He may not speak the seductive language of 21st century socialism, but Mexico's newly elected president Enrique Peña Nieto is well poised to fill the void of regional leadership arising from the impending departure of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
During his fourteen years in power, Chávez cultivated an unrivaled sphere of power and influence in Latin America. He bolstered his authority with populist rhetoric and funds from Venezuela's extensive petroleum reserves. By spearheading organizations like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the petroleum alliance PetroCaribe, Chávez positioned himself as the most prominent -- and to many, notorious -- of Latin America's leaders. However, it has become increasingly clear that Chávez's time is limited to months, if not weeks, resulting in the imminent loss of the region's strongest leader.
Chávez is in Cuba, receiving medical treatment for cancer. Should he survive and return to Venezuela, he will be physically weakened, which is no small obstacle for a man known for his dynamism. He will have to focus his energy on assuring the Venezuelan people that he is fit to govern. In the more likely scenario that he dies before completing his term in office, Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution mandates that the National Assembly call an emergency election within 30 days. Such an election is bound to cause domestic chaos, exacerbated by the time required for any new president to establish his footing. Whether or not Chávez returns from Cuba, there will be a void of regional leadership.
The stage is set for Peña Nieto to fill that void. Mexico has been quietly building its leadership credentials over the past several years. Often drowned out by a controversial security strategy, Mexico's foreign policy under former president Felipe Calderón opened the country to more regional cooperation. Calderón's administration proposed the founding of the Pacific Alliance, a new trade bloc allying Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Colombia. It hosted the conferences that created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Mesoamerica Integration and Development Project, both aimed at better integrating the region. Encouraging economic cooperation and development, Mexico finalized a unified free trade agreement with Central American nations and founded the Mexican Agency for International Cooperation for Development.
Mexico may have begun to lay the institutional foundation for regional leadership, but it is clear that Peña Nieto lacks two qualities which allowed Chávez to rise to prominence: ideology and an open wallet. Peña Nieto is a pragmatist, not a visionary. Mexico's democracy would not allow any president to dedicate considerable financial resources to the development of neighboring states in exchange for political support -- nor would Peña Nieto do so. However, despite the lack of charisma and cash, it is still possible for Peña Nieto to assume a primary leadership role in the region.
Peña Nieto is facing a Latin America that has changed markedly over the past decade. Since the early 2000s, Latin America has become less ideological. Talk of a "pink tide" has faded as the region has proved itself to be pragmatic and mature. Most of Latin America is seeing unprecedented economic growth, with GDP rates rising impressively and consistently in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Panama. Peña Nieto will not have to rely on finding a scapegoat ("yankee imperialists") to garner support. Chávez's most ardent supporters, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba, will never fall fully in line behind Peña Nieto because he cannot offer the same economic support. However, Peña Nieto can usher in a new era of organized and practical leadership aimed at bolstering the region through economic cooperation and development.
It is also important to consider why Peña Nieto is better poised to assume the primary regional leadership role than Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. Certainly Rousseff, as well as President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, has lead on a number of regional issues. While Santos has challenged the Americas to rethink its anti-drug policy and collaborated with Andean leaders to promote regional security, Rousseff heads the largest economy in Latin America and the only BRIC country in the western hemisphere. However, Brazil's priority does not appear to be Latin America. It is duly focused on frying bigger fish, like negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, and focusing on its own internal problems, such as managing inflation and boosting growth. Mexico has quickly become the darling of international media outlets, many of whom are anxious to backtrack on their overhyping of Brazil. With Mexico's stable economic and domestic political situation, the country is ready to lead abroad.
As Venezuela's outsized footprint fades away, the path clears for Mexico to resume a primary regional leadership position, which it has not held for decades. While Mexico lacks the cash and Peña Nieto the charisma, a less ideological Latin America is ready for more pragmatic leadership. Peña Nieto fits the bill.