Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Silliness of Mainstream Punditry on Latin America

And Obama will have more time to spend on foreign policy. How are we going to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan? How can we continue the dialogue with China over trade and currency issues? How can we strengthen ties with India, Brazil, Indonesia and other large developing democracies? How can he work with Dilma Roussef to check the spread of authoritarian populism in the region?
I have little positive to say about Hugo Chávez, but this makes no sense, for a variety of reasons. First, there's been a coup and a half in the past eighteen months in Latin America, something that, if it spreads, poses a greater threat to the region than Chávez. In any event, authoritarian populism, such as it is, is a product of ongoing poverty and inequality along with the ham-handed implementation of free-market economic policies in the 1990s. Alleviating poverty and keeping a closer eye on the losers when implementing economic reform will do infinitely more to limit authoritarian populism than securing the participation of Brazil's president in an anti-Chávez scheme. (That may have been what Yglesias was referring to, but then why do we need Rousseff to do more to address poverty ourselves?)

Second, we tried this already. Rumsfeld went to Brazil in 2005 to try to convince Lula to reign Chávez in, and the gambit failed miserably. Even if Brazil had agreed with Rumsfeld, I don't imagine it would have, in turn, been successful in lowering the volume from Chávez a great deal. In any event, the move worked out quite well for Lula. He stayed on good terms with Chávez, had a less than chummy but not disastrous relationship with the Bush administration, and wound up a superstar. Had he aligned himself with Bush and stuck himself in the middle of an unwinnable ideological brawl, it's quite possible that his current level of prestige wouldn't exist. Rousseff was a huge part of Lula's administration, and presumably she saw how that worked out for her predecessor and mentor. Rousseff may wind up on Chávez's enemies list, but I can't imagine it will be because we asked to her to be meaner to him.

You hear people talk about putting Chávez in his box from time to time, and what Brazil can do or what we can do to see that happen. But Chávez already is in his box. It's called Venezuela. High oil prices or not, there is a limit to what he can do from his perch at the top of the continent. We do not need to spend large amounts of energy seeking to corner him, which perversely increases sympathy for him and prolongs his existence on the world stage.

Lastly, if we want a change of position from Brazil, it's not on Chávez, Correa, et al. It's on Iran. The stakes are much higher, the chances of a moderated Brazilian position much better.


jd said...

Yglesias doesn't know sheeit about Latin America. That's not a slur, as the guy knows a quite a bit about any number of things (though I'm still undecided about economics - his analysis is usually logical, but you get the sense that a real economist would just point out some massive flaw in half his econ posts, especially about monetary theory). It's more a statement about how amazingly thin the understanding and perceived relevance of LatAm regional dynamics are in DC, as well as deeply consolidated the most basic "two lefts" idea of regional politics is.

Apart from that, I basically agree with you, but would go further: it's not just that Lula and presumably Dilma are clever, it's that they have genuine solidarity for the "global south" and lingering anti-imperialist impulses. I think this leads them astray from time to time, most notably in a weak voting record at the UN on rights and democracy issues as well as in the case of Iran, but it's not calculated, it's ideological. (Other, more strategic reasons for Brazil's positioning we'll leave for another post).

That said, I don't think the stakes of Brazil's position on Iran are actually very high, though they have some meaning on the margins.

[CAPTCHA win: "fluint," a beautifully self-refuting word.]

pc said...

RE Brazil's support or lack thereof, yeah I agree that's very minor in the broader scope of the issue. I just mean that Iran and the bomb matter more than Chavez and co.

I don't know what to make of Yglesias's economic posts. A lot of them are on issues that I am unfamiliar with, others (like the one advocating bands charging more for their tickets) seem to be very narrow considerations of intro to econ topics. But on LA, yeah he doesn't know much of anything. And yeah it's not him, no one does. I don't really much of Latin America particularly closely outside of Mexico, and I very rarely read anything in the American media that tells me anything I don't get just scanning the headlines in the Mexican media. The NK death was a good illustration: it was a huge headline in all the big Mexican papers' websites that afternoon, but it was a minor detail on the Post and the Times piece, as though some minor Ford Administration official had passed away.