July 7, 2006

Latin America’s Drift to Left Halts at US Door

By Alistair Scrutton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The advance of Latin America's left abruptly stopped at the door of the United States with the election of a conservative president in Mexico, but Washington could still have trouble reestablishing its influence in the continent.

Harvard-educated Felipe Calderon's election win in Mexico this week bucked a trend in the region, where populist and leftist leaders in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina are challenging U.S. interests on trade, energy and foreign investment.

"Latin America appears to have settled down. There won't be much more of the kind of in-your-face leftists in Latin America that worried Washington," said Riordan Roett, professor at John Hopkins University in Washington.

Calderon beat leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who campaigned to renegotiate parts of the NAFTA free trade treaty, by a razor-thin margin in last Sunday's vote.

The leftist said he would challenge the result in Mexico's electoral tribunal and called for a rally of his supporters in Mexico City on Saturday.

Calderon's win followed the re-election in Venezuela of U.S. ally Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and in Peru of Alan Garcia, a center-left leader opposed to U.S. foe President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Those victories were seen as a blow for Chavez and his efforts to form an alliance in Latin America, with the help of cheap oil deals and aid efforts, to challenge U.S. interests.

"Lopez Obrador showed no signs of wanting to be a Chavez ally against Washington," said Roett. "But unlike Obrador, a Calderon victory will reinforce the feeling in Latin America that centrist or social democracy is on the ascendancy."


Indeed, many so-called leftists in the region, like Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, have acted like European social democrats by promoting fiscal austerity, encouraging foreign investment and pragmatic foreign policies.

The Calderon win signaled to Latin America, where millions of people feel that decades of free market reforms have done little to end unemployment and poverty, that conservatives can still garner votes.

"We will reoccupy the center stage of the debate over globalization ... how to make sure globalization leaves no one behind." said Arturo Sarukhan, chief foreign policy advisor to Calderon.

Centrist and conservative leaders have been helped this year by relatively strong economic growth in Latin America compared to the rollercoaster crises in the 1980s and 1990s.

"Latin America is in good economic times thanks to high international commodity prices ... whether soy in Brazil or copper in Peru. Only a few years ago the continent seemed beset by crises,' Chilean political analyst Ricardo Israel said.

"The free market has not won over hearts and minds of Latin Americans but there is a growing awareness that people's jobs depend on the international economy and this has not benefited the left," Israel added.

But the Bush administration should not expect Calderon to be an immediate boost for Washington's waning influence in Latin America. Washington is unpopular after the Sept 11. attacks refocused Bush's attention elsewhere and led to the region feeling diplomatically neglected.

The Iraq war is immensely unpopular in the region.

Long-time U.S. foe Daniel Ortega could win Nicaragua's presidential election in November which would cause headaches for Washington. Major powers like Brazil are battling U.S. interests in world trade talks.

Calderon's senior aides say he will run Mexico's relations with the rest of Latin America independently of the United States.

Mexico has some $6 billion investments in oil-wealthy Venezuela and Calderon has said he will try to repair relations with Venezuela, which soured last year.