LIMA, PeruThere has been abundant talk of Latin Americas tilt to the left this past decade. But such chatter will soon become highly antiquated. Presidential contests in key countries are almost certain to move the region in the opposite direction.
Chiles runoff election this month will probably mean the end of the center-left coalitions two-decade hold on power and the emergence of businessman Sebastian Pinera as a political tour de force. In May, Colombians will either vote for Alvaro Uribes third termif he wins approval for an ill-advised constitutional reformor for someone who will carry on with his policies. And, according to every poll, Brazilians are expected to pick Jose Serra, the governor of Sao Paulo state, over President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silvas heir apparent in October.
If these turn out to be the results indeed, the ideological shift that was first hinted last year with Ricardo Martinellis victory in Panama and Porfirio Lobos election in Honduras will be powerfully reinforced. But there is more. Perus left-wing nationalist candidate is fading after almost winning in 2006; a long list of center-right candidates (a couple of whom coquettishly call themselves center-left but are not perceived as such) dominate the polls. And by all indications most Argentines now support various opponents of the socialist policies of Cristina Kirchners government. This will make it difficult for her husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, should he run next year.
The only major Latin American democracy where the pendulum seems to be swinging away from the center-right is Mexico. But the Institutional Revolutionary Partythe organization likely to win the 2012 electionis a broad tent, not an ideological force. And it is not remotely interested in casting its shadow over the region.
The significance of the tilt to the right is potentially twofold. Could it mean a new wave of reform not seen since the 1990s and a foreign policy realignment across the continent?
In theory, some of the favored leaders will aim to make Latin America much more entrepreneurial and economically diversifiedthe region is still far too dependent on natural resources, its investment levels are too low compared with other newcomers to the development race, and its education standards continue to be dismal. But there is no guarantee that the shift in ideological direction will bring meaningful change. Much like their social-democratic rivals, Latin Americas center-rightists tend to settle for the apparent placidity of the status quo. Many seem to have exhausted their reformist ambitions with the liberalization and privatization of the 1990s, which left a sour taste because of the corruption involved.
The tilt to the right could be more momentous in foreign policy, reducing the disproportionate influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Caracas garrulous thug has benefited from three factors that will be removed if the ideological shift is confirmed. Brazil will cease indulging his whims and providing political cover for his geopolitical gamesmanship. Chile will drop its ambiguity toward Venezuelas foreign interventionism, an attitude explained by President Michelle Bachelets own ideological roots and by her effort to win over Latin Americas governments in response to the perception that her country had neglected its neighbors for many years. Last but not least, the re-emergence of Argentina as the modernizing regional leader that it ceased to be some time ago could deprive Chavez of much breathing space.
Cutting Chavez down to size would help release some of the pressure that Caracas currently places on Colombia and Peru. The presence of leftist-tilting governments in the region has allowed Venezuela to pick fights with Colombia all these years and to delegate to Bolivias Evo Morales the mission of attacking Perus president relentlessly. The Colombian governments concentration on its war against the narco-guerrillas and the care it has placed on avoiding armed conflict with Venezuela have prevented Bogota from shaking off Chavezs meddling. In the case of Peru, Limas difficult relations with neighboring Chile have made it hard to counter Bolivias pressure, a circumstance shrewdly exploited by Morales Venezuelan puppet master.
Predicting anything in Latin America is mighty risky. But if I were sitting at a desk in President Obamas National Security Council or the State Department, I would be preparing for a strange scenario in which a left-leaning American president might find more common ground with right-leaning Latin American leaders than he has been able to find with neighbors too ready to let Venezuelawith Cubas helpundermine Washingtons limited engagement with the region so far.