Lima, Peru - A few days ago, Peru's president, Alan Garcia, visited Washington. It wasn't a striking or even an aesthetically appealing occasion, but it had some importance for South America. Last time Mr. García dealt with a U.S. president was in the late 1980s, when he was our leader for the first (and many prayed -- unsuccessfully -- it would be the last) time. During both visits, his counterparts were named George Bush. In both cases, the pairs of presidents discussed the "war on drugs." But times have changed, and Mr. García has, too.
"Where's the beef?" he defiantly asked back in the 1980s, referring to the meager U.S. funding of alternatives to the cocaine economy (the former President Bush answered with a vegetarian smile). But with the current President Bush, García had a friendly chat, discussing logistics of extraditing drug kingpins to the U.S. and having the U.S. Congress approve a free trade agreement.
George W. Bush and Alan Garcia don't have much in common (a compliment to both, in a way), yet they share a common concern: Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
This election year in Latin America has looked, save a couple of exceptions, like a serial referendum on Mr. Chávez. He won in Bolivia. He lost in Peru. And it seems he also lost in Mexico. But he might win in Ecuador's runoff vote, and has a rather strong chance in Nicaragua's November 5 presidential elections.
Petrodollars keep Mr. Chávez active and his neighbors wary. For Colombia's Álvaro Uribe, it is not a happy prospect to be flanked by Mr. Chávez and his Ecuadorian admirer,
Rafael Correa, if he wins the neck-and-neck presidential elections. Mr. Uribe, who has aggressively fought the old FARC guerrilla insurgency, but failed to quell it, will have to deal with two regimes that might offer sanctuary and perhaps cooperate with the FARC.
Mr. Chávez is already providing military aid to Bolivia's President Evo Morales, a fact that has raised some alarm in Chile and Peru. Mr. Morales's conflict-ridden regime is mercurial and unpredictable except in its allegiance to Mr. Chávez, whom the Bolivian president respectfully calls his "older brother".
So, South America might be drawn into two gradually growling and less diplomatic group of countries: Colombia, Peru, Chile on one side; and Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia on the other. Mr. Kirchner's Argentina would probably be a wary supporter of Mr. Chávez, while Uruguay's Tabaré Vásquez would be closer to Chile, Peru and Colombia.
Looks like old-fashioned nation alignment and in a way it is, but the divide is neither left-right nor conservative-liberal. It is more between political party-based democracies and radical caudillo regimes, laced with profound personal animosities (some of the insults hurled between Mr. Chávez and Mr. García could earn a place in any anthology on the metaphors of diatribe).
How will Brazil deal with an unsettled neighborhood? To some degree, it depends on the presidential runoff's outcome. The challenger, Geraldo Alckmin, might not show the saintly patience with Chávez and Morales that President Lula showed, to his political detriment. Nor will Mr. Lula himself, if re-elected.
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