News Analysis

In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson, expressing his customary arrogance toward the peoples of Latin America, promised to “teach South American republics to elect good men.” The Bush administration’s attitude toward the newly elected left-leaning governments in South America, toward Haiti’s ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and toward socialist Cuba continues this chauvinistic tradition.

Uruguay’s recent election of Tabare Vazquez, the leader of a left-center coalition that includes Socialists, Communists, Social-Democrats and former Marxist Tupamaro guerrillas, to the presidency was remarkable in at least two respects. First, it broke a 170-year-long, right-wing grip on the country’s government. Second, it was but the latest in a string of such successes throughout the region.

Vazquez’s election shows that the people of Latin America don’t need great power lessons on how to elect “good” leaders when given a fair chance.

Left or left-leaning leaders now govern more than three-quarters of Latin America’s 355 million people. In Uruguay, voters were rejecting privatization of their water system, among other things. A recent poll cited by The Economist indicated that 71 percent of Latin American respondents say their countries are “governed for the benefit of a few powerful interests” instead of “the good of everyone.” According to the Pan American Health Organization, there are currently more poor people (over 200 million) in the area today than the early 1980s.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has proposed building a working people’s “axis of good” to eliminate poverty across the region, involving Chile’s Ricardo Lagos, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and other emerging center-left leaders.

In Nicaragua, there is a possibility that the left-wing Sandinistas may regain power following their improved fortunes in recent municipal elections. The next few months could bring similar leftward shifts in Mexico, Peru and Bolivia.

These developments represent a break from the pro-Washington, neoliberal “free trade” policies that have been pursued by numerous Latin American governments. Voters have concluded that such a policy orientation leads to corruption and the enrichment of a small number of people at the expense of the overwhelming majority.

Hillbourne Watson, a professor of international relations at Bucknell University, told the World, “People have felt the impact of these [neoliberal] policies and the strategies in very profound ways — declining wages, decline of standards of living, erosion of health and the broad social context of people lives. They are searching for alternatives.”

A similar trend is evident in the English-speaking Caribbean. In some instances, former leaders of the revolutionary democratic movement of the 1970s and 1980s have merged into the fold of established parties — in some cases assuming leadership and winning national elections — as in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica and St. Lucia.

In Grenada last year, in an election marred by irregularities, the conservative ruling party managed to barely retain office against a revived center-left coalition by a mere six votes. In Guyana, a coalition led by the Marxist-oriented People’s Progressive Party has retained power in successive elections.

With respect to Cuba, Watson said, “for the Caribbean region, Cuba’s role extends beyond support for the national liberation movement in Africa [of the previous era] but [today] provides socio-economic and technical support and scholarships in a variety of disciplines.” The government of Dominica (English speaking), for example, reports that socialist Cuba has given the country more scholarships and other assistance since 1978 than Dominica received during the entire colonial period.

Watson says that although the imposition of the U.S. embargo on Cuba is part of a strategy of “death by strangulation” for that island nation, the broader U.S. strategy is to dictate trade and economic policy to the region, using Cuba as a pretext.

At the same time, Watson said, countries recognize that “they can’t allow Washington to let them choose between Washington and Cuba, especially at a time when Washington is contributing very little in terms of aid” to the region. Cuba has been accepted as a member of the Association of Caribbean States, the largest regional bloc, despite U.S. opposition.

The recent victories in Latin America and the Caribbean represent a simultaneous defeat of U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba and a vote against neoliberalism. The vote tallies also indicate a desire for better living conditions and for greater regional economic integration, which can only be good for the working people Latin America and the Caribbean.

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