In light of the Salvadoran right’s fear-mongering campaign in advance of the Central American nation’s Sunday presidential election, which has sought to portray leftist candidate Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) as a kind of dangerous foreign agent of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, perhaps it’s instructive to consider the political history of the past four years.
Bolivia, Presidential Election of 2005: Chávez and “Terrorists”
During the country’s presidential election, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism or MAS campaigned on a progressive platform stressing resource nationalism. His opponent, conservative Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga of the PODEMOS or We Can party (no relationship to Barack Obama) claimed that Morales had ties to drug smugglers, terrorism, Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Quiroga, who pledged to pursue free trade policies, went down to ignominious defeat and got trounced by Morales, 54 per cent to 28 per cent.
Peru and Presidential Election of June, 2006: “Flagrant and Persistent” Meddling
After meeting with Chávez and Morales, the leftist Ollanta Humala, a former officer in the Peruvian army, declared himself part of “a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted.” Adopting a nationalist platform, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru’s hydrocarbons industry and said he strongly opposed the free trade agreement that his country had signed with Washington.
When Chávez injected himself into the presidential contest by saying that Humala was the voice of the downtrodden and conservative Lourdes Flores was “the candidate of Peru’s oligarchy,” the Peruvian government briefly withdrew its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. During a runoff vote Flores was eliminated, thus leaving Humala and Peru’s former President Alan García of the APRA Party or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance to face off against one another.
García finished second in that vote trailing Humala. During his first presidency García had espoused some progressive positions but now he referred to Chávez and Morales as spoiled children and “historical losers” when they criticized Peru’s free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency was marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a “thief” and a “crook.”
“I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru,” Chávez declared. “To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!” the Venezuelan leader added. Chávez’s comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country’s internal affairs.
García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When the APRA man painted Humala as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive. When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53 per cent to 47 per cent. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. “Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty,” García said. “They have defeated the efforts by Mr Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no,” García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that “the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez’s candidate.”
Mexico and Presidential Election of July, 2006: López Obrador Is a “Danger”
Even though Chávez was not a candidate in the Mexican election which followed one month after Peru’s contest, he was certainly a political specter. The election pitted leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD or Party of the Democratic Revolution against two conservative candidates, Roberto Madrazo of the PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party and Felipe Calderón of the PAN or National Action Party. In early polling López Obrador, a populist mayor of Mexico City who had instituted socialist-style handout programs and who had spoken of his desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, had a clear lead over both candidates.
Trailing in public opinion surveys, Madrazo sought to take down his leftist challenger by linking him to Chávez. “There are clear similarities between Chávez and López Obrador,” Madrazo said. “I see authoritarianism in them both.” The PRI candidate added that López Obrador and Chávez did not respect the rule of law and that foreign investors would avoid Mexico if the PRD candidate ever came to power. Madrazo declared, “I foresee the capital flight that happened in Venezuela with Chávez’s government that I don’t want to happen here.” Going even further, Madrazo accused López Obrador of being in contact with Chávez aides and charged that the Venezuelan leader was trying to influence the election.
Pro-business candidate Calderón joined in the pummeling. In his TV ads, he linked Obrador to Hugo Chávez and claimed that the PRD candidate was “a danger to Mexico.” “Hugo Chávez is not running for president of Mexico,” remarked the Washington Post. “But some days it’s been hard to tell. The Venezuelan president’s face has been all over Mexican television at critical stages in this country’s bitter mudfest of a presidential race.” A little known political activist group put Chávez on TV, surrounded by machine guns and soldiers, and accompanied by an ominous voice-over which intoned: “In Mexico, you don’t have to die to define your future — you only have to vote!”
The Federal Electoral Commission ruled that Calderón’s ads TV ads violated its rules and ordered him to withdraw them but only after the scare-mongering message had set in and Calderón had shot up in the polls. Encouraged by the successful result of Calderón’s dirty campaign, the candidate’s aides claimed that the Venezuelan Bolivarian circles — small community groups supported by the Chávez government – were secretly working on behalf of López Obrador.
The leftist candidate of the PRD was known for his combative political style. Bizarrely however, López Obrador barely responded to the fear mongering campaign against him. Weeks passed until he finally disavowed a relationship with Chávez. Cowed by the right wing attacks, one presidential aide finally remarked “It’s absurd. Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn’t know Chávez, nor have they ever spoken.”
The election itself was plagued with irregularities. When Calderón claimed victory, López Obrador cried fraud and called for street protests. The Electoral Tribunal ultimately ruled that Calderon had won the election by a very narrow margin and rejected Obrador’s allegations.
Ecuador Presidential Election of October, 2006: “Colonel Correa”
The next setback for Chávez came in Ecuador, where the Venezuelan leader’s would-be protégé, Rafael Correa, came in second against Álvaro Noboa in the first round of the country’s presidential election. Correa, a leftist economics professor who criticized U.S.-style free trade, denied that Chávez had funded his campaign and the Venezuelan leader, chastened by his defeats in Mexico and Peru, was uncharacteristically quiet about the Ecuador election. However, it was no secret that the two had a personal rapport. Correa in fact visited Chávez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chávez’s parents.
As the presidential campaign heated up, Noboa, a banana magnate, sought to label Correa as a Chávez puppet. In an allusion to Chávez’s former military background, Noboa called his adversary “Colonel Correa.” Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade Noboa even declared, “the Chávez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery.”
If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas. Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chávez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush’s friendship with the bin Laden family. “They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo,” Correa explained. “The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me.”
Chávez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chávez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence. The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the “applause” of the United States. Chávez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential runoff, in which Correa came in second.
In his own inflammatory broadside, Chávez accused Noboa of being “an exploiter of child labor” on his banana plantations and a “fundamentalist of the extreme right.” In Ecuador, Chávez said, “there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn’t pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round.” The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chávez’s meddling.
In the end however, Noba’s fulminations came to nothing: the Banana King came in second to Correa, losing 43 per cent to 56 per cent for Correa.
Nicaragua Presidential Election of November, 2006: Chávez’s “Lieutenant” in Central America
In 2005, when Nicaraguan Sandinista leader traveled to Venezuela for a meeting with Chávez, the friendship between the two began to bear fruit. During the meeting at Miraflores, the presidential palace, Ortega remarked that Latin American unity was necessary to confront globalization. Ortega later alarmed Washington by remarking that if he won the election he would make sure that Nicaragua would join ALBA, Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas. Chávez’s trading plan, which is designed to sideline traditional corporate interests and Bush’s Free Trade Agreement of The Americas (FTAA), is based on barter agreements between Latin American countries. Ortega later added that he opposed U.S.-backed trade deals such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. “Central America’s trading future lies not with the U.S. but with Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina,” he said.
Such statements put Ortega at odds with the likes of U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick. “CAFTA is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Zoellick remarked in an address given at the Heritage Foundation. “If we retreat into isolationism, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and others like them, leftist autocrats will advance.”
As per Peru, the Nicaraguan right sought to link its Sandinista opposition to Chávez in an effort to instill fear in voters. Presidential candidate Jose Rizo remarked that Chávez and Ortega were “a threat to regional and hemispheric stability,” and claimed that the Venezuelan leader was financing Ortega’s campaign [both Venezuela and Ortega denied the accusation]. “Ortega will become Chávez’s lieutenant in Central America and the Caribbean in the same way that he represented the extinct and failed Soviet Bloc,” Rizo added.
In the end however, Rizo’s red-baiting was unsuccessful: the veteran Sandinista leader edged out his opponent by 10 points to win the election.
El Salvador: Chávez and His “Totalitarian” Projects
To listen to the Salvadoran right in advance of Sunday’s presidential election, you’d think Mauricio Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, his opponent Rodrigo Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “There’s a saying that ‘Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,’” Ávila remarked. “And that’s going to happen with them,” he added. “No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela.”
Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes’s disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.
Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread “totalitarian projects” and wanted to “stick their noses” in anti-democratic practices. It was “no secret” Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received “its ideological nourishment from Havana” and its economic nourishment “from some other place.” In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared “I am sure that there’s some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador.”
Latin American Right: Running On Empty
From Bolivia to Peru to Mexico to Ecuador to Nicaragua and now El Salvador, a clear pattern has emerged. The Latin American right knows that while it was in power, inequality and poverty increased and people hardly benefited economically from the extraction of natural resources. This put rightist politicians in a bind, since campaigning on U.S. – style economic policies and free trade was never going to be popular amongst electorates throughout the wider region.
In this sense, the Latin American right is in a similar dilemma to the Republicans in 2008. Like discredited John McCain, who represented the past and did not have any progressive economic ideas, today’s conservatives in Latin America are running on empty and hence their desperate moves to insert Chávez into the political equation. Sometimes, as in Peru and Mexico, the right’s strategy has succeeded whereas in other countries the tactic has failed. Arguably, Chávez’s inflammatory rhetoric may have backfired in certain cases and wound up hurting progressive candidates.
Ironically, despite the right’s claims, Chávez is hardly promoting revolution. Like other Latin American populists, Chávez has pushed economic redistribution but only up to a certain point. What’s more, Venezuela is probably not in the position right now to advance an ambitious geopolitical agenda due to the fall in world oil prices. That hasn’t stopped the right however from going negative and to claim that left candidates are intimately associated with Venezuela. For Latin American conservatives, it’s probably the only card they have left.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)