Politics & Policy

Another Win for Chavez

Ecuador follows el jefe.

The apparent victory of leftist Rafael Correa in Ecuador, coming on the heels of the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, adds to the critical mass and momentum of the pro-Chavez forces in the hemisphere — forces whose confidence was already increased by the poor showing of President Bush’s Republicans in the U.S. congressional elections.

Returns indicate that a clear majority of Ecuador’s voters have chosen Correa. In Nicaragua, a majority clearly voted against Daniel Ortega, but his plurality was still a win, and thus there are two more victories by friends of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Correa and Ortega are each scheduled to take office in January, just five days apart — most likely with Chavez as a guest of honor at their inaugurations, accompanied by a traveling fiesta of Latin leftists on a tour that stops in Nicaragua on January 10 and in Ecuador five days later.

For Chavez, bagging two consecutive proxy wins also increases his credibility as he forges strategic alliances with Iran and North Korea and their friends in Russia and China. (Chavez is scheduled to celebrate a third electoral victory — his own — on December 3, when Venezuelans head to the polls.)

THE CHAVEZ STRATEGY

In Latin America, the core of the Chavez strategy has been to help leftist candidates to win elections, write new constitutions, and then promote active international political cooperation among left-leaning governments. Oil — and the money that it brings — has been the key instrument used by Chavez to play politics in the hemisphere, and it also finances his large military build-up.

Now Ecuador, another petroleum exporter, seems set to enter the Chavez camp, amid declarations by Correa that his government will write a new constitution and establish a new, nationalist energy policy. Bolivia, under Evo Morales, has already nationalized its substantial natural gas and petroleum reserves, adding more fuel to the Chavez geo-political strategy based on control of energy resources. Chavez has also become an ally of Iran both in OPEC, where he promotes higher oil prices, and in the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, where he is an outspoken defender of Iran’s nuclear program.

Under the current Republican administration, Washington has bet heavily on its efforts to promote free trade agreements in the hemisphere. However, Correa has vowed to reject a free trade agreement with the United States. In the case of Peru, where voters in June soundly defeated the pro-Chavez candidate Ollanta Humala, the problem is a little different: The new Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress looks likely to reject the ratification of a U.S.-Peru free trade agreement that the newly-inaugurated Peruvian President Alan Garcia supports.

Despite the claims of a few pundits that the influence of Chavez is in decline, it is Washington’s policy in Latin America that is more obviously in trouble. Much has been made of the fact that Chavez was unsuccessful in his recent bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Yet Chavez has shown significant strength in this hemisphere, moving beyond his base of Cuba and Bolivia to win the support of MERCOSUR (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay) and the CARICOM (the Caribbean nations). An interesting indicator of the situation in Latin America is that the moderate leftist government in Chile, unwilling to oppose Chavez, rejected U.S. lobbying and abstained from the U.N. vote.

CENTRAL AMERICA

The most reliable U.S. allies remaining in Latin America are Colombia and Central American nations. As for the latter, Ortega’s win raises the possibility that Chavez will be able to open a branch office in the region. The victory by Correa, who was explicitly linked to Chavez during the campaign, may mean that the Central American countries will be less inclined to treat the Ortega win as an anomaly and more willing to think that Chavez has hit on a winning formula that could turn politics in their own countries upside down.

For practical and strategic reasons (including the $175 million from the Millennium Challenge Account), Nicaragua’s Sandinistas will seek normal relations with the United States, which may mean a moderate economic policy, but their commitment to doing international political work to help promote the Chavez project in Central America should remain firm.

President Mel Zelaya in Honduras yearns to join the leftist wave in Latin America. He seems eager to embrace Daniel Ortega, though a significant part of his political base would oppose the move, and Washington has already pressured the Zelaya government to keep its distance from Venezuela.

Nicaragua, with or without help from Honduras, can be expected to act as the regional agent of the “Chavez Left” in Central America. That means that leftist social and political forces in the region will be getting some help in mobilizing support for presidential candidate Alvaro Colom in Guatemala’s election in September 2007.

— Mark Klugmann is a political consultant and presidential adviser in Latin America. A former speechwriter to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, he also served as assistant director of the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America.

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