Five Weeks, Three Ballots, and Destiny

Those seeking to divine the future of hemispheric relations should keep three upcoming dates firmly in mind: September 26, October 3, and November 2. Over a five week span, voters in Venezuela, Brazil, and the United States, respectively, will make choices that will reconfirm or redirect the Bolivarian revolution, support or soften the international course that President Lula has set, and continue or overturn the ongoing pause in the U.S. trade agenda within the hemisphere.

The choices that the voters will make in each of these three nations, all for their own domestic and parochial purposes, will have important implications in shaping hemispheric relations for some time to come. This really could be one month that shapes history.

The sequence will kick off with parliamentary elections for Venezuela's 165 members of the National Assembly. Originally scheduled for December, the elections were moved up, in part, according to media reports, to hinder the opposition's ability to organize. The last legislative elections, in December 2005, were swept by supporters of President Chavez after the opposition withdrew, claiming they were hindered in competing freely and fairly. This time, the opposition is more organized and the Venezuelan people, other than Chavez's most strident supporters, appear to be wearying of the increasing shortages in food, electricity, and basic consumer products. Also, recent revelations by Colombian officials of Venezuela's harboring FARC guerrillas seems to have caught the regime by surprise.

Will the Venezuelan people decide they've had enough of economic mismanagement and political theatrics, or will they hand Chavez yet another mandate? Their decision will resonate across the hemisphere. A strong rebuke to the government's current direction could well slow the march toward Bolivarian utopia, while a renewed mandate would encourage the government to continue, and in fact speed, its efforts to remake Venezuela, with all the hemispheric friction that implies.

Further to the south, Brazil's first round of presidential elections on October 3 will pit Lula's chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, against former health minister Jose Serra; a run-off, should it be required, will be held October 31.

For the most part, Brazilian voters are satisfied with the job Lula has done -- and they should be. He has grown the economy, building on the important work of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and positioned Brazil as one of the brightest emerging markets globally. Brazilian voters, like voters everywhere, will vote based on their own well being and circumstances. No matter who is elected president, Brazil's general direction will not likely change.

Nonetheless, particularly in foreign policy, Brazil has taken a number of positions during Lula's second term seemingly at odds with its traditional quiet pragmatism, particularly its high profile efforts to defy the international consensus on Iran and also to make democracy in Honduras a cause célèbre without a corresponding emphasis, for example, on Cuba. These issues will not be the main preoccupation of voters. Still, the next occupant of the Planalto Palace will have to decide whether to continue these efforts or to return to a more pragmatic approach to Brazilian foreign policy, including efforts to cooperate with the U.S.

Finally, U.S. mid-term elections will be held November 2. At this point, it's likely that Republicans will gain a significant number of seats, although it remains unclear whether the party will recapture the House of Representatives. The Democratic majority in the Senate will also narrow. The question is what this will mean for the U.S. trade agenda in the hemisphere. It is an oversimplification at best to suggest, as many do, that Republicans are pro-trade and Democrats are not. At the same time, it will be increasingly difficult for the White House to continue to delay moving forward with pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama -- as it has promised to do -- when the votes to pass both are clearly there. Moving the agreements forward would put the U.S. back in the game. Otherwise, we will continue to sit on the sidelines, as others including China, Europe, and Canada move smartly ahead.

Elections offer no guarantees. Campaigning offers freedoms that governing does not. Circumstances change and leaders are forced to respond. Still, the outcomes of the upcoming election cycle will offer clues as to the direction that the hemisphere will be headed for some time to come. Hemisphere watchers, take note.