A United Front

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July 3, 2009
Frank Jack Daniel
The Vancouver Sun

CARACAS – When troops seized leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya at dawn last Sunday and flew him into exile, it conjured up a dark era of military coups in Latin America and posed a test for regional crisis management.

But the response was quick. The Organization of American States sharply condemned the coup and a dozen presidents, including Mexico’s conservative President Felipe Calderon as well as Zelaya’s leftist allies, met in Nicaragua the next day.

They thrashed out a statement insisting Zelaya be reinstated and several nations pulled their ambassadors from Honduras. It was the latest sign of Latin America’s growing ability to contain crises that threaten democratic rule.

The presidents of Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia don’t agree on much, but when serious trouble flares up they have become more inclined to look for fixes with or without the help of Washington, which largely neglected the region during the presidency of George W. Bush.

“Zelaya’s ouster has created an inter-American consensus in favor of democracy that shows just how far the region has come since the end of the Cold War,” said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

In the last year governments from Argentina to Mexico have called emergency meetings of previously toothless diplomatic bodies to calm riots in Bolivia and allay fears of war between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela without help from the region’s traditional referee the United States.

The emerging importance of a leftist bloc headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the desire of more moderate partners not to let him turn crises to his advantage may help explain the newfound diplomatic unity.

In the first hours after the coup, Chavez put his troops on alert and spoke in terms that raised fears he might order military action — fears that diplomacy has helped abate.

The reaction might have been more divisive if it were a rightist president seized and bundled out of the country.

Latin America’s assertiveness is partly explained by the crop of leftist presidents, from Chavez to Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who were voted in on waves of popular discontent at U.S.-backed economic and trade policies in the 1990s and who are devoted to regional integration.

Mexico’s Calderon has also contributed with a foreign policy aimed at reestablishing Mexico’s traditional diplomatic weight in Latin America that was lessened by his predecessor Vicente Fox, a close Bush ally.

“Over the last seven years there have been dramatic changes in U.S.-Latin American relations, with the vast majority of the region becoming more accustomed to taking a commonly agreed-upon position independently of the United States,” said Mark Weisbrot of the Washington-based think tank CEPR.

Still, ties to the United States remain important. U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil fund Chavez and U.S. condemnation of the coup in Honduras is key to regional hopes Zelaya will be reinstated.

The crisis is far from resolved — OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza traveled to Honduras on Friday — but Latin America’s unequivocal stance gave U.S. President Barack Obama a chance to show he has turned the page on the Bush era when Washington welcomed a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez.

Obama condemned the coup and vowed to work with the OAS to put Zelaya back in office, even though he is hardly an ideal ally for the United States given his shift into the Chavez camp and tendentious move to extend presidential term limits.

“This provides Washington with a perfect opportunity to make a high silhouette return to an active Latin America policy, this time on the side of the hemisphere rather than as its adversary,” said Larry Birns, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an independent policy research centre.

Presidents such as Chavez and Lula differ on economic management and their relationship with Washington, but they have revived decades-old aspirations to strengthen Latin America by trading more within the region and building new institutions such as regional lending banks.

The Chavez-led ALBA coalition of nine countries is the most left-wing bloc in the region and in the five years since its conception has moved from insignificance to playing a role in the region’s foreign policy moves.

Pressure by the ALBA was widely seen as key to removing a ban on Cuba participating in the Organization of American States. The same group, which Honduras recently joined, was the first and most vocal to condemn Zelaya’s ouster.

Critics of Chavez and his allies argue the hemisphere should be equally clear in its response to the Venezuelan leader, who has harassed elected opponents this year and is threatening to close an opposition television station.

“The quality of democracy in Latin America remains a highly contentious issue, with authoritarian tendencies apparent in several of the region’s elected governments,” Erikson said.
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