Are the Stakes High? Is the Region Divided?

David Smilde

One paragraph of Jackson Diehl’s recent op ed on Venezuela stuck with me. Discussing the shroud of secrecy around Hugo Chávez’s health and the irregular situation that it has produced within Venezuela, Diehl said:

All this would be more amusing if the stakes were not so high. The demise of Chavez – if that is what is to happen – could open the way to epochal change in a region that for a decade has been divided, and sometimes polarized, between rapidly growing and modernizing democracies such as Mexico, Chile and Brazil and a bloc of authoritarian-minded, anti-American, populist throwbacks led by Venezuela. To be sure, the modernizers won the ideological battle long ago – Chavez’s popularity ratings among Latin Americans are lower than any leader in the hemisphere other than Fidel Castro.

What is the substance of the claim that the region has been divided, even polarized in the terms that Diehl suggests?

If you look at the actual statistics, in the past five years “modernizers” like Chile and Brazil have been in the World Bank’s “high growth” countries, as have “throw backs” like Argentina and Bolivia. Venezuela has indeed been in the “low growth” category, given its poor performance due to the drop in oil prices in 2009. But so has “modernizing” Mexico, due its reliance on the US economy which led the global meltdown in 2008. Indeed the real story has been the surprising dynamism and resilience of the region overall, surpassing the performance of the high income countries of North America and Europe, and only being surpassed by Asia.

And politically the region is actually much more unified than it has been in a long time, with the creation of new multilateral bodies like Unasur and CELAC and the rapprochement between Venezuela and Colombia, with Cuba playing a key role in facilitating peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. Indeed, Venezuela has good relations not only with the “throwbacks” but with “modernizers,” recently being accepted as a member of Mercosur. 

Ideological divisions definitely exist. But Latin America’s new found unity is based on economic and political pragmatism, and a long-term desire for greater independence from the US. Indeed these two phenomena are not unrelated. Greater distance from Washington has allowed Latin American leaders to be guided by their national interests rather than lingering cold war rhetoric.

If the divisions that Jackson Diehl points to are exaggerated what about his claim that “the demise of Chavez … could open the way to epochal change” in the region? I would argue that internationally the stakes are actually not all that high. While Chávez was one important factor in the region’s emerging unity and autonomy, he was only one. Presidents Lula and Roussef of Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina and Santos in Colombia have also strongly pushed the creation of new multi-national bodies; and high commodity prices and expanded commerce with China have reduced dependency on the US. Even if the opposition were to come to power in Venezuela, it would not change these underlying regional dynamics.