December 20, 2005

In heat and dust, Latin America democracy buoyant

By Alistair Bell

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A left-wing Cold Warrior, an
anti-rebel hard-liner, a Nobel Peace laureate and dozens of
others are running for president next year in Latin America
where democracy is thriving despite economic weakness and
political volatility.

Voters will choose leaders in nine countries, from the
jungles of Nicaragua to the Chilean Andes, in a show of
political diversity unthinkable in the 1980s, when military
dictatorships and civil wars blighted the region.

Democracy has held firm in Bolivia, South America's poorest
country, after two presidents were toppled in three years in
street protests by Indian and union groups.

Leftist Evo Morales won Bolivia's peaceful presidential
election on Sunday when his opponent admitted defeat, although
he now faces serious challenges over Indian rights, demands for
regional autonomy and how to exploit huge natural gas fields.

Latin Americans are unhappy with corrupt and inefficient
governments and many, like the Bolivians, mistrust U.S.-backed
free market policies. But most want to resolve conflicts at the
ballot box, not in the barracks or streets.

"Even in countries that have thrown out presidents, almost
every one of them has gone back to elections as the only way to
choose new leadership. There's just no other way to do that
now. That makes Latin America different," said Peter Hakim, of
the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

Elections might change the political landscape in regional
giants Mexico and Brazil in 2006. Chile and Peru could pick
their first woman presidents, Michelle Bachelet and Lourdes
Flores, respectively. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez will remain a
thorn in Washington's side for six more years if he wins polls
next December as expected.


In spite of a drift to the left in the region in recent
years, conservatives head opinion polls in Peru, with Flores,
and Colombia, where President Alvaro Uribe is expected to win a
second term in May on promises to smash leftist guerrillas .

Two ex-presidents from the Cold War battleground of Central
America in the 1980s are hoping for comebacks next year - the
anti-U.S Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Costa
Rica's Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias.

Latin America's left is eyeing potentially its biggest
prize in Mexico, a close trade partner of Washington which is
under growing focus in the U.S. debates on immigration and

Conservative Vicente Fox ended 71 years of one-party rule
in 2000, and now a left-wing former mayor Andres Manuel Lopez
Obrador heads opinion polls for July 2 elections to replace
him. Voters are disenchanted with a tepid economy under Fox.

But the leftist says he lacks cash for a high-profile media
campaign and may lose ground to the once dominant Institutional
Revolutionary Party and Felipe Calderon, from Fox's PAN party.

"All three have a chance of winning," said Luis Fernando
Asiain of the Consulta Mitofsky polling firm. "The campaigns
haven't really started yet and they will change the current
trends," he said.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, elected as Brazil's first
leftist president in 2002 may lose the vote next year after a
corruption scandal hit his government, opinion polls show.

Lula pleasantly surprised Wall Street by maintaining fiscal
discipline. Brazilian voters are now too sophisticated to be
taken in by populist promises, said Christopher Garman of
Eurasia Group risk consultants in Sao Paulo.

"If a politician says 'I am going to double the minimum
wage, increase investments, generate jobs, spend more, lower
the primary budget surplus and I am going to keep inflation
low, people are just not going to believe that as they may have
done in the past," Garman said.

Still, economic growth in Latin America is slow and crime,
corruption and weak institutions are major problems.
Competition from Asia is eating away at Mexican and Central
American exports to the United States.

"Latin America has changed but its performance is just not
very inspiring particularly compared to the Chinese, the
Indians and the eastern European countries. Latin America looks
like a laggard," said Inter-American Dialogue's Hakim.

Ecuador is scheduled to choose a president in October.

Apart from Latin American countries, the Western
Hemisphere's poorest nation Haiti holds elections in January.

Haiti, regarded by many Latin Americans as not part of
their region, holds elections in January. It is the Western
Hemisphere's poorest country.