There can be few more spectacular sights in Latin America than El Reventador, the volcano that has been erupting so furiously over the past few weeks that it has cast its dust over the streets of Quito 60 miles away. Now the capital of Ecuador is experiencing the latest in a series of Latin American eruptions of a different nature: the peaceful election of a leftwing president whose declared enemies are corruption and poverty and who looks like the antithesis of the kind of leader the United States would like to see in the region.
The weekend victory of the 45-year-old former colonel Lucio Gutierrez encapsulates the change of mood throughout Latin America. On Monday, a general strike is planned in Venezuela as part of an attempt to oust the president, Hugo Chavez, a man whose path to power was similar to that of Gutierrez, and the country teeters on the edge of civil war. In Argentina, economic catastrophe could also herald seismic political change within the next few months.
Before the dust settles, Gutierrez’s achievement deserves to be recognized. He easily defeated Alvaro Noboa, the Bonita banana billionaire and the country’s richest businessman. The contrast could not have been greater. While Gutierrez had the backing of the indigenous Indian population, came from a humble background and was a former Latin American military pentathlete champion, Noboa was a chum of Charlton Heston, a polo player and the owner of a home on New York’s Park Avenue who heavily outspent his rival. On the walls of the city over the past few weeks, a piece of graffiti perhaps captured the national mood. It used Noboa’s initials to spell out in Spanish the slogan: Not Another Dumb Oligarch in Power.
The success of Gutierrez fits into what is now a clear pattern in Latin American politics. It follows the landslide victory of Lula da Silva in Brazil, which was also based on a platform of battling inequality. In March, Argentina goes to the polls and the current frontrunner is Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, another populist who has challenged the authority of the IMF and the rule of the market. And it coincides with recent advances for the left in Bolivia and Peru.
Ecuador is a small country of 12 million people but it has – in common with its larger, less tranquil neighbors, Colombia and Peru, and with most of Latin America – the massive problems of debt repayment, poverty, inequality, unemployment and government corruption. Like other Latin Americans, Ecuadoreans were led to believe that neo-liberalism, the global marketplace and the adoption of IMF policies would lead to better days. But like their counterparts, they have found that life for most over the past decade has not improved and may even have worsened. Many who voted for the untried Gutierrez and Da Silva felt they had little left to lose.
The most explosive countries are clearly Venezuela, where the radical Chavez faces opposition from all sides, including parts of the military, and Argentina, where popular discontent with free market policies grows sharper every day. Crucially, the US has signaled its disapproval of Chavez, a man they see as too close to Fidel Castro, and those who seek to remove him before his elected term of office have been left in little doubt that they will do so with the tacit agreement of Washington. But the US now has to recognize that it cannot impose its preferred candidates on countries impatient for change.
Gutierrez has already made it clear that he does not seek confrontation with either the US or the IMF. He may not have been as enthusiastic as his rival in welcoming the US troops stationed in their “anti-drug” base in Manta in Ecuador, but he has made clear that they can stay and that the oil companies can continue to export his country’s resources. The Wall Street Journal declared him last week someone with whom the financial establishment could do business, and halfway down his list of qualifications is a diploma from the Inter-American Defense College in Washington.
“This is the most difficult time because now we have to start to turn what the people want into reality,” Gutierrez said after his election. He knows that his room for maneuver is tiny, the obstacles in his way huge and that the effect the new president will have on corruption and poverty may be less than volcanic. Pragmatism, not revolution, is the word of the day.
Last week Gutierrez jokingly promised that if he was elected, there would be no more volcanic dust in Quito. He may have already failed on that promise, but he is still part of a wind of change – born of hope rather than resignation – that is blowing through Latin America. Many neighboring countries will be watching to see how the new presidents ride that wind.