What, exactly, was the point of the recent Summit of the Americas in Argentina? President Bush’s participation there seemed to accomplish little more than to excite street mobs and vandals. And then there was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, doing his best Fidel impersonation as he led opposition to a U.S.-backed free trade agreement. Alejandro Chafuen, president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, uses the occasion of the summit to succinctly catalog the ills that plague Latin America. “With few exceptions,” Chafuen writes in the Washington Times, “Latin Americans have reverted to feel-good nationalistic populism, while rejecting free-market growth strategies: They can feel good while doing poorly.”
The heart of the problem is weak protection of property rights and, in some places, an almost complete disregard for the rule of law. The results are incredibly destructive. As Chafuen puts it:
Despite Latin American economic growth rates averaging more than 5 percent in 2004 and similar growth anticipated this year, “capital flows” are negative, meaning more money leaves than enters the region. This is not due to foreign debt but a continued lack of confidence among long-term investors. Not surprisingly, as Latin America expert Andres Oppenheimer has noted, “only 1 percent of the world’s investment in research and development currently goes to Latin America.”
This “feel-good, nationalistic populism” is also winning converts in the United States. Democrat Congressman William Delahunt of Massachusetts has acted as a go-between to bring discounted heating oil from Venezuela to his constituents, thereby giving Chavez an opportunity to tweak the Bush administration. Another deal is in the works through a congressman in the Bronx. Delahunt describes Chavez’s move as a “humanitarian gesture” and evinces little concern that he may be working at cross purposes with the State Department’s policy toward Venezuela. Delahunt said he works for his constituents, not Condoleezza Rice.
In a piece in the Providence Journal, Colombian journalist and Harvard fellow Maria Cristina Caballero, cheers the rise of Chavez.
Chavez, the socialist strongman, has emerged as a more ferocious — and popular — opponent to Bush than apparently any American Democrat. While Bush pushes policies to import oil and export democracy, Chavez exports subsidized oil to his friends, which include Cuba and China as well as the poor people of Massachusetts and the Bronx, and — he says — spreads the wealth.
Fortunately for Chavez’s friends in Massachusetts and the Bronx, they are not living under the “strongman’s” rule of law. They would find that his discounted heating oil and free medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors comes at a very high price.