The sad death of the Latin American left

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio da Silva dreamed of a new world order. Their successors watched it fall to pieces.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

In Latin America, economic crisis, corruption, and, now, political upheaval, have brought an end to the foreign policy adventurism of two nations that once seemed poised to lead a new era: Brazil and Venezuela. Both of their economies are in a tailspin. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff faces impeachment proceedings over her alleged lack of oversight of the budget process. And with the resounding defeat of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s governing party in the Dec. 6 legislative elections, these countries’ once-proud ambitions of only a decade ago now seem delusional.

In the early years of the 21st century, Venezuela and Brazil sought to shake off centuries of U.S. dominance. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva stood at the vanguard of a younger generation of South American heads of state. To the considerable anxiety of officials in Washington, they seemed to herald a new, turbulent phase for the region’s relations with the United States.

Chávez and his self-proclaimed Bolivarian Revolution — named for his hero Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s independence leader — bought allies through oil giveaways and wooed rogue regimes such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Brazil’s pragmatic foreign policy, by contrast, centered on reforming the existing world order; it also sought to check U.S. power across the hemisphere and, more broadly, democratize multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with Brazil as the lead beneficiary.

These outsized dreams were fueled by the outsized personalities of Lula and Chávez. But they were also enabled by an economic boom that couldn’t last — and, indeed, hasn’t. Their hand-picked, charisma-challenged successors have been forced to trim their ambitions amid a collapse in the price of global commodities. Rousseff — the dry, technocratic former chairman of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras and former guerrilla leader — has struggled to recover from China’s reduced hunger for Brazilian iron ore and agricultural products, just as Nicolás Maduro has had no answer for the steep drop in the price of oil.

In the end, despite their divergent strategies, both Venezuela and Brazil have wound up in the same humbled place, their earlier international dreams in tatters.

From the outset, Chávez attempted to reignite Bolívar’s vision of a grand alliance of Andean countries, dubbed “Gran Colombia,” that would comprise Venezuela, Colombia, and several other nations. Never one for subtlety, he christened his creation the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), and pledged that it would establish a common currency, coordinate military policy, and establish a new regional bank called Banco del Sur to help fund development without the conditions typically imposed by the IMF and World Bank.

At the same time, with oil prices surging to $100 a barrel, Chávez became both the champion of the extreme anti-globalization left and the bête noir of the U.S. right. Seemingly respectable economists like Mark Weisbrot and members of the Hollywood glitterati, like Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, and Sean Penn, embraced his populist petro-patronage, under which the government established subsidized food banks and pumped up state employment as a viable economic and political alternative to the United States and the economic orthodoxy of Washington Consensus reforms of the 1990s.

The left’s embrace of Chávez was, in part, a reflection of its mutual disregard for the George W. Bush administration and, in part, a genuine-but-misguided belief that Chávez’s self-proclaimed Bolivarian revolution was sustainable. This pro-Chavista solidarity required that one ignore his silence on progressive issues like the environment and LGBT rights, and the very real economic and institutional damage he was doing to his country by making it even more dependent on oil exports, inflating its currency, politicizing the military, and packing the judicial system with partisan allies.

Meanwhile, Chávez’s Bolivarian ambitions infuriated American conservatives. He leveraged his prestige and the commodity windfall to become the clown-prince of the global summit circuit, railing against free trade and anointing then-President George W. Bush the devil. Bush officials, in turn, attempted to thwart the hemispheric anti-American bully (as well as Cuba, Caracas’ staunch ally), and openly fretted over the grand ideological and militaristic designs of ALBA, whose enthusiastic ranks included a new crop of fringe leftist leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba, and, for a time, El Salvador and Honduras.

Economically speaking, this was no all-star lineup. In 2011, its combined GDP equaled 14 percent of Latin America and the Caribbean’s And Chávez’s economic vision did little to improve their lot. Caribbean countries and El Salvador and Nicaragua grew to depend on the Venezuelan oil given to them at low interest loans, and made little effort to cultivate more stable sources of oil or income. In Venezuela, the country’s deepening reliance on oil retarded other sectors of the economy to the point that today, oil accounts for 95 percent of its export earnings. At the same time, as it raided the state oil company’s coffers, it neglected to invest in new technology and exploration, shrinking production from 3 million barrels per day in 1998 to around an estimated 2.22.5 million today.

To be sure, Chavismo’s damage is real, and deeply felt. But the government of Chávez and Maduro and the Bolivarian project have been marked more by incompetence, corruption, and criminality, than by ideological coherence. Today, the Venezuelan economy is the worst-performing in the world, with a GDP expected to contract by around 10 percent. Its people suffer from massive shortages of basic goods like corn meal and toilet paper, inflation rates that are expected to reach 200 percent this year, and the second-highest murder rate in the world.

Venezuela’s regional friends, who once relied heavily on its vast petroleum reserves, are changing course. Bolivian President Evo Morales, once one of Chávez’s best friends, turned down Venezuela’s petroleum largesse in 2014. The 17 members of Petro-Caribe, the bloc of nations that receive subsidized oil from Venezuela, have begun searching for alternatives, such as renewable sources of energy and international investment to develop natural gas. Even Cuba, which receives some 100,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, is looking for new petro-partners. Since the start of the Venezuelan lifeline to the decrepit Castro regime, Cuba has resold half of its take on international markets. But with oil now at $40 a barrel, Havana has found that being a Venezuelan client state is not worth as much as it once was — a recognition that contributed in part to the regime’s rapprochement with its age-old nemesis, the United States.

Brazil’s past decade-plus of foreign policy activism, in contrast, was more pragmatic, centrist, and reflected the country’s longstanding desire to win respect and a seat at the table of world powers.

To continue reading, please visit Foreign Policy.

More Commentary

Scroll to Top