Falling Leaves in the Americas’ Down Under

Autumn is taking hold in the southern half of the Americas , and the leaves have turned color in the political flora as well. Sunday saw the inauguration of a president in Argentina that is breaking both the generational and expectation molds in that country.

Nestor Carlos Kirchner, 53, becomes an unlikely candidate to take Argentina out of the economic quagmire it is in. A beaten, tired population is placing its hopes on this three-time provincial governor of Santa Cruz , an unlikely place to hail from, much less to become president. (Santa Cruz, roughly the size of North Dakota but with less than one-third its population, shares the approximate same latitude in the Southern Hemisphere as North Dakota does in the Northern Hemisphere.)

Just who is Nestor Kirchner? Well, listening to the claims of the more extreme factions of the Argentine labor movement, one would conclude that he is a docile servant to capital [ism] and intolerant to labor aims. A laundry list of accusations is made against him on a wide assortment of issues, including the thorny subject of privatization (bank, some utilities) and Kirchner’s anticipated willingness to negotiate with the IMF. But even those in labor who castigate his political philosophy do not see in him the same corrupt political image that seems to envelop his predecessors.

A less biased picture of Kirchner would put him at the center-left of the political spectrum. Educated as a lawyer, as was his wife of 25 years, Cristina, who holds an elected office of senator, Kirchner is the product of an activist youth in the peronista movement (second generation), and a career as a political administrator of a somewhat conservative last frontier in Southern Patagonia . He has proven to be an able negotiator, and even his political entourage includes individuals with diverse and often conflicting views (an ex-communist, a libertarian, social-democrats, and liberals). A pragmatist, he has self-compared to such European political figures as Francois Mitterand and Felipe González (socialists) and Jacques Chirac and José Maria Aznar (conservatives), all in the same plate. And he is an avid student of economics.

His conservative side became symbolically evident during the inaugural as he wore a de rigueur double-breasted blue suit. In a 48-minute inaugural speech, he made some strong statements but abstained from excessive demagoguery, particularly any bashing or finger-pointing at any foreign role in the present economic debacle. He gave as priorities in his program the restoration of an upward-mobile society, the search for a reduction in foreign debt, a strong and dedicated fight against corruption, and a guarantee to have the protection of the law for all, not just the rich and powerful. A point he made clear, however, was directed to those nations/institutions that presently hold a share of Argentina ’s foreign debt. “Debt cannot once again be repaid at the expense of hunger and the exclusion of the Argentine people. The lack of viability in that old model can even be seen by the creditors, who must understand that they can only be paid back if Argentina fares well.” By saying that, he made unwilling partners of those foreign companies/institutions that many, if not most, Argentines feel contributed to their present situation. US commercial and financial interests lead the way, followed by European investments, particularly from Spain .

United States ’ foreign policy towards Latin America has stayed fairly consistent, and simplistic, throughout the entire Twentieth Century. It mattered not whether it was a Democratic or a Republican administration at the helm. It had less to do with political alliances and more to do with the defense of American commercial interests abroad and, for the last two decades, a laughable war on drugs with strictly domestic political overtones. And it appears that things have not changed with this administration although, of late, the State Department has been warning the White House of a changing continent beyond “down Mexico way” and the need for, at the very least, a personal touch in the government relations arena.

Democracy is beginning to germinate on its own in the Southern Hemisphere of the Americas ; perhaps a democracy not particularly friendly to US interests, but a democracy nonetheless. First, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, a populist and an admirer of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who appears to be consolidating his mandate after a period of turbulence; then, there is Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva, a charismatic leader who worked his way up in union politics, taking the reins of Brazil, a potential economic colossus with 170 million people, in a rather easy election last October; then, another former army colonel, Lucio Gutierrez, carrying a left-leaning agenda, is elected to the presidency of Ecuador in January. Now, it is Nestor Kirchner. It is up to these elected leaders to take on the task of remaking economies in shambles, a situation for which the US, via its surrogates ( US banks, multi-nationals, IMF, etc.) is given much of the blame, together with corrupt, local politicians.

It must be said that the White House has done rather well in matters that relate to public relations for home consumption (i.e.: the fable or ballad of Private Lynch, denounced by many in stronger terms as propaganda and deceit) but has not fared so well in international diplomacy. Until recently! Heeding the advice from Powell’s troops, diplomacy began to surface as the preferable substitute to rumsfeldian arrogance. Gutierrez and Lula were both given the red-carpet treatment by the President and the Capital’s power elite during their trips to Washington . And last week, prior to his inauguration, Kirchner was invited by Bush to make the pilgrimage to the District of Columbia . Chavez was, and continues to be, a different matter altogether, and for now the White House hopes that he will either disappear from the scene, or be influenced by his neighbors, other than his communist mentor, to behave in a manner that will not force the US’ hand (or boot). No trip to Washington for him, although Bush would gladly take him as a guest at his Crawford ranch… if he would only “repent” and change his ways.

Less than a month left for winter to arrive Down Under. Much is expected from the leaders of the nations that comprise Mercosur. If the Bush administration plays its cards right, it could help this NAFTA-to-the-South become a strong and viable market, opening the doors to prosperity for the Southern Hemisphere of the Americas. Help them help themselves… free enterprise at its best. Let them call the shots… it is their future, their destiny. Better that than a political Mercosur unfriendly to the US.