Trouble in Peru and Venezuela

By Sanders, Sol W. | The World and I, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Trouble in Peru and Venezuela


Sanders, Sol W., The World and I


In mid-March, President George W. Bush temporarily brushed aside the urgent issue of the U.S. worldwide war against terrorism with a brief Latin American tour. Its purpose was to turn the spotlight on that region, providing the attention he had promised our near neighbors during his presidential campaign. More than that, the tour was meant to suggest ways to meet the generally deteriorating political environment in the area, America's proverbial back-door stoop, which has traditionally been neglected in times of a trans-Atlantic or trans- Pacific crisis.

Optimism had permeated the hemisphere in the early 1990s, when democratic governments were being installed throughout the continent, providing prospects for new market economics, trade liberalization, and long-term development. Nowadays, there is growing political volatility, economic malaise, and a crisis in morale from Argentina to Mexico.

PERUVIAN FOCUS

The focal point of the trip was Peru. Clearly, the president and his staff chose to put the Lima visit at the center of the tour because Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo is in trouble.

Swept into power with an overwhelming mandate less than a year ago, Toledo is the poster boy for the kind of changes in Latin America Bush called for at the stops along the trip. El Cholo (slang for mestizo) comes from an impoverished family, one of 16 children. With the help of American Peace Corps friends, he made it to college in the United States, won a doctorate in economics at Stanford, and even worked at the World Bank (called by some cynical Latinos la gran impressa--the big company). Toledo replaces the discredited administration of Alberto Fujimori, which, though corrupt, had virtually wiped out Latin America's most threatening terrorist movement in the 1980s and '90s.

Now, less than a year after the election, Toledo's popularity is already waning. The economy continues to deteriorate for the great mass of Peruvians, who live at abysmally low levels with little hope of improvement. On the eve of Bush's visit, a terrorist attack near the U.S. Embassy in downtown Lima cast the shadow of an old menace on the whole dismal scene.

Yet Toledo and Bush read from the same page of the prayer book. Toledo says he sees market economics as the solution for Peru's problems, that he wants trade and foreign investment rather than government-to- government handouts, and that he intends to maintain a free society even in what seemed to be an outbreak of terrorism on the eve of Bush's arrival.

Earlier at a UN conference on poverty held in Monterrey, Mexico, Bush had pledged to augment international aid, provide more money to fight illicit drug production, and extend the special trade concessions on Peru's exports to the United States.

SINISTER EVENTS IN VENEZUELA

While all this was going on in Lima, Bush had gone out of his way to avoid Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, another new face who had taken power only in January 2001. But Chavez is an anachronism of the 1960s. Like Toledo, elected with a strong popular mandate, he has been moving in exactly the other direction [see sidebar on Chavez's political problems].

Chavez, who had earlier tried to take power in a left-wing military coup, has questioned market economics as a solution to Latin America's problems, become a bosom buddy of Fidel Castro, and made state visits to Libya and Iraq. He has shown sympathy for Colombia's leftist guerrillas, who have used Venezuelan border areas as sanctuaries. Worst of all, he has installed incompetent and corrupt cronies in Venezuelan ministries--including the state-owned oil company that accounts for 80 percent of the country's export earnings.

Chavez could be short-lived. His vilification of the Catholic Church and feuds with the country's military almost guarantee that he will either go further down the road toward a Castroite dictatorship of repression or be overturned by the military. …

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