The good people of Peru didn't let us down. For weeks they'd been predicted to mark their presidential ballots for Ollanta Humala, a former military leader who led a failed left-wing coup in 2000. Right before the election, new polls and stories about the old lieutenant colonel's alleged war crimes threatened to dash his electoral dreams. But Humala pulled through with 30 percent of the vote, making him a contender in May's runoff election and the latest Latin American leader to set pundits and policymakers sputtering.
In a vacuum, Humala's plans to scrap free trade agreements and slap windfall taxes on foreign companies would be making even bigger headlines. But the Peruvian is just the most recent of the continent's election winners to talk like this. Hence the sputtering. Since Veneuzuela's Hugo Chavez survived a coup attempt in 2002, elections in Latin America have produced almost an unbroken string of left-wing victories. Argentina elected center-left Peronist Nestor Kirchner. Brazil elected former metalworker Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva in a rout. Bolivia elected Coca grower Evo Morales in a historic landslide. Uruguay elected Tabaré Vázquez, its first leftist president ever. Chile—still so conservative that "legal divorce" is a recent phenomenon—elected a socialist, agnostic woman, Michelle Bachelet. (Ecuador elected leftist President Lucio Gutierrez in 2002, too. Although he was ousted in 2005, the country moved his VP up one slot and didn't really change direction.)
From America's perspective, the elections across these eight South American countries have been part of an unstoppable, horror-movie plot. The continent is "swinging to the left," and turning its back on the USA and democracy. Even worse, the left-wingers are leading their countries into Hugo Chavez' strong-armed embrace. The quip-happy Venezuelan president, who sits on a decades-long supply of oil, has gloated over the election of presidents like Morales and Lula and brushed aside all manner of threats from his U.S. detractors. It sometimes looks as though Chavez is locked in a battle with the United States for control of the continent, and the guy in the tracksuit is winning.
Except that he isn't. With the exception of Chavez, none of the new left-wing leaders have lived up to their Yanqui-bashing reps. The best example is Brazil's Lula. When the three-time loser started leading polls in 2002, investors scattered and the currency collapsed. As Lula crept to certain victory, Chavez gloated about the continent "seeing the appearance of alternative projects to the savage neo-liberalism that was imposed on our people for a long time." But once elected, Lula left his hammer and sickle at the door. He renewed Brazil's IMF agreements and pushed through social reform so modest that the left-wing of his party became his loudest jeering section.
Lula had company. The presidents of Chile and Argentina, usually included in the leftist roll call, have presided over steady growth and slow-paced reforms. Bolivia's Morales, who'd bragged about becoming "Bush's worst nightmare," has completely mellowed in office. Even Peru's Humala, so controversial that opponents pelted him with rocks as he tried to vote, spent Monday replacing his "nationalist" fervor with mellow, get-along rhetoric. After the stock market slumped, he told reporters (and the investors who read them) that "Nationalism isn't the same as nationalizing companies, it's a love of your country. We are not going to expropriate anyone's business."
None of this means the Latin American left is doing no harm. They're still socialists, and voters are still flocking to them in part because of their feelings about American influence. A lot of this stems from Chavez, who really is a menace: A rotten president with powerfully destructive policies, as Reason's Julian Sanchez entailed last year. But in order to maintain his popularity and influence the rest of the continent, Chavez needs America to make heavy-handed, interventionist moves against him. He's not been disappointed yet. He was tumbling to George W. Bush-like support levels before the military coup of April 11, 2002. While he schemed his way back into power, the State Department was recognizing the "transitional" government and blaming Chavez for his own overthrow. But Chavez retook the presidency on April 13, started blaming the US for the interruption, and never looked back.
The biggest danger that the US faces in confronting Latin America is attacking Chavez head-on. Of course, Congress and the Bush administration are falling over each other to do just that. Last year dynastic Congressman Connie Mack IV (R-FL) tacked on an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act that condemned Chavez and demanded at least 30 daily minutes of US government radio and TV broadcasts be beamed into Venezuela. Two months ago Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared Chavez to Adolf Hitler ("He's a person who was elected legally—just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally"). Chavez (and the other 23.5 hours of Venezuelan radio and TV) had a field day. After four years of anti-Chavez saber-rattling, the fearful theories and schemes have taken on a life of their own. The internet occasionally bubbles up with theories of his arms deals or ties to rogue states. Conservative blogs have twittered with rumors of Chavez rigging American voting machines and overrunning Dutch colonies with his red armies.
This all obscures the fact that elections have more to do with local issues than with cross-continental war games. Americans are off base in considering every election result a zero-sum, yes/no result on the United States. That's how Chavez has started to view these elections — que sorpresa, it may be starting to backfire on him.
Peru provides a good test case. Humala had lept from nowhere to a sizable lead right before the election. There was talk of him winning in the first round, without a runoff. But at the end of the campaign, neoliberal candidate Lourdes Flores Nano started attacking Humala for being too close to Chavez. At her last rallies she warned that "Chávez is the danger in the shade in Latin America, and I see a risk of the expansion of that authoritarian project." The bareknuckled attack apparently killed Humala's momentum—he slipped from more than 35 percent in the polls to just around 30 percent of the final vote. It obvious influenced Humala's strategy after election day. And it mirrors the tactics of conservative Mexican presidential candidate Felipe Calderon, who started gaining on left-winger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador after accusing him of being a Venezuelan puppet.
What's this got to do with the USA-Chavez towel-snapping contest? The Venezuelan president is trying his hand at interventionism. He's doing what James Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, and Henry Kissinger tried in Latin America for decades. Their efforts created some democracies, a lot of unfree states, and a basically bottomless well of anti-American sentiment. If four years of boosting Chavez's poll numbers haven't taught us that, Chavez's own bumbling attempts at king-making really should.
David Weigel is an assistant editor of Reason. He lives in Fairfax, VA.