Argument

The 'Axis of Lula' vs. the 'Axis of Hugo'

Latin American leaders face a choice between provocation and progress.

The same weekend that Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez celebrated Mauricio Funes's election as El Salvador's new president, his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. The election in El Salvador and the meeting at the White House are manifestations one of the most important trends that will shape Latin American politics in coming years.

Funes was the candidate of the former guerrilla movement, Farabundo Mart National Liberation Front, and his election marked the peaceful transition from two decades of government by its archrival, the Arena party. Thus a right-wing government closely allied with the United States handed power to a leftist party whose most prominent leaders have a long history of confrontation with Washington. As significantly, Obama's invitation to da Silva marks the end of a long period of estrangement between the United States and Latin America and opens new possibilities for rebuilding tattered relations between Washington and the region.

According to Chvez, Funes's victory consolidates the historical current that has been rising in Latin America in this first decade of the 21st century, referring to the left's ascent to power in several countries of the hemisphere.

Does this mean that El Salvador is the newest member of the Axis of Hugo? In addition to Venezuela and Cuba, the core of that axis is formed by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Honduras and Paraguay are also part of this alliance, though their governments have an internal opposition that prevents their leaders from becoming full-fledged members.

While the axis countries build their anti-Yankee alliance and try to implement what the Venezuelan president calls 21st-century socialism, the Brazilian government is successfully developing a very different geopolitical project: ensuring Brazil's presence at the table when the world's most important decisions are negotiated. Brazil has thus become an indispensable voice in the debates concerning the rules governing international trade, energy, the environment, and the redesign of the international financial system.

So, while Hugo Chvez spends his time and oil revenues trying to influence countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Paraguay, da Silva hangs out with leaders in India, South Africa, and Europe.

The Brazilian government does not carry out this strategy in direct competition with Chvez's axis. It maintains close and friendly relations with the axis governments and goes out of its way to praise Venezeula's president. It has also been very effective in containing Chvez's more extreme international gambits, such as his enthusiastic support for Colombia's FARC guerrillas, and moderating his propensity for conflict. Brazil has enthusiastically supported his grandiose plans (the transcontinental gas pipeline, the Bank of the South, the merging of the Venezuelan and Brazilian oil companies, Venezuela's entry into Mercosur) while subtly sabotaging them and ensuring that none of them come to fruition. (None have.)

This frictionless coexistence between the Axis of Lula and the Axis of Hugo is going to become harder to sustain as the Brazilian president deepens his ties with Obama's White House. Hopefully, Obama's overture to Brazil signals a change in the long-held propensity of the United States to spend all of its time on Latin America's smallest countries and issues while neglecting the continent-size country in the middle. If the Obama administration were to give Brazil the time and political capital usually spent by the U.S. government on Cuba, it would find much higher rates of return.

And here is where El Salvador's election becomes such an interesting gauge of larger trends. Sooner rather than later, countries like El Salvador will have to choose. Do they want to join an alliance predicated on the willingness of the Venezuelan president to give away large chunks of his country's (declining) oil income, and constant confrontations with the United States? Or would they rather get as close as possible to Brazil -- a giant continental ally that has good and improving relations with the United States and a real influence in the global forums where decisions that affect Latin America are made?

The new president of El Salvador now faces this dilemma. Although he claims to be a moderate, his party's leadership is to his left and strongly pro-Chvez. They will push hard to tilt the new government toward the Axis of Hugo. Moreover, despite the fall in oil revenues, Chvez still has enough money to influence the internal politics of a small country like El Salvador, and there is no doubt that he will try. President Funes surely knows this and is also likely to understand that his best bet is to be as friendly as possible with Chvez without becoming another of his satellites.

To pull off this difficult balancing act, he can count on the Axis of Lula. And perhaps because he knows this, his first decision as president-elect was to travel to Brazil. For me, President Lula and his government are my reference of a leftist, democratic government that can instill confidence in foreign investors, Funes said in Brazil. Let's see what he says when he visits Hugo.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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