In Brazil, Lula is seeking another term. Although he has been critically weakened by a series of corruption scandals in his Workers’ Party (PT), the latest opinion polls show him in the lead. This year, the PT’s main contender is the more conservative Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB), which governed from 1994 to 2002.
Although Lula has not been personally implicated in the scandals, many feel he should have done more to fight corruption. There is also considerable disappointment that he has not gone further to follow the example of his neighbor in Argentina to challenge the IMF. Nevertheless, the former union leader’s victory in 2002 is still widely viewed as a decisive step in the direction of stronger democratic rule in Brazil.
“Whether or not Lula wins again is not what’s important,” says Atila Roque, a Brazilian citizen and executive director of ActionAid USA, an international development agency based in Washington D.C. “The point is that people are deciding now who best represents their interests, so if the left doesn’t perform they’ll be removed too. That’s incredible democratic progress.”
Latin America’s rejection of Washington’s favored model of economic management has caused strained relations with the White House. Public opinion polls in the region consistently show people’s preference for a break with Washington. Many Latin Americans think that the United States is largely to blame for their countries’ increasing poverty and inequality.
Anti-American sentiment has also risen since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the scandals of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Public sentiment holds that the United States is not following international norms and is not playing by the rules, as other countries are expected to. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a series of world-wide public opinion surveys, “rising anti-Americanism is not confined to Western Europe and predominantly Muslim countries.” A recent Pew survey shows that while 52 percent of Brazilians expressed a favorable opinion of the United States in 2002, by 2003 that number had dropped to 34 percent. In the minds of many, the Iraq war has only confirmed the worst stereotypes about U.S. militarism, unilateralism and imperialism. A sense of mistrust toward American corporations doing business in Latin America is also prevalent.
“The U.S. government’s decision to attack Iraq has been a critical factor in the growing disdain for the U.S. in Latin America,” says Fabian Pacheco, an advisor to Abel Pacheco, the outgoing president of Costa Rica. “We’re seeing increasing popular pressure on the few governments who still support this war to distance themselves from the U.S.”
The Bush administration should be paying close attention to what is happening in Latin America, without repeating the mistakes of the past. It should define a clear policy for the region that is based on supporting democratic processes and institutions, and should seek to ensure that democratic governments like that of Evo Morales in Bolivia succeed. The United States should be more tolerant of those leaders who do not necessarily toe Washington’s line, and show that it is committed to democracy, regardless of what candidate the people choose. After all, economically successful neighbors make reliable trading partners, and politically stable governments make good global allies.
Still, it remains to be seen if the New Left in Latin American will be able to overcome the endemic problem of poverty by fashioning bold solutions in Bolivia and beyond.
Efforts such as Argentina’s attempts to work more closely with Brazil, Venezuela and others are hopeful signs. Last year, Kirchner paid off the last of its debt to the IMF, with the help of Venezuela. Other countries, such as Ecuador and Bolivia are also trying to break free from the shackles of the IMF, with help from their neighbors. It’s just a start, but this may give governments a little breathing room to deal with urgent issues of poverty and misery in their countries.
Roque of ActionAid explains that if the United States doesn’t allow the space for governments to experiment with alternatives, such as increasing social protections or promoting national industry, it will be preparing the ground for all kinds of dangerous repercussions. Any attempt by Washington to tie the hands of these new leaders when they make economic decisions they believe are in the best interests of their people will only increase public frustration, and that can lead to extreme populism, from the right or the left. Although not a bad thing per se, populism can be used to promote radical ideologies that claim to represent the majority of the population.
To Roque, expanding and consolidating a strong democracy is more critical than whoever resides in Latin America’s presidential palaces. “Democracy must go beyond elections of the president and the parliament,” he says. “Democracy is the freedom to make innovative economic decisions that will improve people’s lives.”
05 April 2006
Nadia Martinez was born and raised in Panama. She is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
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