Monday, April 20, 2009

Axes of paranoia?

Argentine President Cristina Fernández of Argentina: axis-less?

Moisés Naím has an interesting take on Latin American international politics in The 'Axis of Lula' vs. the 'Axis of Hugo' Foreign Policy Online. A Spanish version of the article appeared in El País 29.03.2009, El 'Eje de Lula' y el 'Eje de Hugo'.

Naím describes his "axis of Hugo" this way:

Does this mean that El Salvador is the newest member of the "Axis of Hugo"? In addition to Venezuela and Cuba, the core of that axis is formed by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Honduras and Paraguay are also part of this alliance, though their governments have an internal opposition that prevents their leaders from becoming full-fledged members.
This definition of an "Axis of Hugo", apart from being a dumb label, also has the dubious distinction of defining it as though such a thing meant the absence of "an internal opposition". Of the countries he lists there, only Cuba could be said to lack any free opposition. There is an argument to be made that Hugo Chávez style of rule presents dangers to democracy. But the fact that his opposition has proven to be singularly feckless, and in the 2002 coup attempt in part treasonous, doesn't mean it's not there.

If there is a common thread among those countries compared to other Latin American nations right now, it would be in a more pronounced economic nationalism. In the case of both Venezuela and Bolivia, they share a history of foreign exploitation of their natural resources (oil in Venezuela, natural gas in Bolivia), a level of exploitation which they voters regard, not without reason, as having been excessive.

In terms of geopolitical issues, it's worth noting that on several touchy issues in recent years: Colombia's brief military incursion into Ecuador, the violent rightwing separatist movement in Bolivia and the normalization of relations with Cuba, Latin American nations have shown a striking level of solidarity.

Naím's main point is actually calling attention to the increasing clout of Brazil. And he has a valid point with this:

Hopefully, Obama's overture to Brazil signals a change in the long-held propensity of the United States to spend all of its time on Latin America's smallest countries and issues while neglecting the continent-size country in the middle. If the Obama administration were to give Brazil the time and political capital usually spent by the U.S. government on Cuba, it would find much higher rates of return.
In a more recent article in El País 19.04.2009 La cumbre del calipso, Naím's expands on his effort to designate good and bad camps, or at least good and less-good camps. Here he lists on the good side, "Brasil, México, Colombia, Chile, Perú y Costa Rica". On the not-so-good side, "Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay y Honduras."

His argument isn't terribly convincing to me. Some omissions are especially notable, including Cuba, Argentina and Uruguay. He does point out that Venezuela has organized an Alternativa Bolivariana de las Américas (ALBA) that includes "Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica" and Ecuador. This isn't a military alliance, though it does establish a closer political relation among those countries. Somehow, I find it difficult to be alarmed at the fact that ALBA is expanding to include San Vicente y las Granadinas. (Quick: where is that on the map?)

There are real differences in policy and interests between the United States and Venezuela. But to regard Venezuela as a hostile power at this point would be foolish. The United States has an incredible opportunity at the moment to dramatically improve relations with Latin America. I hope that neither the Obama administration nor the Congress blow it. Right now, the administration is on a very positive track in bettering relations.

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