Author: Dan Keeler
Dear Reader

In this month’s cover story we look at the seismic changes that have been taking place recently in the balance of power in Latin America. Ever since 2002’s election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil there has been a steady shift to the left among Latin America’s political leadership. Brazil has been joined by Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, whose leaders have formed into a loosely aligned leftist club that is causing a good degree of consternation in the corridors of power in some of the world’s larger developed nations.

While each of these countries’ leftist leaders has his own agenda, there is no doubt that Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez is making the biggest waves—on both sides of the political divide. With his open goading of US president George W. Bush and his willingness to spend Venezuela’s oil bounty on building his influence across the continent, Chávez has made himself an easy target.

For some the Venezuelan president is the figurehead of a new, self-confident Latin America, the standard-bearer for a region that is harnessing the power of the free market to improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged. For others he’s a tin-pot tyrant who’s frittering away his country’s oil wealth on a grandiose and egotistical campaign to gain influence over his less fortunate neighbors.

Mostly, the criticism of Chávez has been louder than the praise. He’s faced international condemnation for his determination to return much of the natural resources industry to state hands. The Venezuelan leader has also received a drubbing—quite justifiably—for his apparent attempt to silence dissent by shutting down the privately owned television broadcaster, RCTV, after alleging the network supported a 2002 coup attempt.

The international community is right to be concerned about these developments, and it is certainly no bad thing that Chávez’s every move comes under close scrutiny. But what he’s doing in Venezuela is not so different from current changes taking place in Russia, where the state is deploying a range of somewhat dubious strategies to take increasing control of the natural resources industry. Russia, too, has a long and ignoble history of muzzling free speech and gagging the media. Indeed, many reporters there who are known to be critical of the government still live in fear for their lives.

Sadly, restricting free speech and indulging in the occasional bout of megalomania seem inevitably to accompany the rise of any country with a strong, determined leader and large amounts of cash on hand. That is regrettable, but if Chávez is successful in his attempt to corral the disparate nations of Latin America into a strong, genuinely united economic bloc where the poor really do get a better deal, then his efforts won’t be in vain.

Until next month,

Dan Keeler