Hugo Chavez speaks during a rally in Caracas, 1998. (Reuters)
Two decades ago, following the end of the Cold War, the United States and Latin America seemed more prepared than ever before to forge political and economic partnerships. Latin America was emerging from an era of stagnation and economic crisis and appeared to be moving toward market economies and liberal democracies. In the early 1990s, building on U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s widely applauded vision of a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone, Mexico, Canada, and the United States negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement. At the Organization of American States’ conference in 1991, which brought together 34 countries, a landmark agreement codified collective pro-democracy actions. Continuing this trend, the hemisphere’s democratically elected leaders gathered for the first-ever Summit of the Americas in 1994 and confirmed their deepening commitment to democratic principles, growth-oriented economic policies, and broad U.S.–Latin American cooperation. Words like “consensus” and “community” were used to capture the sense of good will.
Since 1999, however, when the recently deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez came to power, the sense of community in the region has dissipated. Policy divergences among Latin American countries have become sharper; free trade and liberal democracy are no longer popular goals; and Latin America and the United States have, albeit cordially, gone their separate ways. Admittedly, generalizations about Latin America are risky; after all, for every country that has deviated from democratic norms, another has moved toward them. And Chávez was not single-handedly responsible for deflating the hopeful spirit that prevailed two decades ago. But his relentless defiance of Washington and its chief allies -- often accompanied by aggressive, even belligerent, rhetoric -- polarized the region.
To be sure, Chávez’s boldness partially helped inspire pride and political self-confidence in the region, in addition to revitalizing the dream of leftist revolution in Latin America. Chávez’s contributions, however, were minimal compared with the positive impact of larger and more important factors, such as