Around the turn of the century, a swing to the left throughout Latin America began knocking down dominoes.
President Hugo Chavez stampeded into power in Venezuela in 1999 and reassembled the oil-rich South American state into a leftist nightmare. Then came President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his brand of social welfare in Brazil in 2002, followed by President Nestor Kirchner and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina, one-time coca farmer President Evo Morales in Bolivia, President Rafael Correa in Ecuador — the list goes on.
The so-called "pink tide" worried Washington, D.C., in part because Russia, China and Iran saw a chance to establish beachheads in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela bought billions of dollars of arms from the Kremlin and conducted joint military exercises with Russia. Under Chavez, trade with China ballooned from less than $500 million to $10 billion. Both Morales and Chavez cozied up to Iran and its president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
Venezuela teeters on the edge of economic and political implosion. The country is running out of everything: electricity, running water, eggs, milk and even toilet paper and beer. Inflation runs in triple digits. Chavez's embattled successor, President Nicolas Maduro, is fighting for his political life after opposition parties wrested control of parliament in elections last December, and are now trying to set up a referendum to authorize early elections.
With fewer than 100 days before the world comes to Rio for the Olympics, da Silva protege, President Dilma Rousseff, faces a vote in the Brazilian senate on whether to move ahead with her impeachment, a proceeding that could lead to her ouster. The Brazilian economy, mired in its worst recession in 80 years, is slated to shrink for the second year in a row, and the Zika virus epidemic shows no signs of abating.
In La Paz, the luster of Morales is fading. His bid to change Bolivia's constitution so he could run for a fourth consecutive term failed. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband in 2007, lost her re-election bid to Argentine center-right leader Mauricio Macri last fall. And in Ecuador, President Correa has said he will not seek a fourth term in 2017.
Reasons for leftist upheaval across the continent vary depending on the regime, but one common theme threads through the trend. The economies of these countries have been steadily slowing to a crawl. Flagging oil prices and drops in demand for other commodities have fueled the slowdown, but to varying degrees, the leftist regimes have mismanaged their bids to put their countries back on track.
It would be a mistake, however, for the next Oval Office occupant to ignore Latin America.
The failings of today's South American leftist leaders do not necessarily mean a sweeping repudiation of leftist populism. The gap between the impoverished masses and the few wealthy elite still defines life for much, if not all, of the continent, making those countries susceptible to leftist agendas. Even in Argentina, where voters chose the center-right candidate over the leftist incumbent, President Macri's margin of victory was less than 3 percentage points.
And while Latin America is not the seedbed for terrorism, unlike the Middle East and South Asian hot spots top-tier foreign policy priorities for the U.S., it is no longer exclusively America's backyard. China has dramatically ramped up its economic presence in Latin America, and economic presence almost always translates into political presence.
The next president will need to engage Latin America with a lot more purpose and resolve. If we don't, Russia, Iran and China will.
REPRINTED FROM THE JACKSONVILLE DAILY NEWS