The Bogotá-Brasilia Axis

The world press is largely focused on yesterday's Venezuelan referendum where Hugo Chávez won the right to indefinite re-election. While this is not insignificant for it marks another step in Venezuela's lurch into authoritarianism, the referendum was not the most significant event yesterday in Latin America. Chávez is a throwback to the tradition of the caudillo which apparently in Venezuela, South America's most backward republic until oil rescued the country in the 1930s, remains intact. It is not an accident that the most authoritarian regimes in South America are both members of OPEC. Oil may be a blessing but it also proven a curse for its wealth has been mismanaged by governing elites.

While there are many reasons why a Chávez arose in Venezuela, corruption and the inability of governing elites to tackle social inequality stand atop the list. Chávez prevailed yesterday in part to coercive electoral tactics but it is important to note that he has also delivered to the poor, cutting the poverty rate to 26% at the end of 2008 from 54% in 2003. Among the poor, and not just in Venezuela, Chávez remains quite the hero. For governing elites in Latin America, this lesson has not been lost.

Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua form the hard left in Latin America. Evo Morales in Bolivia doesn't really want to be a member of this club but it seems US policy in the region may yet push him in that direction. But the left in Latin America is a rather broad and dynamic enterprise. The fin de siècle may have been lost, but in this new century Latin America's rejection of neo-liberalism has unleashed a vitality in the region.

Take Brazil. Since 2005 more than 20 million people have entered the middle class, defined here as families with monthly income of around $635. The percentage of middle-class Brazilians has grown to 46% from 34%. Colombia, however, still finds its progress impeded by the cost of a war against the FARC and the drug trade. While Colombia's economy has grown solidly under Uribe's guidance and foreign investment has expanded, half of the country's 41 million people still live in poverty. But Uribe has cut unemployment bringing it down from 16% at the start of his first term to 12% by the start of his second term to just under 10% last year. Importantly for the poor, he has managed to grow the economy without setting off inflation.

As I alluded to earlier, there was a more significant event in Latin America than the referendum in Venezuela. Yesterday, Álvaro Uribe flew from Bogotá to Brasilia to meet Lula da Silva. It will be the fifth meeting of these two Presidents since last July. Uribe will be feted and awarded Brazil's highest honour, Cruz do Sul but more importantly they will set the course for the continent signing treaties and broad agreements on trade, scientific, energy, drug-trafficking and military cooperation. The geo-political reality in South America is that Brazil calls the shots and it is choosing to call the shots with Colombia as its main partner.

The truth is that the Bogotá-Brasilia Axis is really a Bogotá-Brasilia-Mexico City Axis. Colombia, Brazil and Mexico are the three largest countries in Latin America, together accounting for two-thirds of the population of Latin America. And the leaders of these countries know that unless they deliver for the poor and bridge the social inequality gap, there will be more Chávezes, Correas and Ortegas. Lula da Silva, a former trade unionist, has clearly delivered for Brazilians and thus enjoys an 80% approval rating. Colombians remained enthralled with Uribe who has enjoyed approval ratings of 92% though now he's down to 78%. Mexico's Felipe Calderon's approval rating has slipped to 58% as the drug war begins to consume the country.

While the emergence of this troika has largely gone unnoticed in a very distracted United States (has Obama even mentioned Latin America?), it hasn't gone unnoticed in Europe or Japan.

The emerging Uribe-Lula-Calderon troika has geostrategic influence because things have started to change in Cuba ever since Fidel Castro formally handed over the presidency to his brother, Raul. Latin America is obsessed with this transition, and Uribe, Calderon, and Lula have no intention of letting Chavez lead the way.

In January of 2008, Lula visited the island with a string of leading Brazilian businessmen and signed trade and investment deals worth $1 billion. Calderon, reversing his predecessor's policy of speaking out against the lack of human rights in Cuba, has restored Mexico's traditional close ties. Earlier this year, Mexico's foreign minister renegotiated $400 million of debt on which Cuba had defaulted. Cultural exchanges have increased, and Calderon is expected to visit Havana soon.

This closer embrace of Cuba mixes self-interest with calculation. Everywhere in Latin America, Cuba is a domestic political issue. Some commentators argue that in repairing relations, Uribe, Calderon and Lula hope to mollify their leftwing opponents. Moreover, for both Uribe and Calderon, instability in Cuba could pose a domestic security threat.

Both Brazil and Mexico see business opportunities on the island, especially since Raul Castro has already made Cuba more open to foreign investment. But perhaps the most important reason for improving relations with Cuba is one that none of the three leaders will say in public: They see closer ties as a way of balancing the influence of Chavez, who has replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba's main provider of aid.

Will Washington finally drop the pretense and treat the rest of the continent as partners? If Washington were to do so, then there might be fewer Chávezes for it to worry about.

Tags: Brazil, Colombia, Geo-Politics, Hugo Chávez, US-Latin American Relations (all tags)

Comments

23 Comments

Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

OT: Have you ever talked to the rich elites from the places you mention? I've met some here in NYC. It's a bizare conversation from my very American perspective. They honestly don't understand why they should have to help out anyone. My view about promoting a social stable society through creating a stable middle class in which everyone can rise into that class is so alien to me. It's like they believe nothing touches them.

by bruh3 2009-02-16 09:46PM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

Yes, my dissertation was on the role of elites in economic development but moreover I am a Colombian so I am fully aware of disconnected elites.

Ugly Betty is a Colombian soap opera that has now been exported the world over including a very popular US version now. Ugly Betty is about class. Betty in the Colombian version was a middle class Colombian whose father was an accountant at a large Colombian company. They own their home and drove a Renault 4. Betty went to Los Andes, Colombia's best university but upon graduating she couldn't get a job because she lacked "rozca" -connections. The whole premise of the soap opera proceeds from that problem. Betty despite having solid credentials is forced to take a job as a secretary. She is made ugly because of her class. That was her "crime". Sad that in the US version, class differences isn't part of the equation. The Colombian Ugly Betty was a very political show. It open mocks upper class sensibilities, los hijos de papi and mami.

The truth is Latin American is changing, in part thanks to Chavez. He has scared the hell of out elites elsewhere (esp. in Brazil) but also because neoliberalism was first imposed in the region back in 1970s, the region suffered its breakdown a decade ago. Even Uribe who is a centrist economically speaking has had to invest greater amounts in education and healthcare. Colombia goes to the polls in May 2010. Still too early to tell where it heads but the pragmatic left is well positioned for a run at a win.

But on personal note, I dated a Brazil, the son of a very wealthy Sao Paulo construction engineer and we went to Helsinki and Paris together. He dropped $10,000 at Prada without batting an eyelash. Felipe could walk past someone bleeding on the street and not notice it. Most of my family is very very liberal by Latin American standards.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-16 10:09PM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

There are examples out of Latin America that should clue people into what can happen when you have class struggles.

In the islands, Haiti is the way it is because for years people with money ignored the class struggle and it descended into chaos. Now, those same wealthy people who thought they were above it all are forced to go to the stores with guns. I exaggerated, but not by much.

The point is this stuff eventually touches everyone. So, your friend walking over that guy bleeding on the street can live inside those gated enclaves, but eventually someone will get in. That is the lesson of Haiti, and quite frankly of Cuba. If you ever get a chance, you should read about the history of Cuba.

The main reason that I am concerned with the growing class chasm here is that I can see what's happened eventually with these issues abroad. The corporations do not care because they are making short term profits. But, anyone interested in long term stability should be concerned over these sorts of risks.

I read somewhere it only takes 5 percent of a country population to destabilize a country. Or some such tipping point like that. This is the lesson we need to learn. It's interesting to see Latin America head in the direction is going. I just wish more Americans appreciated the history. I barely know it. And it scares me.

by bruh3 2009-02-16 10:55PM | 0 recs
Re: The Brazilianization of the U.S.

I'd say that the (upper) class attitude that you report came out of the closet in the US under Bush. Indeed, George Bush personified the attitude. He told a prof at Harvard B School that he believed that the poor were poor because they were lazy, and that Social Security was Socialism. His public policy, to exept the rich from estate taxes--indeed, from almost any taxes-- while letting the weight fall on people who work, was banana republic conservatism, think, pre-Castro Cuba's Batista regime.

But more than Bush, our national fad of gated communities and the glorification of wretched excess and the ostentatious display of (now we know it was fake) wealth on TV and in the slick paper magazines ...

Well, now we have a Depression and I certainly hope that we can hope to enjoy the falling of our mighty. Maybe even a Lula to help to level our class differences.

by Woody 2009-02-17 03:17PM | 0 recs
Re: The Brazilianization of the U.S.

This attitude existed before Bush. I used to know a lot of relatively wealthy,a nd in some case crazy wealthy people. I just had dinner to night with someone who is relatively well off. He's a black guy. His attitude on life is sometimes alien to me. When you know enough wealthy people you come to realize that these are not views that are based on any particular president. It's just there. For all the claims about there being a lack of class issues except for the Dems bringing it up. Class is very present.

by bruh3 2009-02-17 07:43PM | 0 recs
Surprised to learn that Colombia has more people

than Argentina.

Not really surprised, but I do find it a bit remarkable that union-man Lula is linking arms with Uribe, who was last seen on progressive blogs in the context of the Colombia Free Trade Act, in which context he was held to personify the systematic murder of union organizers.  Interesting.

Calderon's last appearance in the progosphere was around the time that he stole an election from AMLO, with the help of Carville and Begala IIRC.

Anyway, it's an interesting axis.  As you can see I'm not much accustomed to cheering for either Uribe or Calderon.

I do want to like Lula and Morales.

I would generally class Uribe and Chavez as equally repellent to me, though they achieve that equality of outcome through very different means.  And I freely admit I don't know much of anything either.

Whatever happened with Michelle Bachelet anyway?  And whatshername Kirchener?  I'd be a lot more ideologically comfortable cheering for them.  ;-)

by texas dem 2009-02-16 10:09PM | 0 recs
Bachelet

Bachelet is finishing up her Presidency which ends in 2010. She isn't very popular about 45% to 50% right now and that's an improvement. She mismanaged the Santiago Transportation system overhaul and left 60% of the city without mass transit. That episode led to riots and was basically a nightmare. On the economy, she has managed okay but the right is approaching the election with one candidate and the left is very splintered.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is the least popular President in Latin America and she has only been in power a little of year. Tried to raise export tariffs on soybeans and some other agriculture products and that led to an open revolt that shut down the country for weeks. In the end, she was forced to put the tariff bill to a vote in the Congress and her Vice President cast the deciding vote. He voted NO and they haven't spoken since. That was in May. Argentina remains a comedy of errors.

Uruguay goes to the polls this year. They will be replacing Tabare Vasquez, a doctor and a Socialist.

Uribe is a fine man in my view. I voted for him twice though I probably won't a third time. You need to understand what it has been like to live in Colombia. The kidnappings, the murders, the inability to leave your house. Uribe was hired to do one thing. Defeat the FARC. He is doing that. But you should know that Colombia ranks very highly now on most social standards. Bogota is one of the world's greenest cities. Medellin is considered an urban model on how to curtail violence. The country still has a long way to go. But most of the mayors and many of the governors are progressives or leftists.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-16 10:27PM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

both morales and chavez are repellent demagogues using anti-semitism to distract from their own failures.  latin american is a mess politically.  always has been and seems like it always will be.

by not a fan 2009-02-17 02:16AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

If you were a poor person in those countries you would have a different point of view. As long as we let the Neocon Capitalists frame the issues, Latin America will, as you say "latin american is a mess politically.  always has been and seems like it always will be." But don't blame it on Chavez and Morales who are actually doing somthing to cure the grinding poverty Capitalism created and plagued that part of the world since the Spanish Conquered it.

by eddieb 2009-02-17 05:34AM | 0 recs
Re: Blame the Spanish and capitalism?

My readings of the pre-Columbian empires suggests life there was "poor, nasty, brutish and short" for almost all their subjects long before the Europeans set their superstructure of rule atop the existing social pyramid. In fact I'd argue that the traditional Aztec/Inca political model has helped hold back the development of Mexico and Peru in particular. Of course, the Spanish Empire and the Roman Catholic hierarchy did next to nothing to teach democracy, entrepreneurship, respect for individual rights ...

by Woody 2009-02-17 03:32PM | 0 recs
``coercive electoral tactics''

I am not sure where you got that information. On another note, how do you think that the term-limits lifting manouevre different from what Bloomber pulled off in NYC. At least Venezuel did it by a referendum.

Not to say that I support Chavez in his lurch to authoritarianism, but his actions have to be put in context.

by ann0nymous 2009-02-17 02:20AM | 0 recs
Re: ``coercive electoral tactics''

I  monitor elections. I have weird hobbies. Not that I monitored these but I did monitor the ones held in December 2007. And I had friends who did go down this time around. First of all, Chavez controls the CNE, the Venezuelan electoral board. The state sector employees are effectively coerced. Vote for Chavez or lose your job.

Venezuela votes by paper ballots. You have to ask for a ballot outside the polling place. They watch. We know they watch. This is not to say that Chavez would not have won cleanly. Likely he would have. He won by a 9.3% margin, technically just shy of a landslide. But does Chavez play games? Yes he does. Then again, most political parties also try to game the system. That's electoral politics.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-17 09:44AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

On the topic of what Obama has said about Latin America, I would look here.

by Steve M 2009-02-17 03:24AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

Pres Hugo Chavez has: cut the poverty rate in half; provided nearly universal health care to the rural poor; and this week WON another election.  So, complaints about him from North Americans reveal MORE about the 'yankee' than about Chavez, I would offer.  

On the other hand, the U.S. has followed the transnational path (aka 'free market conservatism') and we have: two wars, with no end in sight; rising unemployment; a destroyed industrial and manufacturing base; grand thievery from our ruling financial elites along with unabashed corruption from our corporate marauders.  Besides, I offer that this recent Venezuela election was more fair than the 2000 U.S. Pres. grand theft, where the Supreme Court handed the presidency to the second place finisher.  And North Americans are wondering why the world will NOT follow our state-corporate-was dominated society?   BTW, there is a term for state-corporate-war governance -- do you know what that term is?  (Hint - it is used to describe Spain, Italy and Germany in the 1930s).  Have a nice day!

by dogenman 2009-02-17 04:30AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

Ye, who complains about ELECTIONS in Latin America, which aspect of state-corporate-war society do you like MOST:

ENRON Democracy - in the 1990s, their shut down of AZ power plants crippled Calif's economy with rolling brownouts, while Conservative Rep Darryl Issa personally funded much of the recall of Gov. Gray Davis.  State-corporate-war plans were thwarted when Republican Issa was blindsided by the Arnold Schwartz.

ENRON then bankrolled Pres. Bush's inaguration bash.

ENRON then bought the U.S. energy policy, pushed thru with no public oversight by V.P. Cheney (who of course, came right out of the Haliburton board room).  Ohhh........

Haliburton then has a MAJOR role in the Iraq War-for-oil.  Hundred of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians later, here we are.  AND ye complain about Latin American democracy?

Why, Venezuela has their own oil!  And ye 'yankees' wonder why Latin America will VOTE for a populist Democratic Socialist, rather than the state-corporate-war model, western democracies 2000s answer to the 1930s European state-corporate-war model.  Hmmm.  Have a nice day!

by dogenman 2009-02-17 04:53AM | 0 recs
The Chavez inspired Bogot-Brasilia Axis

One of the myths Conservatives have established is that we MUST fear Chavez. Chavez has more to fear from the U.S. than America has to fear from him. The Peaceful Social revolution started by Chavez deserves credit and our support. Instead of the Corrupt Capitalist model supported By Bushites and arch Conservatives. Chavez's courageous repudiation of them has set the stage to create a just and balanced economy needed for long term stability in the region. As long as the Capitalists ruled South America it was doomed to endless suffering and Political violence.

by eddieb 2009-02-17 05:02AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

Mexico is going to have to undergo a big shift, with the growing power of the drug cartel. What a mess.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-02-17 05:21AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

I don't know much about current Latin American politics, so this was an interesting read.

Thanks.

by Dreorg 2009-02-17 06:17AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

Clearly the people of Venezuela believe that home-brew authoritarianism is better than rape-and-stab American imperialism.

And they are probably right.

by baghdadjoe 2009-02-17 06:57AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

What's truly interesting is that while Chavez gets to keep in office up top, the grassroots institutions being developed are the epitome of participatory democracy - from the worker-owned sectors of industry, to the community councils.

So in some respects, when it comes to actual, living democracy, Venezuela is light-years ahead of us.

by Liberaltarian 2009-02-17 07:08AM | 0 recs
Thanks. You bring an interesting perspective

on that America.

by Jeff Wegerson 2009-02-17 08:07AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

Charles, you say: "Venezuela, South America's most backward republic until oil rescued the country in the 1930s..."

Are you saying that Venezuela was worse, politically, economically or otherwise, than Paraguay or Bolivia at that time?

In addition, oil had become the mainstay of Venezuelan economy by the 1920s (before that, it was a large coffee exporter), so I think you overstate the country's backwardness prior to oil being drilled there in the late 1910s.

by eg1968 2009-02-17 11:50AM | 0 recs
Re: The Bogot-Brasilia Axis

Venezuela has the basket case until the advent of oil which was late 20s early 30s though you are right oil was discovered in 1914 in Zulia. But serious development didn't start until the late 1930s. The first hydrocarbon law was in 1943.

Bolivia had a vibrant tin industry  and a nitrates boom. Paraguay was actually the wealthiest country in the region prior to the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870). Venezuela had a plantation economy in the colonial period primarily producing sugar cane and cacao. It did as you note have a small coffee boom in the 1860s and 1870s. But if you look at metrics such as universities, in Venezuela as of 1920 had three universities compared to over twenty in Colombia. Even tiny Ecuador had seven universities in 1920.

The adage about Greater Colombia is that Ecuador is a monastery, Colombia a university and Venezuela a barrack is true. Venezuela went from one caudillo to another. Even Bolivia managed to hold elections in the 19th century. In 1948, there was a brief democratic interlude. That was the country's first elected government. A modern polity came in the period after 1958.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-17 12:16PM | 0 recs

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