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Santiago Times

The Presidential Gentlemen: What Is The Typical Latin American Leader?


January 14, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Chile Information Project (CHIP). All rights reserved.

(As the Organization of American States (OAS) summit unfolds in Monterrey, Mexico, Peruvian writer and journalist Alvaro Vargas Llosa makes a fascinating analysis of the qualities required to become a president in Latin America. In previous times, a certain archetypal leader could be recognized. But, does that formula still exist today, he asks? What, if any, are the common traits currently exhibited by the men that run this vast region?

Talking about serving leaders including Chile's President Ricardo Lagos, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Llosa suggests that a significant regional shift is behind the big players currently on stage at the OAS presidential roadshow in Mexico. The second half of this article will appear in tomorrow's Santiago Times.)

Is there a typical Latin-American president? If you flick through the history books, there is probably no other area of the world that has produced so many presidents that are so representative of the area's own politics. So, in this postmodern era, is there an archetypal president of Latin America?

A quick glance reveals a few consistent factors, but they do not represent an "archetype," and that perhaps represents a significant change from previous generations. If you think of the era of Romulo Betancourt (Venezuela), Muñoz Marin (Puerto Rico), Fernando Belaunde (Peru) and the two Lleras (Colombia), you can immediately identify an unmistakable mould. The same thing happens with Cardenas (Mexico), Peron (Argentina), and Vargas (Brazil), or with Castro (Cuba), Allende (Chile), and Paz Estenssoro (Bolivia).

Today's presidents, on the other hand, are not cut from the same cloth. The presidential tailor has multiplied many times over. Even so, let's make an effort to find some common points.

The first point is that the presidents are better than their own management. I mean: all of them have built up relatively successful careers before becoming presidents. The majority of people have not been able to do much in government, but that does not mean that people vote in completely random ways.

Chilean Ricardo Lagos and Peruvian Alejandro Toledo have academic achievements; Mexican Vicente Fox did so in the business world; Nestor Kirchner (Argentina) and Alvaro Uribe (Colombia) have succeeded in their public careers; Brazilian "Lula" da Silva had industrial and trade-union merits. The two anomalies that spring to mind -Venezuelan Hugo Chavez and Ecuadorian Lucio Gutierrez - are not far from the general rule, as they had successful military careers, one in the parachuting and artillery corps, and the other in the cavalry, not to mention their preparation in civil careers.

These careers do not guarantee good presidents, and it is perfectly possible to be a good president without having been a good professional. But, whether democrats or coup organizers, calm or firebrands, they all have healthy records of service. If you were a manager and received their résumés, you would not throw them in the wastebasket.

The second point is that the majority of them have given up something important. Their actions have "betrayed" their family origins, their ideological passion, or symbolism, and I say this without any intention to judge them.

Vicente Fox, urged on by the Guanajoto environment where he grew up, was on the verge of becoming a priest in his youth; his second marriage to Marta Sahagun, in the middle of his rule and to widespread shock, represented a definitive break in his markedly conservative upbringing, which is very much that of the National Action Party (to which Fox belongs). Ricardo Lagos rules like an administrator, but his background is ideological. If the 1973 coup had not happened to frustrate what would have been a long-lasting ambassadorship in the USSR, perhaps his ideologies would have been even stronger than they were. However, there is little doubt that the Lagos of 15 years ago would have knotted his brow (or even turned his stomach) at the moderation of the contemporary Lagos.

Not to mention "Lula," who founded the Sao Paulo Forum with some of the most ancient relics of the Latin-American leftwing, and whose fiscal music now coos gently into the ears of the U.S. stock exchange. Wall Street, let us not forget, created a financial stampede that led to a 40 percent devaluation in the Brazilian currency because of the danger represented by a former lathe operator winning the elections. And even Kirchner, who has begun to reverse the ill fortune to hit his country in the last decade, has gone significantly less far than his previous career might have suggested. For example, he was the founder of the "Corriente Peronista" (the Peronist current) within the Argentine judiciary.

Lucio Gutierrez, although he began to speak some nonsense, is not governing as a great ally to the Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, which brought down the government of Jamil Mahuad, and even had him put in prison for a while. Jail is also an area where presidents have something in common: for distinct reasons and for different lengths of time, Lagos, "Lula," Chavez and Gutierrez have all spent some time behind bars.

Alejandro Toledo's "betrayal" is a different matter. His is a case of loving luxury: the man who turned his miserable past into a symbolic issue - for example, his time as a shoeshine boy in the port city of Chimbote - is now leading the life of a magnate. The views of the citizens have been reflected in the opinion polls.

Translated by Jolyon Attwooll

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