Curtain Raiser

It’s a Change of Guard in Latin America, Colltalers

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lies in a bed, too sick to attend his own Thursday inauguration. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva faces the embarrassing prospect of being linked to a vote-buying scandal that rocked his administration.
Through these two leaders and their tenures, is possible to have a very detailed picture of the Latin America in the past two decades. Political stability, economic growth, some dabbling into world geopolitics by Brazil, some slippery incursions into controversy by Venezuela.
Of the two, Lula had so far gotten the best mileage of power and prestige, as his country experienced an unprecedented period of prosperity, and his legacy as its most important leader seemed to have been all but certified. Except that it wasn’t, and now, it’s possible it never will.
Chavez has been judged way more harshly by both the Venezuelan elites that staged a coup to oust him in 2002, and even early supporters of his populist style. At this point, his dreams of becoming a historical figure of the stature of Simon Bolivar are all but dashed, and mainly out of his own doing.
Lula not just upstaged Chavez, with his new-found pragmatism and overture toward foreign investors, but most of his term avoided to appear too lined up with the always embattled Venezuelan. He didn’t really need it, as unlike his two failed attempts at the presidency, he’d finally found the right groove to lead Brazil.
Regardless of what happens, he’d still win any popularity contest both domestically and globally, a feat that’s been denied to Chavez throughout his presidency. Neither anyone will be able to take away from him the merit of having helped Dilma Rousseff to become the first female leader of Brazil.
But as many close allies and cabinet members have been found guilty of corruption, even though no one believes that they will spend any time in jail, Lula’s once solid position as a statesman, and the moral compass of his Workers’ Party, is no longer assured. It might not take much more than that for his credit, as the architect of Brazil’s rise, to start to unravel.
For Chavez, who at times behaved as the dictator his enemies accused him of being, even though he got democratically elected a record four times, his possible fading out of public life will come in a rather silent note.
Long gone is the thunder of his interminable speeches, his attempts to divert the profit of state-run Pedevesa oil company, to his favorite social programs, and his anti-U.S. rhetoric. It may be the sad but prosaic way of disease what might finally knock him out, not the arguably weakness of his political ideas, or lack of imagination as a leader of an impoverished nation.
Despite a long period of high oil prices, Venezuela’s almost sole commodity failed to leverage the country’s ingrained social woes and income gap, at least the way that Chavez had envisioned. None of his programs achieved the permanence and the effectiveness of Lula’s Bolsa Familia, for instance, which is still going strong and provides food to millions of Brazilian poor.
Despite coming from the same populist and electoral-driven place, what Chavez’s always lacked, and Lula had, was a core of capable allies who could turn into valid policies some of the most mediocre ideas both leaders would come up with.
To be sure, both remain immensely popular, but the elites and the military that may shelter suspicious about them both, have several degrees of separation. In Brazil, Lula does have the support of important, and wealthy, segments: corporate leaders, high-ranked military, and members of the upper classes.
Chavez never had the shrewdness to work the kinks of such a powerful demographics. Even though his policies were far from being socialist, his swagger was typically an irritant to those who fell slighted by his rise to power. While he spent hours weekly on TV, threatening to take away land from the rich, which he never actually did, Lula got himself a VP who was a millionaire and a loyal supporter.
Now, as these two oversized political figures fade away, there’s no one in Latin America even close to step into their shoes. Rousseff may have a hard time getting reelected. Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner’s about to end her last term. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the only truly indigenous leader of the continent, is also completely averted to the spotlight.
And the same goes to the remarkable Jose Mujica who, as President of Uruguay, has already made headlines for his own, for his poverty-vows, and for inspiring laws that will legalize same-sex marriage and the consumption and sale of marijuana.
Which may be just as well. Even though the rise of both Lula and Chavez made the world pay closer attention to the emerging democracies of Latin America, and themselves have contributed to a more relevant conversation about progress and the future, perhaps the time for flashy leaders is finally up.
For all their charisma and flamboyance, what most nations south of the equator now may need is a kind of leader who’s more adept at managing the immense human and natural resources of the region, and set a more progressive example on their use.
It’d also help if they not become entangle in fruitless ideological arguments, or corruption in power.
There may be a new dawn coming for South America and, albeit it may lack the glare and the combativeness that marked the past two decades, it may also bring the hope that progress and prosperity can be better distributed among all its citizens, in ways that at times seem no longer possible in the north hemisphere. Be good and have a great week. WC

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