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2006 Elections Brought Little Change in Latin America

Latin America has seen 12 presidential contests in the last 13 months. Despite the installation of five new leaders, many analysts argue 2006 was more a year of continuity than change in the region. VOA's Michael Bowman attended a recent gathering of Washington-based experts on Latin America and has this report.

Since November of last year, nearly 500 million Latin Americans have had their say in a presidential contest. And with a few notable exceptions, voters chose the incumbent, like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or those who had previously held the post. Peter Hakim is head of the Inter-American Dialogue organization.

"Twelve elections: seven of them were won by men who had held the office before," he noted. "Three were re-elected and four had been president at an earlier period."

Hakim says that new presidents in Mexico and Chile come from the same parties as their predecessors. Perhaps the most radical transition came in Bolivia last December, where self-proclaimed socialist Evo Morales was swept into power. Nicaragua and Ecuador also elected leftist candidates, but Hakim notes that both have spoken in more moderate terms since entering office.

Above all, he says, democracy is alive and well in Latin America.

"These were elections that were all very competitive. Many of them were won by small percentages. Very participatory. High turn-outs in election after election," he added.

In only one case, Mexico, was there a contested transfer of power. But Hakim says that in several nations, such as Peru, radical populists were defeated by small margins. This, he says, points to a simmering undercurrent of discontent that the region's leadership would do well to pay attention to.

Recent years have seen several left-of-center governments come to power in Latin America, a trend that continued in 2006 with notable exceptions in Colombia and Mexico.

In some cases, relations with the United States have cooled to varying degrees. Guatemala's ambassador in Washington, Guillermo Castillo, says the agenda that had been promoted by hemispheric leaders has failed to address people's basic needs.

"Most of the focus has been on trade and not on the other issues," he said. "We thought that democratization meant development. And when you have a large percentage of your population that is poor, without food on the table, they question the system. If we do not put this issue in the agenda between Latin America and the U.S., we are not going to advance this agenda."

The State Department's Office of Andean Affairs director, Philip French, does not disagree. He says the United States and Latin America often "talk past each other" when it comes to promoting the common good. He says what the United States views as landmark trade pacts often seem distant to the reality perceived by ordinary people.

"When we talk about macro-economics in Peru, that is fine," he said. "But most of the people there are living in the micro-world where they still do not have enough to eat. And so we are looking at ways to bring those two worlds together in a pragmatic way."

French adds that the United States is ready to engage any democratically elected government in the region, regardless of ideology.

But the Inter-American Dialogue's Michael Shifter says relations have soured due to a variety of factors ranging from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to the ongoing immigration debate in the United States. He says those relations can be repaired, but that Washington must adjust to a new reality in Latin America.

"Things can get better with a different [US] administration," he said. "I think we have gone through a very rough period. At the same time, I think there is a fundamental change that any new administration will face. Latin America is growing up, has more options internationally. It is no longer the backyard of the United States. And I think no matter what [US] administration comes in office, it is going to have to deal with that adjustment."

For many Latin American nations, however, the United States remains an indispensable and much-valued partner, according to Honduras' ambassador in Washington, Roberto Flores-Bermudez.

"The U.S. definitely represents the biggest market in the world, and the most convenient one for a country like Honduras and other Central American countries," he noted. "We are right across the Gulf of Mexico. The capital of my country is closer to Washington than is San Francisco. So for us it [the United States] is a highly important market, and we are looking with optimism to make the best out of CAFTA."

2005 saw the ratification of CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Over the last year, the Bush administration has signed bilateral trade pacts with Peru and Colombia.

What might 2007 have in store for the hemisphere? The Inter-American Dialogue's Peter Hakim says news from Cuba could dominate.

"Clearly, the [political] transition is under way. The chances that Fidel Castro will ever occupy the presidency again look very slim right now," he said. "His death will bring about some changes. We just do not know what the interplay of forces are within the [Cuban] leadership group, and how that plays out."

Hakim says new Cuban leadership could force a re-examination of long-standing U.S. policy to the Communist-ruled island.