Thursday, September 25, 2008

Left-wing Governments Cut U.S. Influence

Post Cold War United States doesn't care about region, political analyst says
Frank Jack Daniel

CARACAS -- Russian bombers swoop over the Caribbean, Bolivia and Venezuela expel American ambassadors and once-trusty Washington ally Honduras aligns with Cuba as Latin America's hard-left dents U.S. influence in its backyard.

Left-leaning governments, some openly antagonistic to the United States, now stretch from Patagonia to Central America with the only break in the Andes for Colombia and Peru.

Even moderate leftist governments in Brazil and Chile that value U.S. partnership have diversified commercial ties away from the superpower and increasingly embrace Europe and Asia.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who plans to hold joint military exercises soon with Russia, leads the most anti-U.S. government in the region and record oil revenues have augmented his clout. He is closely supported by Ecuador and Bolivia.

But while most other countries would not go so far, an overall trend toward Latin American independence from the United States has emerged in the last few years. The area displays new levels of self confidence, launching diplomatic, financial and defence organizations that exclude its northern neighbour, as nations enjoy greater economic freedom on the back of a commodities export boom.

"Latin America has changed," Chavez said at a South American summit Monday that eased tensions in a political crisis in Bolivia. "We are writing a new page in history."

The region seems largely united, relatively prosperous -- and happy to distance itself from a superpower that in the Cold War sometimes backed bloody military rulers but now sees few vital interests in South America.

"One of the reasons the United States has lost a great deal of influence in Latin America is that the United States doesn't care," said George Friedman of political risk group Stratfor.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, several of the civil wars and insurgencies that had torn apart countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru died out. Military dictatorships in countries like Chile and Argentina gave way to democracies and Washington ceased to see Latin American leftists as a threat.

That disinterest is a factor in the rise of leftist governments, which after harsh economic times in the 1990s have won popularity by spending the profits of a boom in oil, farm produce and minerals on social services.

But U.S. interest may be reviving. Bolivia's President Evo Morales accused the U.S. ambassador of aiding protests and expelled him earlier this month, prompting Chavez to do the same.

Chavez's plan to welcome Russian planes and warships to Venezuela also makes him a bigger threat in the eyes of U.S. hardliners, who are pushing for tough action against him.

Honduras was a staunch U.S. ally in the Cold War and still hosts an American base. But the Central American nation joined an economic alliance with Venezuela and Cuba in August.

Monday, nine presidents met to back Bolivia, where Morales is struggling with violent opposition protests. It was the second such meeting this year -- and a snub to U.S.-based Organization of American States.

"Latin Americans are stepping in and managing their own crises, some of which the United States played a role in generating -- but not so much resolving," said Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Russia's decision to send two long-range bombers to Venezuela, and its plan to hold navy exercises in the Caribbean in November may finally reawaken Washington's interest.

"If you want to see the United States' influence in Latin America increase, let the Americans start imagining a Russian threat in Latin America again," Friedman said.

Source: WN.ComCanada.Com

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