The World Social Forum (WSF) in Caracas ended its first day with a protest demonstration resounding to chanted slogans against empire and war. Many activists in the huge Venezuelan gathering can be forgiven for feeling that the tide of history is with them. The activists hailed the presence at the WSF of two charismatic figures of the moment the "Bolivarian revolution's" host, Hugo Chávez, and Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, fresh from his inauguration on 22 January.
By contrast, they showed no concern that a former hero of the Latin American left was missing from this year's WSF: Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. It was Chávez himself who, after meeting Lula and the Argentinean leader Néstor Kirchner in Brasília on 20 January, announced that the Brazilian president would be absent from the WSF for the first time in its six-year history. Even Brazil's foreign ministry only announced Lula's decision hours later. "The president has an important schedule ahead here in Brazil", explained the embarrassed minister Celso Amorim.
Also by Arthur Ituassu on Brazil in openDemocracy:
"Lula and Brazil: new beginning or dead end? " (May 2005)
"A big mess in Brazil" (June 2005)
"Poverty and the state in Latin America"
"Lula: the dream is over" (August 2005)
"Brazil: never the same again" (October 2005)
"Brazils gun law: another brick in the wall" (October 2005)
'One hour with George W Bush"
"Farewell José, farewell 2005"
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Lula may be partially in the shade as more high-profile figures take centre-stage, but Brazil's leadership is as active as ever. Amorim himself is focusing on developments at the World Trade Organisation, especially his G20 initiative; Marco Aurélio Garcia, Lula's aide on foreign affairs, and Darc Costa, former deputy head of Brazil's powerful bank for development, lead the government's political projects for Latin America.
Garcia's touch in Brazilian foreign policy was felt clearly when Lula announced his support for Evo Morales in his recent campaign for Bolivia's presidency, breaking a well-established Itamaraty tradition of non-engagement in other countries' affairs; while it is no secret that Darc Costa is one of "Chávez's men" in Brasília.
Indeed, although Hugo Chávez preceded him as Venezuela's president, the long march to power of Lula and his Workers' Party can be seen as helping to release the political wave that has brought leftwing governments into office across Latin America. His experience in government may have been tarnished by the mensalão corruption scandal that dominated 2005, but the Brazilian president remains a major player on the region's political chessboard and his performance in the November 2006 elections will crucial to Brazil's neighbours. Lula still harbours ambitions to be the leader of a new, progressive dynamic in the region that can address the problems that plague it: poverty, violence, crime, drugs and political instability.
Such radical political change is both necessary and possible. After several generations of foreign intervention and domination marked by colonialism, imperialism, cold-war disputes, military dictatorship, and traumatic relationships with international financial institutions Latin American peoples today have the chance to try to build a region expressing and reflecting their own political desires.
In many ways, this is already happening: in different ways, Lula, Chávez, Kirchner and Morales are clearly articulating a regional political platform that seeks a continent-wide relevance. Their rhetoric as much as their meetings seems to recognise that cooperation, dialogue and a degree of competition over "which" model is the best rather than national politics alone is the way forward.
The recent summits are a case in point. In Brasília, Hugo Chávez (him again) announced a plan agreed with Brazil and Argentina to construct an 8,000-kilometre gas pipeline to connect the region's energy suppliers and consumers. In La Paz for Evo Morales's inauguration, Lula asked the new Bolivian president if he would send his government's plan for Bolivia to his fellow leaders in the region, so that they could provide support and advice in implementing it amid the difficult circumstance Evo inherits.
However, the mood of political partnership and solidarity is shadowed by two interrelated questions, the answers to which will help define Latin Americas political development in 2006:
- can the leftwing governments (especially in the largest and most populous state, Brazil) establish themselves within their own societies?
- can they articulate regional platforms that meet the real needs of the continent's population as well as its nation-states' urge to retain their autonomy, independence, sovereignty or "self-identity"?
The immense social inequalities and polarisations in Latin American countries present a major challenge to progressive governments. They constitute a historical legacy that today demands in response something fundamental to a democratic polity: the constitution of a common space, of a political life in community, of identical subjects in rights, duties and opportunities.
The essential requirement for creating it is not pipelines, airports or nuclear plants, but a regional plan to spread free basic education, health care, access to justice and public security. Lula's political ambitions are undiminished, and his political trajectory unfinished, but one lesson of his three years in power is already apparent: if Latin America's leaders fail to deliver, their people will sooner or later punish them.