A Decade of Hugo Chavez and the "Bolivarian Revolution"

Of all the developments in Latin America over the past decade the consolidation of power in Venezuela by Hugo Chavez who was first elected in 1998 and the advancement of the "Bolivarian Revolution" is clearly among the most significant. A hemisphere that could rally around a common agenda at regional Summits in Miami, Santiago, and Quebec City from 1994-2001 proved itself to be hopelessly and bitterly divided by the time of the Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005. At the most recent summit, in Trinidad and Tobago in early 2009, leaders agreed to an agenda which was worthy but unambitious, and previous divisions reasserted themselves shortly thereafter on Cuba at the OAS, the coup in Honduras, and manufactured outrage over US access to bases for counter-narcotics purposes in Colombia.

The Bolivarian vision has directly contributed to this state of hemispheric affairs. By promoting a populist vision that aggressively rejects ties with the United States and targets regional US allies, Chavez's Bolivarian project has put former allies at odds with each other. It has reduced counter-narcotics cooperation and decreased mutual confidence in the Andes while increasing saber-rattling, particularly at the Venezuelan border with Colombia. It has diluted the hemispheric commitment to democracy, and, by hog-tying the OAS, is has reduced the ability of the hemisphere to deal with threats to democracy.

It has provided a justification for attempts to undermine other democratically-elected leaders friendly to the United States using a range of methods: by offering political and financial support to opposition leaders who espouse the Bolivarian vision; by working to create mass movements and potential instability by radicalizing indigenous populations; and even by providing safe haven and financial, political, and military support for cross-border guerrillas such as the FARC.

It has shattered a formerly robust economy--Venezuela's--as investors take a pass on new investments or even flee despite high energy prices. It has reduced still further the ability of already impoverished nations, such as Bolivia, to compete in the global economy.

It has introduced unhelpful influences such as Iran into a peaceful region, giving credibility and succor to the Ahmadinejad regime even as much of the rest of the world is attempting to get Iran to abandon efforts to build a nuclear weapon.

None of these statements could be made a decade ago.

At the same time, the radicalism of the Bolivarian project has demanded a response from Brazil, the other South American nation aspiring to regional leadership, while, ironically, providing the political space for Brazil to act internationally in ways that otherwise might be seen as too bold. Brazil is in an interesting place. Given its rising economic power and global profile, Brazil cannot cede regional political leadership to Venezuela, yet neither is it interested in confronting Venezuela directly. As a result, issues like US "bases" in Colombia become a cause celebre for Brazil, not because it is threatened by them, but rather as a means to capture the issue in the context of the fight for South American leadership. The recent visit of the Iranian leader to Brazil and the possibility of a return visit to Tehran by President Lula would likely not have occurred if Venezuela had not already gone to great lengths to build a relationship with Iran. Chavez's outbursts against capitalism and the Western world in Copenhagen in December provided political space for maneuvering on the issues of global climate change. Lula‚s comments about "blue-eyed bankers" in the wake of the global financial crisis were not so outrageous in the context of other comments by Chavez in New York at the United Nations. And so on.

An American president once won an election by asking, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" As end of the decade retrospectives are written, you have to ask, is the state of hemispheric affairs better now than it would have been had Hugo Chavez not come to power? Only the ideologically blinded would say yes.