With the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Latin America has lost the last of its high-profile charismatic leaders of recent years, and it remains to be seen whether it can produce personalities of a comparable global stature in the years to come.
In 2003, the region boasted a line-up that included Chavez, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – an undoubtedly impressive list of charismatic leaders at least in terms of media impact. Castro gave up power for health reasons in 2006, while Lula stepped down in early 2011, just months before Chavez cut back his public agenda to undergo treatment for cancer.
Now, Latin America appears short of a natural leader, and also seems ever more unlikely to make global headlines. Cuban President Raul Castro succeeded his brother and undertook a substantial if gradual economic reform programme in the communist country. Unlike his charismatic brother, known for delivering long speeches any chance he got, Raul Castro mostly keeps to himself and does not like speaking in public.
Lula’s hand-picked successor, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, has pressed on with his agenda and kept several of his key officials. However, she has a very different public persona. Compared to Lula’s outspoken, witty speeches full of punch lines, Rousseff usually speaks her mind in determined, matter-of-fact addresses where a headline is hard to find. And whoever succeeds Chavez – whether it is his chosen heir, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, or someone else – faces the virtually impossible task of filling his shoes on the international stage.
The Latin American leaders of recent years, moreover, appeared to work well with each other. Chavez listed Castro as his mentor and liked to speak of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner as an “older brother.” Lula said as recently as Wednesday that he was proud “to have lived and worked with Chavez for the integration of Latin America and for a fairer world.” He visited the ailing Chavez in Havana in late January.
The high point of Chavez’s international agenda was his relationship with Lula, the Latin American leader whom US foreign policy and opinion makers tried to establish as Chavez’s opposite, US analyst Greg Grandin wrote Tuesday in the left-wing magazine The Nation. “Where Chavez was reckless, Lula was moderate. Where Chavez was confrontational, Lula was pragmatic,” according to Grandin.
Indeed, while his peers in the region rebuked him for some of his outbursts in friendly and always private terms, the political maverick Chavez did crucial “dirty work” in full connivance with his more mainstream colleagues in Brazil and Argentina. “Chavez played the lead in the defeat of the empire’s most ambitious project for Latin America, the Free Trade Area of the Americas,” sociologist Atilio Boron wrote this week in the Argentine daily Pagina 12.
Boron remembered a story often told of the 2005 Summit of the Americas in the Argentine city of Mar del Plata. According to the Argentine political analyst, Fidel Castro defined the broad strategy, which Lula broadly supported, while host Nestor Kirchner granted Chavez a platform to deal the fatal blow to Washington’s plans, all with US President George W Bush in town. “Who but Chavez could have pulled off that situation?” Boron asked.
Times have changed. With the low profile cultivated by Rousseff, the leader of the region’s undisputed political and economic giant, and with the media-friendly Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto just four months into his term, Latin America appears short of a spokesperson.
A good public speaker herself, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner stands her ground with the old guard, but the country remains controversial on the global stage. Presidents Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia, among others, do not appear to carry sufficient political clout, while Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia cultivates a relatively low profile.
Latin America might have to re-think its international image and find a way to promote its interests beyond the long addresses and carefully orchestrated scripts that made Castro, Lula and Chavez undisputed global personalities. “Men like Chavez do not die, they are planted,” Fernandez de Kirchner said as she paid her last respects to him. If she is right, perhaps a new such figure will also grow in the years to come.
Veronica Sardon, "Latin America goes quiet without Chavez, Castro, Lula," Business recorder. 2013-03-09.