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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 December 2006, 01:30 GMT
Latin America looks to 2007
By Nick Caistor
Latin America analyst

Latin America enters 2007 with renewed political leadership and generally booming economic prospects.

Venezuela's President Chavez,  Brazil's President Lula,  Bolivia's President Morales and Chile's President Bachelet
Latin American leaders have called for greater regional integration
New governments, especially in the Andean countries, are looking for different options to neo-liberalism and the free market approach that has dominated economic and political thinking in the region for years.

But the largest countries have voted for stability in a year of a dozen presidential elections.

In Brazil, President Lula comfortably won a second term in office, despite major political scandals in his Workers' Party.

In Colombia and Venezuela, two very contrasting leaders, Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez, were also rewarded with second terms in office, while it seems likely that in Argentina, President Nestor Kirchner will also be given another four years in power in 2007.

Such presidential continuity is new to the region - many of the countries have only recently changed their constitutions to allow the president to stand a second time.

New chance

The challenge for the incumbents is to make good on promises that have often eluded them in their first period in office.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
Colombia's Alvaro Uribe has not yet brought peace to the country

In Brazil, Lula will need to make real inroads in the fight against poverty. He came to power in 2002 promising to make hunger a thing of the past in his country, but so far has been unable to make much progress.

Similarly, Mr Uribe in Colombia argued that his "democratic security" could end the vicious civil conflict that has claimed thousands of lives over many years.

So far the conservative president's attempts to disarm the right-wing paramilitaries and cajole the left-wing guerrilla groups into peace talks have met with limited success.

He now has another four years to see if he can achieve something that has been beyond the grasp of his predecessors.

In Venezuela, President Chavez has vowed to use his new six-year term to deepen his "Bolivarian Revolution", his socialist movement named after Simon Bolivar, the 19th Century independence hero.

Observers say this means that he must make greater attempts to make structural changes to the Venezuelan economy rather than using buoyant oil revenues for programmes - described by critics as paternalistic - to help those most in need.

Reform plans

While Mr Chavez is busy dispensing largesse at home, some see him trying to spread anti-US sentiment throughout Latin America.

But the three recently-elected left-wing leaders most likely to back him in that face very different challenges of their own.

Mexican protests
Mexico has seen political protest and public disorder

In Nicaragua, the once-revolutionary Daniel Ortega will, like Brazil's Lula, be trying to reduce poverty and bring some semblance of justice and equity to an impoverished country where the situation has been made even worse by corrupt politicians.

In Ecuador meanwhile, Rafael Correa faces the task of ruling without any political party directly behind him, as he attempts to resolve the split between Congress and the presidency which has made the country almost ungovernable in recent years.

Political reform is also high on the agenda in Bolivia, where Evo Morales has fulfilled his election promise to bring the oil and gas industry back under national control.

President Morales now has to build on that, and make sure he uses his past as a union leader to take a majority of Bolivians with him, avoiding the risk of this Andean country splintering, especially when a constituent assembly begins its deliberations in the coming months.

Monolithic symbols

But if Latin American countries are likely to be too busy setting their own affairs to rights to form a coherent challenge to the United States and the perceived neo-liberal model it promotes in the region, Washington does have two major concerns.

In Mexico, the July 2006 elections saw more political continuity, with conservative Felipe Calderon, the candidate from President Vicente Fox's PAN (National Action Party) elected for the next six years.

Raul Castro
Raul Castro has ruled Cuba during his brother Fidel's ill health
But the margin of his victory over left-winger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was so slender that the defeated candidate has been mounting a noisy and occasionally massive campaign against the result.

This could combine with other destabilising factors, from local disputes in Oaxaca to drug violence in the state of Michoacan, to give Washington a headache.

But the greatest uncertainty in 2007 for the United States, Latin America, and the rest of the world, lies in the future of Cuba.

The year 2006 saw the death of two monolithic symbols of past authoritarian rule in the region. Paraguay's former President Alfredo Stroessner died in exile in August.

In Chile, former military ruler Augusto Pinochet died at the age of 91.

Although he had not held power for 16 years, his presence still cast a shadow over political life there, which should now return fully to its democratic ways.

After Fidel

But in Cuba, President Fidel Castro is still there.

After 47 years as undisputed leader of the Cuban revolution, ill-health has meant him handing over power to his younger brother Raul since July.

There has been little sign of political change or unrest during this period, but when Mr Castro dies, it will be the end of an era for Cuba, the whole of Latin America, and for the United States.

Washington has already been trying to make provision for what it calls "a transition to democracy".

Its worst fear is that the end of the Castro regime could create violence that would provoke a mass exodus from Cuba and the heavy involvement of Cuban Americans in any political upheaval that followed.

Perhaps the new-found political stability and maturity of Latin America could lead it to play a decisive role in ensuring that whatever comes after Fidel Castro is the genuine expression of the Cuban people's political aspirations.

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