Latin America’s Calm Before the Storm

MEXICO CITY – The perpetual seesaw in Latin American geo-politics is more vibrant than ever. The so-called “Americas-1” countries – those that are either neutral in the confrontation between the United States and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (and Cuba), or openly opposed to the so-called “Bolivarian” governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – are slowly advancing. The “Americas-2” radical left is receding moderately, yet it can still maintain its positions and defeat any attempts to roll back its influence.

But the relative quiet in the ongoing ideological, political, and diplomatic conflict between the two groups of countries is only temporary. If anything, it is the calm before an approaching storm.

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The tide has turned in part because voters in recent elections seem to have shifted from the center left to the center right, or at least re-confirmed their more conservative convictions. In Chile, the businessman and center-right democrat Sebastián Piñera put an end to more than twenty years of center-left Concertación rule. But his domestic policies, constrained by the recent severe earthquake and his own small mandate, differ only slightly from those of his predecessors, at least for now. The main change is in foreign policy, where, at least nominally, Piñera has clearly transferred Chile from one camp to another.

In Colombia, the situation is similar. The likely winner in the June 26 run-off election, Juan Manuel Santos, will pursue most of outgoing president Alvaro Uribe’s domestic policies, but might change course slightly in foreign affairs. He will probably be more aggressive in responding to neighboring Venezuela’s challenges, both on the border and throughout the region.

Uribe has tended to walk back from the brink every time Chávez has provoked Colombia, and has never wanted to go after FARC guerrilla sanctuaries in Venezuela. Santos may be less willing to avoid confrontation, if only because the personal antipathy between the two leaders is immense. He will probably be more forceful at regional meetings in responding to Chávez, believing that Venezuelan support for the FARC guerrillas is too blatant to be overlooked, and that it is wiser to confront him sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua is too small and poor to represent a threat to anyone, but always generates problems beyond its size. President Daniel Ortega is seeking to remain in office more or less perpetually, and seems ready to perpetrate every type of stratagem, from electoral fraud to dissolving Congress and the judiciary, in order to achieve his aims.

Sooner or later, this will constitute a major challenge to the hemispheric community. Is it willing to look the other way while a small nation destroys its democracy, violates human rights, and breaches its international covenants? If so, that hemispheric community will prove to be remarkably inconsistent, given a second conundrum: Honduras.

Indeed, the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Honduras last year because of the coup d’état that deposed and deported then-President Manuel Zelaya. Chávez and even the US went as far as imposing economic sanctions on the interim government in view of the interruption of democratic rule. As recently as June 7, the Bolivarian countries were able to block Honduras’ re-instatement into the OAS, despite the essentially free and fair elections that were held there last November.

So, which is it going to be? Disregard the imminent democratic implosion of Nicaragua, and the absence of any type of democracy in Cuba? Or apply the same standard to Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela that has been applied to Honduras?

Unfortunately, the only two countries that could play a role in reforming the inter-American system and defusing the growing tensions between Colombia and Venezuela will, for different reasons, remain passive. Mexico is consumed by its failed drug war, which has cost more than 25,000 lives and, according to just published US government statistics, has deterred Colombian cocaine traffickers, but has fostered dramatic increases in Mexican production of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has never wanted to entangle himself in Latin American disputes and ideological confrontations. As his term winds down (the next presidential elections are two years away), he will be even less inclined to involve Mexico in foreign adventures.

Brazil is similarly paralyzed, partly because of its presidential election campaign, which is currently in full swing and will conclude only at the end of the year, and partly because of recent diplomatic setbacks. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has sought to catapult his country onto the world stage as an emerging power, but he has not fared well. His chief goal – obtaining a permanent seat for Brazil on the United Nations Security Council – is more distant than ever, and his more modest aims have not met with greater success.

Lula’s attempt, together with Turkey, to broker a deal between Iran and the West failed when the US convinced Russia and China, along with countries such as Mexico, to approve a new round of UN sanctions against Iran. Brazil ended up alone with Turkey voting against the sanctions, and without anything to show for its mediating efforts.

Brazil has always been reluctant to involve itself in its neighbors’ domestic conflicts. Now that it ventured to the other side of the world and fared poorly, it is unlikely to want to pursue other futile projects, such as reforming the OAS, deterring further confrontation between Venezuela and Colombia, or ensuring free and fair elections in Nicaragua.

So, while Latin America may continue to weather the global economic storm rather well, the region’s diplomatic peace and quiet is deceptive. Any number of rising tempests could end it.