It is a rare presidential election that isn’t billed as the most important in memory, but 2008 has a real claim to the title. The new president will face two ongoing wars, a flagging economy, huge federal deficits, high oil prices, and all the issues surrounding global warming. Meanwhile, four big challenges on the minds of our neighbors to the south barely make the list: Cuba, immigration, trade, and a handful of “swashbuckling” nations with hard-left presidents and easy access to Venezuelan oil money.
Jorge G. Castañeda, the former Mexican foreign minister who now teaches at New York University, says that whoever succeeds the deeply unpopular George W. Bush will enjoy a honeymoon that he can use to ease strained hemispheric affairs. Cuban relations will move toward normalization if America seizes the initiative by lifting its embargo and dropping restrictions on travel and remittances. Better Cuban deportment can come later—if Cuba really wants to be part of the international community, it will need to deal with the confiscated property claims of Miami émigrés and such. Immigration reform can be enacted along the lines of the measures recently defeated in Congress if a new, more popular president with a genuine mandate makes it an early priority. Trade pacts can be extended and improved with the addition of labor and environmental protections.
Perhaps most touchy will be dealing with Latin America’s “two Lefts.” There is a “modern, democratic, globalized, and market-friendly Left, found in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, parts of Central America, and up to a point, Peru,” Castañeda says. Then there is a hard Left—a “retrograde, populist, authoritarian, statist, and anti-American Left thriving in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and, to a lesser extent, in Argentina, Colombia, and Paraguay.”
The soft-Left countries, Castañeda writes, are reluctant to stand up to the hard liners and don’t try to export their models of democracy. But the hard-liners do—and it is entirely possible they can realize a version of Che Guevara’s old dream of entangling America in not two or three but many Vietnams by creating not two or three but “many Venezuelas.” The strategy is to win power by the ballot, conserve and concentrate it through constitutional changes, then create armed militias and monolithic parties. All of it can be financed by the Venezuelan national oil company, and it can be accompanied by social policies carried out by Cuban doctors, teachers, and instructors, and backed by Russian arms.
One of the reasons the soft-Left countries don’t go toe to toe with allies of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is that they “all are terrified of being left hanging by Washington,” Castañeda says. America has let down its friends by reducing promised drug-fighting aid to Mexico, maintaining high tariffs against Brazilian ethanol, and (so far) failing to pass a trade agreement with Colombia, its “best friend in the hemisphere.”
If the new American president seizes the initiative, Castañeda believes, he has a unique chance to leave “a greater mark on the hemispheric relationship than any group of leaders in generations.”
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THE SOURCE: “Morning in Latin America: The Chance for a New Beginning” by Jorge G. Castañeda, in Foreign Affairs, Sept.–Oct. 2008.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Matthew Straubmuller