Judging from last week's jubilant, nearly identical headlines the press was having a picnic over the recent Bolivian elections: "Latin America Continues Drift To The Left." "Morales Victory Continues Leftward Drift." The consistent theme running through the reports was indistinguishable too and unmistakable: Socialism is on the march! Take that free marketeers!
Apparently the election of Juan Evo Morales Ayma as Bolivian president makes it official. Free market capitalism is on the ropes. Like the proverbial Siamese dominoes Latin American countries -- Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela -- have fallen to the red menace. And 11 of the region's countries will hold presidential elections in 2006, which means nearly a dozen more "red states" before the year is out. To read the reports you'd think Castro had won the Cold War.
Only you'd be wrong. Latin America is not chucking liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Latin America has yet to try liberal democracy and free market capitalism. To understand the so-called leftward drift in Latin America, one must start at the beginning. And Bolivia is as good a place to start as any.
Since the 1951 overthrow of its bumbling ruling elite, Bolivia has been run largely by military juntas, its recent history pockmarked by coups, counter-coups, and inept caretaker governments. The rule of Gen. Luis Garcia Meza Tejada was sadly typical.
Before he was deposed in 1981, Gen. Meza was infamous for human rights abuses, narcotics trafficking, and economic bungling; during his presidency inflation soared, while the economy tanked. Later convicted in absentia for murder, Garcia Meza is now serving a 30-year prison term.
Largely left out of the mix was Bolivia's majority indigenous population. For the past 500 years these folks have lived on the margins of society, under-educated and working under deplorable primitive working conditions in tin mines and on psuedo-feudal estates. Following the late twentieth century land reforms, many took up coca growing only to see that practice criminalized.
Bolivia remains the stereotypical Banana Republic, except that these days bananas have been replaced by cocaine. And coke was the chief reason for Morales's victory, in particular his promise to halt the U.S.-backed campaign to eradicate coca production. Bolivia is the world's third-largest cocaine producer, so calling Morales a "narco-trade unionist" -- as did his opponent former president Sanchez de Lozada -- probably only helped Morales's standing with his base.
Morales's cachet got its biggest boost during the so-called Indian Uprising of 2000. The government, three years earlier, had granted a water contract to the Bechtel Corporation. After upgrading the system, Bechtel increased water rates dramatically. In a bit of hubris worthy of an ancient Greek playwright, Bechtel and the government forbad Indians to use or dig wells or collect rainwater. This gave Morales and his rabble-rousing allies the excuse needed to confront the government in a series of violent protests. True to form, the government capitulated. Elections were then called for December 2005. Morales's subsequent victory, seen by many as the logical conclusion to the ongoing "Indian Uprising," was thus long overdue.
I'M NOT SURE WHAT ANY of this has to do with socialism. Many of the left-leaning leaders of Latin America are not Nuevo Leninists so much as old-style demagogues and populists playing on the ignorance and emotions of peasants. And, as with all popular movements, a rather large scapegoat must be found. The U.S. and IMF just happen to fill that role nicely. It is helpful too that America and the IMF are seen as being run by a cabal of rich Jewish bankers and behind-the-scenes politicians. Venezuela's Chavez in his 2005 Christmas address couldn't resist commenting that "the descendants of those who crucified Christ" own the riches of the world. And on a Dec. 24 visit to the Venezuelan countryside, Chavez stirred up the peasants by claiming that "the world offers riches to all. However, minorities such as the descendants of those who crucified Christ" have become "the owners of the riches of the world." This is certainly in keeping with the standard populist hatemongering of Latin America's new left leaders. Writing in the Weekly Standard Thor Halvorssen finds:
The hostility to Jews has become one of the hallmarks of the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chavez...and of Chavismo, the neo-fascist ideology named for him. In January , the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released a "Report on Global Anti-Semitism." The report documents how openly anti-Semitic the Venezuelan government now is ... it noted that "President Chavez cautioned citizens against following the lead of Jewish citizens in the effort to overturn his referendum victory. Anti-Semitic leaflets also were available to the public in an Interior and Justice Ministry office waiting room."
A traditional element of anti-Semitism is the general resentment of Jews fostered by a perceived indebtedness to Jewish moneylenders. So it is not surprising that wherever nations suffer the burden of IMF debt, populists have stepped in to whip up anti-Jewish and anti-American sentiment, rather than putting the blame squarely where it belongs -- with their leader's mismanagement of the economy and pillaging of resources. Argentina is a case in point. Following that country's 2001 financial collapse, the people elected the populist Nestor Kirchner on an anti-globalization ticket. Unlike Chavez, Kirchner is more circumspect in his anti-Semitism not least due to his country's history as refuge for -- among others -- Eichmann and Mengele. Argentina was also the last country to cut off ties with the Axis countries and the last to declare war on Nazi Germany. Nowhere is the IMF and globalization less popular than Buenos Aires. Even lefty writer and activist Naomi Klein has expressed concern at the amount of anti-Semitic rhetoric among anti-globalization activists. It may just be a coincidence, but in 2002 Morales received a $50,000 peace prize from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.
Ultimately, the best proof that America is still influential, still very much the ideal, and that the U.S. and not Cuba won the cold war, are the thousands of Latin Americans who daily wade across the Rio Grande, or form tortilla flotillas in an effort to enter the United States illegally. The American Dream remains an embarrassment to anti-American and anti-Semitic populists like Chavez, Kirchner, and Morales (who says he wants to be "America's nightmare"). So they distract their disgruntled populations, not with bread and circuses, but with malicious demagoguery. No, Castro hasn't won the Cold War. He and his populist friends have only managed to stir up a few Indian peasants with class warfare lies, empty jingoism, and anti-American and anti-Semitic tripe. That's not a victory. That's a setback.