excellent map and analysis of this check out: http://daniel-venezuela.blogspot.com/2008/11/dulce-de-lechosa-moment.html
For voters, what mattered more—as has always been the case—were bread-and-butter issues: employment, economic opportunity, inflation and personal security. Sure, Venezuela, state-by-state remains rojo, rojito: but the vote, even in what were once thought to be solid pro-Chavez neighborhoods, demonstrates that Venezuelans remain not ideological but much more calculated.
For this reason the anti-American rhetoric of leftist leaders is beginning to sound increasingly hollow. The Russian military exercises and the visit by President Dmitry Medvedev really sparked little interest or reaction in the U.S. Most saw it for what it was: a hugely profitable commercial exchange in military goods for Russia and on the part of Brazil and others the cementing of a pragmatic relationship.
In the U.S., the arrival of the administration of Barack Obama administration brings a whole new level of expectation and wishes. Many hope, including Presidents Chavez and Morales, that a President Obama will reverse Bush’s legacy in the region and be more sympathetic to their broader ideological goals. The problem is this: U.S. national interests—counter-narcotics, continued economic ties, and protecting U.S. commercial interests—will remain. So that while many project onto President-elect Obama his commitment to social justice to their movements in Latin America, the truth is that the bureaucratic momentum of national security goals in the region continue. This is not to say that there will not be greater latitude for negotiation, but, for reasons domestic and international, many of the fundamentals of our relationships will remain.
These topics—such as anti-narcotics, political stability, sustainable economic growth, and reducing poverty—are not ideological problems. They are practical ones. The question is how the region, as partners, without U.S. paternalism, can address them—pragmatically, realistically, non-ideologically, in a way that responds to citizens’ legitimate and heart-felt frustrations and aspirations. To this end, an Obama administration both in its symbolism (no small matter) and its popular and international credibility can make great strides in advancing this agenda, even within the traditional national interests and domestic concerns of the U.S.