(Copy from Miami Herald )
Hey guys - does anybody want Chavez to be involved in another conflict ?
Posted on Thu, Apr. 04, 2002
Vote in Brazil could alter political map of region
If you think that the Bush administration has problems in Latin America with the latest crises in Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela, think about what it may face if Brazil's leftist candidate Luiz Inacio ''Lula'' da Silva wins this year's presidential elections in the region's biggest country.
For starters, a Brazilian move to the left could pave the way for a South American nationalist-populist bloc -- that could also include Venezuela and Argentina -- that would strongly oppose the U.S.-backed plan to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005. Conceivably, the new ''globaphobic'' bloc could strengthen ties with Cuba, and with Colombia's Marxist guerrillas.
While the consensus in U.S. diplomatic circles has been that Lula would not win against a more conservative candidate if there is a runoff election, the latest polls from Brazil have raised eyebrows. The standard answer from U.S. officials has shifted from ''Lula is unlikely to win'' to ``it can't be ruled out.''
''It's becoming increasingly evident that the election is up in the air,'' says William Perry, a former member of President Bush's transition team's Latin American advisory group who is writing a report on Brazil's elections for the conservative-leaning Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ``I happen to think that Lula has as many chances, if not more, than any other of the three major candidates.''
The latest poll, released this week by Brazil's Vox Populi firm, shows that Lula has 30 percent of the vote, up from the 26 percent he had on March 21. Lula, the candidate of the Workers Party, is followed by government-backed former Health Minister José Serra, with 19 percent, Maranhao state governor Roseana Sarney with 14 percent, and Rio de Janeiro province Gov. Anthony Garotinho with 14 percent.
Granted, we have seen that movie many times. Lula was ahead in the polls in three previous presidential elections, and lost them. Like Mexico's perennial leftist candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Lula has been unable to win the moderate vote and widen his support.
But now, a growing minority of influential Brazil watchers in Washington says things may change. There are several reasons why he has a good chance of winning the Oct. 6 primary election and has an even chance to win a possible second-round election scheduled for Oct. 27, they say.
First, Lula's disapproval rates have fallen from about 50 percent in the last elections to about 40 percent. In the event of a second-round election, where the winner of more than half the votes becomes the president, the drop in Lula's disapproval rate to below fifty percent could be a good omen for the leftist candidate.
Second, in a runoff election Lula would probably win the leftist votes that in the latest polls have gone to Garotinho, and center-leftist candidate Ciro Gomes.
Third, a corruption scandal involving Sarney, whose husband's offices were raided by police in a move widely believed designed to discredit the governor and help her government-backed rival Serra, has brought about a major rift in the center-left coalition that helped current president Fernando Henrique Cardoso win the past two elections. There is so much bad blood between the two sides that the government coalition may be beyond repair.
Fourth, while Lula continues to make pilgrimages to Cuba and to claim that the U.S.-backed hemispheric free trade deal is a U.S. attempt to ''annex'' Latin America, some influential observers feel he may be moving toward the center.
Two former top State Department officials told me in separate interviews this week that a Lula victory would not necessarily lead to radical changes in Brazil, or in South America.
''I don't think anybody in Washington hopes Lula will win, [because] it would be a potential setback for the process of integration,'' says Bernard Aronson, former head of the State Department's Latin American affairs office. ''But there have been lots of populist-sounding candidates who once in office, faced with the realities of global finances, have pursued different options.'' Likewise, Peter Romero, who led the State Department's Latin American affairs office until his retirement last year, told me that ``I don't think the Brazilians can afford not to be part of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, even with Lula. There would be concern, and a period of uncertainty -- but the reality of office makes a big difference.''
Maybe so. But because of Brazil's weight in the region, a Lula victory would change Latin America's political map, and the Bush administration's headaches will multiply.