President George W. Bush’s free-falling popularity, his loss of control over Congress, the nagging doubts about the economy, and most of all his discredited reputation as a result of the debacle in Iraq all magnify the characteristic weakness of lame-duck American presidents. But, while Latin American governments are all watching the same news about Bush’s growing trials and tribulations, their responses to the looming transfer of power in the United States are of three kinds.
The first response can be described as realist: no matter who governs in America, concrete results need to be achieved. Simply put, whoever is US president, his or her program will have priority. But, at the same time, these leaders count on a great degree of continuity in US policy.
This type of thinking underpinned Brazil’s agreement to include the issue of bio-fuels in a joint declaration and subsequent meeting of Bush and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at Camp David. The same can be said of Uruguay’s interest in a Free Trade Treaty with the US, as it is seeking alternatives outside of the region’s Mercosur group, and Bush remains keen on bilateral trade deals. Colombia, whose alliance with the US precedes President Álvaro Uribe, wants to maintain US support at its current levels, and Mexico now must make combating drug trafficking and illegal immigration priorities, in accordance with US policy. Chile and Peru, too, have fallen in line with US priorities by emphasizing their openness to American investment.
The second Latin American position towards the US is embodied in “Chavism.” This stance characterizes populist governments, often sustained mainly by gas and oil, that practice autocratic democracy, ignoring any formal constitutional division of powers and running roughshod over independent institutions and the press. Indeed, these governments promote constitutional reforms that seek to authorize perpetual re-election and supposedly new forms of participation that, in fact, hollow out representative democracy from within.