Leading article: Don't dismiss them as demagogues

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The Independent Online

While Hispanics cross the Mexican border in droves into the United States, further south the newly elected left-wing presidents of Latin America seem determined to do everything in their power to cock a snook at the US and its free-market philosophy.

The latest action by the Bolivian government of Evo Morales to seize the natural gas reserves controlled by foreign companies is in one sense a classic example of nationalist policies by a new populist government elected on a banner of restoring the wealth of the country to its own people. At other times, it might be viewed as a peculiar development on the world's margins. But in this case, it appears particularly unsettling, first because it comes at a time of rocketing energy prices and a growing squeeze on supply. Bolivia is Latin America's second largest country in terms of hydrocarbon reserves. Any action it takes to upset existing arrangements is bound to arouse fears of supplies being disrupted.

The second reason for concern, particularly in Washington, is that it comes on top of a gathering wave of populist left-wing elections, including Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and, very probably, Peru as well, when the presidential run-offs take place there at the end of the month.

President Morales in Bolivia is following consciously in the footsteps of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in nationalising energy assets and, indeed, in establishing constituent assemblies that could increase their power at the expense of parliamentary opposition. The possession of considerable hydrocarbon reserves has given their two countries the possibility of state wealth just as the recent escalation in energy prices has given them the chance to seize it. It is a sign of the times, and Morales's determination to get at these assets, that the chief victim, and the most vociferous critic of the move, is neighbouring Brazil, whose state oil company, Petrobras, is the largest investor in Bolivian gas.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss too readily - as Washington is doing - the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia as mere demagogues. Energy reserves are national assets which the state has a right to control and benefit from. The manner of their seizure is ultimately a matter of law just as state control is a matter of economic prudence. But Morales, Chavez and their fellow left-wingers in Latin America represent something real and important - the effect of Iraq in rousing anti-Americanism in the countries that refused to go along with the invasion, and the cry of a majority population who feel left out by the uneven growth and laissez-faire policies promoted by the US and the international banks.