There is a growing consensus among Latin American diplomats that new political winds are blowing in the region — after a decade of radical leftist populism, we are entering a new era of centrist pragmatism.
Are such forecasts right? Let's look at the evidence.
There is no question that Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist president Hugo Chavez, who was Latin America's center of attention during the past 10 years, is rapidly losing his clout as a regional leader.
Chavez's checkbook diplomacy and radical populist rhetoric served him well when oil prices reached record highs and his message sounded like a break with the corruption of the past at the start of his presidency 11 years ago.
But today, with oil prices at nearly half their record highs in 2008, Venezuela suffering from Latin America's highest inflation rate at 30 percent, growing electricity shortages, and what is expected to be the only economy in the region that will not grow in 2010, Chavez is finding himself busy trying to stay politically alive at home.
In addition, recent elections in Latin America have signaled a shift away from radical populism. Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras have recently elected right-of-center presidents, and Argentina's centrist opposition parties won that country's mid-term elections.
Even in Uruguay and El Salvador, where leftist parties won the last presidential elections, their new leaders have kept a prudent distance from Chavez.
In what may be a sign of the times, Chavez did not attend the May 18 mega-summit of Latin American and European leaders in Madrid, where Colombia, Peru and Central American countries signed free trade deals with the European Union.
A high-ranking Latin American diplomat told me that Chavez's absence surprised many at the summit of 60 heads of state. Until recently, Chavez, who attended the previous five bi-regional summits, "would have never missed such an important stage" to try to steal the show, he said.
More recently, when Chavez visited Argentina on May 25 to join in the celebrations for that country's bicentennial, he barely made headlines elsewhere in the region. The days when Chavez's trips abroad were awaited by hoards of journalists -- as if a wealthy Santa Claus was descending on their countries -- seem long gone.
What's just as telling, even Chavez's closes allies seem to be trying to hedge their bets.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, a Chavez follower who rarely misses an occasion to blame Washington for his country's problems, is expected to receive Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Ecuador on June 8.
Argentina's populist president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has recently held several friendly meetings with Chile's new conservative President Sebastian Piñera. And earlier this year, Fernandez de Kirchner visited Peru and was decorated by Peruvian President Alan García, an open Chavez foe -- something she would have hardly done two years ago for fears of enraging her Venezuelan friend.
Peru's Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde told me in a recent interview that "things are changing in Latin America. I sense that, little by little, there is a new climate of tolerance. What's in vogue today is pragmatism."
Asked about this, Organization of American States chief José Miguel Insulza told me that "there's no question that there is a climate of much more tolerance." He attributed it in part to the fact that most countries have survived the global economic crisis relatively well, "which has given them renewed confidence," and to other countries' "greater respect for diversity."
My Opinion: Chavez may have a financial cushion big enough to maintain his increasingly authoritarian democracy -- or elected dictatorship -- at home, but his days as the key player in Latin America's regional affairs seem to be over.
His regional clout has always been directly proportional to oil prices, and the price of oil has fallen from the $147 a barrel record in 2008 to $74 a barrel on May 28.
As I've written before, the pendulum of Latin American politics tends to change every 10 years: in the 1970s, the region's political map was sprinkled with military dictatorships; in the 1980s, with center-left democracies; in the 1990s, with center-right, pro-free market governments; and in the 2000s, with leftist populist leaders. The next decade may well belong to centrist pragmatists.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.