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The West must recognise Latin America's new leaders

By James Royston. Source: Diplo Magazine

The West must recognise the legitimacy of Latin America's new generation of democratically elected leaders, despite their divergent politics.

The new batch of left-wing governments in Latin America has led some to hail a new dawn for the region, and others to shudder, claiming an era of totalitarianism is upon us.

Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela have all elected leftist leaders over the past few years, and Peru will follow suit this month. In this context, it is clear that the neo-liberal policies espoused by the current US administration are losing credibility among Latin Americans.

But whatever one's view of leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez or Bolivia's Evo Morales, we should continue to engage with those heads of state who are legitimately elected. It is the West that stands to lose out if we cut them off from international exchanges.

As the BBC put it, 'there is a wave of profound anti-American feeling stretching from the Texas border to the Antarctic,' and it is clear that the neo-liberal remedies advocated by the current US administration are losing credibility among Latin Americans. If Western leaders fail to recognise the voice of a democratic Latin America, they cannot expect governments in other parts of the world to follow suit and abide by the democratic process.

With democracy identified as a key diplomatic objective in the Middle East, the West must demonstrate a wholehearted commitment to democratic values in Latin America. Democracy cannot be a principle that is revered only when it suits the West.

Brazilian President Lula's visit to London in March shows that Blair is keen to further Britain's role in Latin America, but only with leaders of his choosing. So it is essential to ensure that Britain does not reach the same tense stalemate as the US has found with the region's less moderate regimes.

Some British politicians have already pointed out that 'Latin America is the one continent that seems to have disappeared from our radar'. Latin America has become an anomaly in world politics, with only the United States and Spain really demonstrating an interest. Though our geographical distance, relatively small diaspora and lack of colonial history in the region are the immediate reasons for this, there is no obvious reason why there have to be so few relations between our respective regions. With an average GDP growth of 5.94% across the continent (3.57% and 17.85% in Bolivia and Venezuela respectively) last year, Britain and Europe cannot afford to ignore the region.

As Labour MP Colin Burgon put it, Britain needs to avoid 'subcontracting' its foreign policy to other countries, to what he labels 'right-wing elements in the US'. It is clear that it is not just left-leaning MPs who feel this way either – Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski pointed out during a debate on Venezuela that it is possible for allies of the USA to disagree with American foreign policy, and that they do not suffer as a result. 'We must pursue first and foremost our own interests, rather than just complying with what the Americans suggest to us… Venezuela is the third largest economy in Latin America, so it provides the United Kingdom with a tremendous opportunity for direct foreign investment. That might be more difficult if we are deliberately provocative and antagonistic to its leaders'.

With this month's Presidential election in Peru now between two left-leaning leaders, the influence of the left continues to grow in the region. Equally, ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), the recent agreement signed by Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Fidel Castro, seeks to establish a new power bloc in Latin America to stand up to the United States and its allies.

It would therefore be unwise to dismiss this as a passing phase. The Times' description of Chávez as a 'ranting, populist demagogue' does little more than play into Chávez's hands, and goes no way towards restoring relations.

Chávez has a mandate, yet his policies have been derided in the West, and he has been portrayed as an illegitimate leader. His rhetorical flourishes have not helped his chances of acceptance by the international community, but Blair must rise above this name-calling by engaging Chávez.

The President's visit to London last month was potentially a very significant step towards creating links between London (if not the UK as a whole) and Venezuela. Through the fog of controversy, Chávez made clear that he is willing to create ties between our two countries, and this should be encouraged. The Tories' boycott of Chávez's speech in Camden on Sunday helped nobody – isolating ourselves from Venezuela would certainly affect us for many years to come.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales last month surprised many by nationalising the natural gas industry – his first real demonstration of his leftist credentials since taking office at the beginning of this year. Though this was a blow for Western firms, they nevertheless still stand to gain from investment in the country: indeed, this has already been noted by BP and BG Group, the two largest British investors in Bolivia.

Both Morales and Chávez have indicated that they are keen to establish relations with Western nations other than the US, which has hitherto been the largest provider of aid to the region. Blair might do well to consider following the lead of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who appears to have seen the potential for future trade opportunities in Latin America. His assistance to Bolivia will doubtless give Spain the advantage in obtaining future contracts in the region.

It would seem that many commentators place Latin American leaders in one of two camps: those characterised at best as populists, at worst as extremists, such as Chávez; and the more Blairite, moderate leftists spearheaded by Bachelet and Lula.

Blair may agree with the Guardian's Simon Tisdall, in seeing Chávez and Morales as part of 'an anti-American, or at least an anti-Bush administration, radical front', along with Fidel Castro in Cuba, and now, potentially, Humala in Peru. But in siding wholly with the Bush administration, he risks isolating a number of economically significant powers, and may jeopardise Britain's chances of gaining an advantage in the region.

Those on the right in South America, such as Mario Vargas Llosa, argue that Morales' and Chávez's use of indigenous rhetoric are as racist as the language of Spanish colonialists before them. Western leaders should not be cowed into making the same accusations. To employ this argument is to ignore a genuine concern for the poor of Latin America (who often happen to be indigenous Americans, victims of colonialism), and to mislabel their plight as racist.

In this year of elections, a change is clearly occurring throughout South America, and may be spreading to Central America's key powers too: with left-leaning leaders already in power in Costa Rica and Panama; and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador likely to emerge victorious in July. This is a crucial turning point in Britain's relations with Latin America – now is a time when ties can be formed to new governments, favouring British interests in the region; or new enemies can be gained by shunning potential allies on the basis of a difference in opinion. At a time when democracy is lauded by our governments as a key objective throughout the world, its existence in Latin America should be celebrated, not ignored. Both Britain and Latin America stand to gain far more from interaction than from isolation.

James Royston is a Policy Analyst on the Foreign Policy Centre's Latin America Programme