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The Monroe Doctrine is Dead, as Latin America Breaks Free

A group of left-leaning South American leaders is effectively replacing Washington's presence in the region.

Five years ago, when Evo Morales was a rising political star as a congressman and coca farmer, I met him in his office in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He was drinking orange juice and sifting through the morning newspapers when I asked him about a meeting he just had with Brazilian President Lula. "The main issue that we spoke about was how we can construct a political instrument of liberation and unity for Latin America," Morales told me.

Now President Morales is one of many left-leaning South American leaders playing that instrument. This unified bloc is effectively replacing Washington's presence in the region, from military training grounds to diplomatic meetings. In varying degrees, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Venezuela are demonstrating that the days of U.S.-backed coups, gunship diplomacy, and Chicago Boys' neoliberalism may very well be over for South America. The election of Barack Obama also gave hope for a less cowboy approach from Washington.

While many of the current left-of-center leaders in Latin America were elected on anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal platforms, the general scope of their policies varies widely. On the left side of the spectrum sit Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. They have focused on nationalizing natural resources and redistributing the subsequent wealth to social programs to benefit the countries' poor majorities. They have also enacted constitutional changes aimed at redistributing land and increasing popular participation in government policy, decision-making, and budgeting. Chávez, Morales, and Correa were also more outspoken than other leaders in their critique of the Bush Administration.

Lula, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina have been more moderate in their approach toward confronting neoliberalism, but have been trailblazers in human rights and in their dealings with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. Though they haven't been as radical in their economic and social policies, they have shown solidarity with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

A conflict in Bolivia this past September proved to be a litmus test for the new regional unity. Just weeks after a recall vote invigorated Morales with 67 percent support across the country, a small group of thugs hired by the rightwing opposition led a wave of violence against Morales's supporters. The worst of these days of road blockades, protests, and racist attacks took place on September 11 in the tropical state of Pando. A private militia allegedly funded by the rightwing governor, Leopoldo Fernández, fired on a thousand unarmed pro-Morales men, women, and children marching toward the state's capital. The attack left dozens dead and wounded.

Just before this violence hit a boiling point, Morales kicked U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg out of the country, accusing him of supporting the rightwing opposition. Morales said of Goldberg, "He is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia." Numerous interviews and declassified documents prove that the U.S. Embassy has supported the Bolivian opposition. Goldberg denies these charges. At a protest in which effigies of opposition governors and American flags were burned, Edgar Patana, the leader of the Regional Workers' Center of Bolivia, spoke to reporters of Morales's decision to kick out Goldberg: "If he hadn't expelled him we would be tearing down the U.S. Embassy today." Chávez followed Morales's lead and kicked out the U.S. ambassador in that country. The Bush Administration responded by ejecting both nations' ambassadors from Washington.

When Morales arrived at a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Santiago, Chile, following the conflict, he condemned the rightwing violence in his country as part of a "civic coup d'état." UNASUR is the most recent, and perhaps most effective, new coalition of South American nations. It emerged in its present form in 2007 to ensure, among other things, sovereignty, peace, and solidarity in the region. At the emergency meeting held to resolve the Bolivian conflict, the region's presidents unanimously backed Morales, condemned the opposition's violent tactics, and emphasized that they wouldn't recognize the separatists.

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