Will Latin America Turn Left?

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Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales receives a replica of South American independent fighter Simon Bolivar's sword from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

As several nations south of the border go to the polls in 2006, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez claims that Latin America is witnessing a major anti-U.S. leftward swing. Case in point: the victory in last month's Bolivian presidential race of Chavez ally Evo Morales. This week, the two men met briefly as Morales toured the region. Chavez declared: "The axis of evil—do you know who the axis of evil is? Washington—that's the axis of evil. And their allies in the world, who threaten, who invade, who kill, who assassinate." As for himself, Morales and kindred spirits, the Venezuelan leader said, "We are creating the axis of good, the new axis of the new century." Morales, for his part, added, "The movement is not only in Bolivia; Fidel [Castro] in Cuba and Hugo in Venezuela are logging triumphs in social movements and leftist policies."

Are Chavez and Morales leading a new swing to the left? TIME's reporters across the continent offer their assessments of the run-up and contenders in this year's elections:

Chile, January 15

A runoff presidential vote pits Socialist Michelle Bachelet Jeria against center-right senator Sebastin Piera Echeique. While Bachelet has been the favorite for months to succeed Socialist president Ricardo Lagos Escobar—taking nearly 46% of the first round vote versus the 25% garnered by second-place Piera—she has to avoid moving too far to the left in the remaining days of the campaign so as not to alienate the country's large bloc of centrist voters. Bachelet, a physician who would become Chile's first woman president, is unlikely to mess with Chile's good diplomatic and economic ties with the United States that have been maintained by her fellow Socialist Lagos. In the meantime, Chile, whether under a Bachelet or a Piera administration, is likely to want to improve often tense relations with Bolivia—and in the process perhaps exert a moderating influence on the Morales presidency.
By Cristbal Edwards/Santiago

Costa Rica, February 5

Voters have to choose from 14 presidential candidates, including former President Oscar Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace prize. Polls currently show Arias leading the field with 36% support, but he'd need at least 40% to avoid a runoff. (Three years ago, a constitutional amendment gave ex-presidents the right to run for office again.) While he was president, Arias was never an unconditional U.S. ally. He was a very loud critic of Ronald Reagan's financing of the Contra guerrillas in neighboring Nicaragua. He has also recently criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, Arias does support the Washington-inspired Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Arias's closest rival is Otton Solis, who openly opposes CAFTA. Solis trails substantially in the polls, with only 19% support, but hopes to make a match of it in a runoff.
By Mishelle Mitchell/San Jose

Peru, April 9

Peru provided the region's most stunning reaction to the Evo Morales victory in Bolivia: The candidate whose politics most resembles that of Morales (and Chavez) is Ollanta Humala, a retired lieutenant colonel and an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle. Before the Bolivian elections, Humala had been polling about 12%; immediately after, he was at 22%, a statistical tie with the candidate of the center-right ruling party, Lourdes Flores Nano. While denying ties to Chavez for most of the race, Humala did an about-face on Jan. 3, traveling to Caracas and taking a front-row seat in the first meeting between Chavez and Morales. The Peruvian press has started calling them the "Andean Troika." At the meeting, Chavez praised Humala and glowingly compared him to Peru's last nationalist military leader, Gen. Juan Velasco, who ruled between 1968 and 1975. The current government of Peru later recalled its ambassador from Caracas to protest what it described as the Venezuelan leader's interference in Peru's internal affairs.

Humala, however, still has a long road to the presidency. First he would have to win first or second place in the April 9 vote; and then win a runoff on May 7. In the meantime, his personal and family history may dog him. He led a mini-uprising against Peru's now exiled president Alberto Fujimori in 2000, just before his government collapsed. Humala's younger brother is now in prison awaiting trial for leading his own uprising a year ago in a tiny Andean backwater town. And Humala's eldest brother, Ulises, has officially filed to run for president, claiming to be the "real" nationalist" in the family.
By Lucien Chauvin/Lima

Colombia, May 28

Washington isn't expecting a problematic outcome in Colombia, where staunch U.S. ally Alvaro Uribe is likely to win resounding reelection after the Supreme Court last fall approved a Constitutional amendment allowing presidents to serve second terms. A poll in mid-December showed Uribe with 73% support; his closest competition comes in at 5%. Uribe did chastize the U.S. ambassador for warning that paramilitary leaders, usually allied with the government, could try to interfere with the elections. He called the diplomat's assessment "meddling" in Colombia's internal affairs. Uribe, nevertheless, has not complained about Plan Colombia, the $3 billion in military aid from Washington since 2000 to help fight the cocaine trade and leftist rebels. The President's office declared, "Plan Colombia cannot be used by the United States to put pressure on our country." Uribe's popularity may dip before the election, but he would have to lose about 20 points to face a runoff—and only then will one of his six or seven rivals have a fighting chance.
By Sibylla Brodzinsky/Bogota

Mexico, July 2 The race is extremely close, but all polls show the front-runner to be former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (who goes by the acronym AMLO). Still, some put his lead as low as 1% while others have it as high as 7%. His left-wing, anti-U.S. positions (which he describes nevertheless as "respectful") have given his candidacy momentum, especially in light of the unproductiveness of President Vicente Fox's "amigo" policies towards the big neighbor to the north. Fox's own party, the right-wing Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), repudiated the President's handpicked candidate, Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, for the nomination, choosing instead Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, a former head of PAN who is running second or third in most of the polls. Calderon alternates places in the polls with Roberto Madrazo Pintado, the candidate of the Partido Revolutionario Institucional (PRI), which held a monopoly on the presidency until Fox's election in 2000. There is a formal campaign "truce" among the candidates until January 19. At that time, however, an expensive, ad-filled election season is expected to inundate the country with $750 million in spending. AMLO's allies are already likening him to the successful and clearly left-wing candidates in other parts of Latin America, for example, saying he will emulate Chavez's skillful management of petroleum revenues to restart the economy; imitate Brazil's President Lula da Silva in achieving consensus with Mexico's labor unions; follow the lead of Bolivia's Morales in coming to terms with the country's Indian population; and from Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner, he will learn to confront the International Monetary Fund. For their part, his rivals and their friends—including the Catholic Church—are preparing to paint him as an extremist. Expect a raucous campaign.
By Dolly Mascarenas/Mexico City

Brazil, October, 2006

Since taking office in 2003, left-wing President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (simply "Lula" to everyone) has seen his once immense popularity evaporate. His party admitted violating campaign finance laws and the President, whose government has implemented few of the changes it promised, has looked fickle and feckless. Though he could still potentially lead his Worker's Party to victory in the polls, there is still some doubt as to whether he will run for a second four-year term. He might throw his weight behind his Minister for National Intergration, Ciro Gomes. Polls taken last month showed the Mayor of Sao Paulo, the centrist Jose Serra, beating Lula in a multi-candidate matchup. However, Serra is a notriously poor campaigner and he has been mayor for only a year. The governor of Sao Paulo state, Geraldo Alckmin, is another potential contender but he is not yet well known outside of his state. At this point, however, the Brazilian electorate appears to be sick of politicians and the race is a complete toss-up.
By Andrew Downie/Rio de Janeiro

Ecuador, October, 2006

The country has seen six presidents chased out of office since 1997, by popular revolt, constitutional chaos or scandal. No candidates have officially announced for this year's vote, but former Economic Minister Rafael Correa, a strong critic of the IMF, free trade and the United States, could be a contender. He may find himself up against another candidate inspired by the left-wing, nativist triumph of Evo Morales in Bolivia: Auki Tituana, the mayor of the Indian ecotourism enclave Cotacachi, not far from the capital of Quito. Leon Roldos, the brother of the late President Jaime Roldos, is also a possible candidate. Money still is a powerful weapon, however, and the banana plantation magnate Alvaro Noboa may make a third run for the presidency.
By Mercedes Alvaro/Quito

Venezuela, December, 2006

Hugo Chavez will himself face voters by the end of the year. The opposition likes to point out that some 40% of the electorate voted against him in a recall referendum in August 2004. But Chavez's critics have not been able to field any serious alternatives to the President, and have put themselves through humiliating exercises, including a bungled coup, a failed two-month oil strike and a series of local electoral defeats. Most recently, the opposition parties pulled out of the last legislative elections, claiming the vote would be manipulated, and allowed Chavez's allies to take control of all seats in the country's congress. Meanwhile, the President has shored up and increased his popularity by bankrolling massive social spending programs with the $83 billion in oil revenues. He has virtual control of all state institutions, from tiny municipal governments to the supreme court. Don't count on him losing the election.
By Brian Ellsworth/Caracas