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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 07:09 GMT 08:09 UK
Analysis: How the US 'lost' Latin America
As the BBC begins a special series on Latin America, Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler gives his view on the region's leftward trend and its changing relationship with the US.

There is trouble ahead for Uncle Sam in his own backyard. Big trouble.

Ollanta Humala, Peruvian presidential candidate
Peru's Ollanta Humala talks of the evils of "the neo-liberal model"
It is one of the most important and yet largely untold stories of our world in 2006. George W Bush has lost Latin America.

While the Bush administration has been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, relations between the United States and the countries of Latin America have become a festering sore - the worst for years.

Virtually anyone paying attention to events in Venezuela and Nicaragua in the north to Peru and Bolivia further south, plus in different ways Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, comes to the same conclusion: there is a wave of profound anti-American feeling stretching from the Texas border to the Antarctic.

And almost everyone believes it will get worse.

President Bush came into office declaring that Latin America was a priority. That's hardly surprising. It's been a priority for every American president since James Monroe in 1823 whose "Monroe Doctrine" told European nations to keep out of Latin American affairs.

In pursuit of American interests, the US has overthrown or undermined around 40 Latin American governments in the 20th Century.

For his part, President Bush even suggested that the United States had no more important ally than... wait for it... Mexico.

None of that survived the attacks of 9/11.

More ulcers?

Mr Bush launched his War on Terror and re-discovered the usefulness of allies like Britain.

While Washington's attention turned to al-Qaeda, the Taleban, Iraq and now Iran, in country after country in Latin America voters chose governments of the left, sometimes the implacably "anti-gringo" left, loudly out of sympathy with George Bush's vision of the world, and reflecting a continent with the world's greatest gulf between rich and poor.

[Violeta Chamorro] told me that Washington politicians could always find money for wars in Latin America - but rarely for peace
The next country to fall to a strongly anti-American populist politician could be Peru.

Voters there go to the polls on 9 April to elect a president and Congress.

The presidential frontrunner is Ollanta Humala, a retired army commander who led a failed military uprising in October 2000 and who is now ahead in the opinion polls.

Now, opinion polls in Peru are not especially reliable. They under-represent poor voters in the countryside.

But that is the point. The rural poor form the backbone of Mr Humala's support. If he is ahead even in the flawed opinion polls which tend to under-count his key constituency, Mr Humala is confident he can take the presidency.

And if he does, there will be more ulcers in George Bush's White House.

Shades of red

Like President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and President Evo Morales in Bolivia, Mr Humala talks of the evils of what he calls "the neo-liberal economic model that has failed to benefit our nation".

He dismisses the role of multinational companies that "offer no benefits" to the people of Peru, and he speaks of a new division in the world.

Former Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega, once Enemy Number One, could be back in power
Where once Cuba's Fidel Castro could harangue the US with talk of the colonisers and the colonised, Ollanta Humala attacks globalisation as a plot to undermine Peru's national sovereignty and benefit only the rich on the backs of Latin America's poor.

"Some countries globalise, and others are globalised," is how he puts it. "The Third World belongs in the latter category."

All this may discourage foreign investment, but it is mild compared to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

He compares President Bush to Hitler.

"The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the US president has no limits," Mr Chavez says. "I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W Bush."

If you were to colour a map of anti-Americanism in Latin America, for nearly 50 years Fidel Castro's Cuba has been the deepest red. Three of the most economically developed countries - Brazil, Chile and Argentina - are now in varying shades of left-of-centre pink.

Peru - if Mr Humala wins - would join Venezuela and Bolivia in bright post-box red, with two other countries - Mexico and Nicaragua - possibly about to follow.

Bogeyman returns?

Nicaragua is close to my heart. What has happened there for the past 20 years sums up the failures of US policy across Latin America.

As a young reporter I travelled across Nicaragua witnessing the fall of the left-wing Sandinista government led by the revolutionary Daniel Ortega.

Now in this new century things are changing, and [Latin America's] potential is being realised
For years Mr Ortega was Washington's Enemy Number One, the ultimate bogeyman.

President Bush's father, George Bush senior, was a key player in undermining Mr Ortega and the Sandinistas.

Mr Bush senior had been Director of Central Intelligence and Ronald Reagan's vice-president before he became president of the United States in January 1989.

During the Reagan administration money was channelled - illegally Democrats said - to the Nicaraguan "Contra" guerrillas, a motley crew of CIA trained anti-communists, paramilitaries and thugs.

The resulting scandal - known as "Iran-Contra" - almost brought down the Reagan administration. George Bush senior survived the scandal, and as president managed to see his policies finally work when Nicaragua's own people threw out the Sandinistas in a democratic election in 1990.

After the polls closed in the capital, Managua, I stood in a counting station next to a young Sandinista woman in green military fatigues. Shaking with emotion she brushed away a tear as the voting papers piled up for the Washington-supported opposition candidate, Violeta Chamorro.

"Adios, muchachos," the Sandinista girl called out to her defeated comrades, "companeros de mi vida!!!" (Goodbye boys, comrades of my life.)

Money issue

That was then. This is now. The young Sandinista revolutionary, Daniel Ortega, is back. He may well be re-elected president of Nicaragua.

Can you imagine it? The man who survived CIA plots and Contra death squads, who relinquished power peacefully to Washington's candidate, Violeta Chamorro, sweeping back into the Nicaraguan presidency?

It will be a huge embarrassment for George Bush junior, a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with American foreign policy in the hemisphere. And guess who predicted it would go wrong? Violeta Chamorro herself.

The night before her election victory over Mr Ortega I was invited to dinner at the walled compound of Mrs Chamorro's house in Managua. She told me that Washington politicians could always find money for wars in Latin America - but rarely for peace in Latin America.

She said even a slice of the money used to back the anti-communist Contra guerrillas could build a new Nicaragua - but she predicted that if she won the election Washington would declare victory - and then cut off the money supply. She was right.

Potential realised

And now? Well, most of my travelling in Latin America in the 1990s was to cover bad news: insurgency in Peru, American troops invading Panama, the killings by the Contras in Nicaragua, the repressive regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and armed thugs burning the rainforest in Brazil.

Even then, the potential of this wonderful continent was obvious.

Now in this new century things are changing, and the potential is being realised. With the exception of Cuba and Haiti, democracy has flourished, almost everywhere.

Latin American voters have thrown out their governments and - often - given a two-fingered salute to Washington. That is their prerogative.

Economically, some countries - including Peru - have been roaring ahead.

Their cultures are flourishing too. A new generation of novelists is following the path blazed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes.

The music? In this special series, we'll be hearing from Novalima from Peru - just one of the talented new bands.

And the cinema? If you haven't seen some of the new hot films from Mexico or Argentina, then you are missing a real treat.

I will be reporting shortly for Newsnight from Argentina on the New Generation cinema which is hotter than a chilli pepper and cooler than a long-neck beer. Plus we'll be covering the run-up to Peru's elections live from Lima, and assessing the huge leftward shift from Argentina to Venezuela.

Oh, yes, and I've also been an extra in a film being made in Buenos Aires. (I don't think the Oscar judges are likely to get too interested. But it was fun.)

I hope, in other words, that Newsnight's Inside Latin American season will capture some of the spice and rhythms of a continent full of life, and hope and promise.

Inside Latin America week starts on BBC Two's Newsnight on 3 April, at 2230 BST.


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