Conservatives make gains in Latin America

Suddenly, little seems to be going right for Hugo Chavez and those he supports.

Published October 19, 2006

MIAMI - After several years of political gains across Latin America, the left-wing cause has suffered a series of electoral setbacks.

"The pendulum may have begun to swing back," said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.

In a major defeat for Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chavez, the United Nations remained deadlocked for the third day Wednesday on who would fill the remaining temporary seat on the Security Council.

The voting pitted oil-rich Venezuela against a U.S.-backed candidate, Guatemala. Venezuela had boasted of a sure victory, but in 22 rounds of balloting it never received more votes than Guatemala. Guatemala, however, couldn't muster the two-thirds necessary to win outright.

Meanwhile, partial election results in Ecuador also showed another left-wing candidate and Chavez ally, Rafael Correa, suffering a surprise defeat to billionaire banana king and conservative Alvaro Noboa.

This followed an embarrassing loss last week in gubernatorial elections in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco by the left wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Tabasco is the home state of Mexico's charismatic PRD leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost to a conservative candidate in July's controversial presidential elections.

Gamarra and others attribute Venezuela's defeat at the U.N. to an overly aggressive campaign by Chavez, who turned the vote over the two-year seat on the 15-member Security Council, normally a dull affair, into a global battle against U.S. imperialism.

Chavez may have gone too far in a speech last month at the U.N. in which he called President Bush "the devil."

"Venezuela miscalculated," said Gamarra. "It thought it would win votes by insulting the U.S. I think it's backfired."

Others say the name-calling solved nothing. "That's like shooting fish in a barrel," said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Latin America expert at the University of Nebraska. "You don't get points for that."

Venezuela's U.N. ambassador, Francisco Arias Cardenas, blamed his country's failure on "extreme" U.S. pressure. "We are fighting against the first power of the world, the owners of the universe."

The voting in Ecuador hasn't gone Chavez's way either. Correa, a bright U.S.-educated economist, had led in the polls. Instead, he won less than 23 percent of the vote just behind Noboa with 26 percent. Heading into a second round Noboa appears to have the edge as he will likely pick up votes from the losing candidates.

Correa was seen by many - perhaps unfairly - as a Chavez clone and willing dupe of Venezuela's ambitions to export its socialist revolution throughout Latin America.

His fate fits a recent pattern.

Until recently, Latin American presidential candidates embraced by Chavez were faring well. In January a Chavez ally, indigenous leader Evo Morales was elected president in Bolivia.

But the victory in Bolivia appeared to go to Chavez's head, as he made speech after speech railing against the United States. When Chavez began sending aid and advisers to Bolivia, some began to question the hypocrisy of his attacks on U.S. interference in the region.

The backlash began in Peru in June when left-wing nationalist Ollanta Humala was defeated by moderate Alan Garcia. Humala had led opinion polls until late in the race and was strongly supported by Chavez.

The next test will come in Nicaragua in November. Leftist perennial Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista Front guerrilla leader who was president from 1979-90, is seeking an improbable return to power. He, too, leads in the polls. But his close relationship with Chavez, as well as Cuban leader Fidel Castro, could prove his undoing.

Analysts were quick to point out that the voting at the U.N. and in Ecuador should not be seen as an endorsement of U.S. foreign policy.

"A leftist candidate has never done as well as Correa in Ecuador," said Harry Vanden, at the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida. "The left is far from defeated and is continuing to make gains."

In his words

Excerpts from Chavez's speech

On Sept. 20, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressed the United Nations. President Bush had spoken to the U.N.'s General Assembly the day before. Chavez lambasted Bush and he made a direct appeal for a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which Bush opposes.

"Yesterday the devil came right here. Right here. (He crosses himself.) And it smells of sulfur still today.

"Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. ...

"I think we could call a psychiatrist to analyze yesterday's statement made by the president of the United States. As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums, to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. ...

"They say they want to impose a democratic model. But that's their democratic model. It's the false democracy of elites, and, I would say, a very original democracy that's imposed by weapons and bombs.

"What a strange democracy. Aristotle might not recognize it. ...

"Let's see. Well there has been an open attack by the U.S. government, an immoral attack to try and prevent Venezuela from being freely elected to a post in the Security Council.

"The imperium is afraid of the truth, is afraid of independent voices. It calls us extremists, but they are the extremists. ...

"But since the imperium has attacked, openly, they strengthened the convictions of many countries and their support strengthens us. ...

"I thank you all warmly on behalf of Venezuela ... on behalf of the truth, because Venezuela, with a seat on the Security Council, will be expressing not only Venezuela's thoughts, but it will also be all the voice of all the peoples of the world, and we will defend dignity and truth."