Latin American Connection
Florida watches nervously as a neo-populist tide rolls through Latin America, the state's most important trade region
Hugo Chavez: For all of his fiery anti-American rhetoric, Florida trade with Venezuela has increased over his eight years in office.
Earlier this year, Hugo Chavez, the fiery, anti-American president of Venezuela, unexpectedly announced he was slashing U.S. air service to his country. Venezuela's National Aviation Institute would ban all Continental and Delta flights and cut American Airlines flights by half. The ploy was no random broadside. Chavez was irked at a decade-long policy by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that prohibited Venezuelan carriers from adding flights to the U.S. because of concerns over the country's airsafety procedures.
Chavez's tactic worried Florida executives and professionals who do business with Venezuela, the state's third-largest trade partner. Raul Lopez-Perez, executive director of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce in Miami, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel the move would "have a very negative impact on trade and business," including the loss of jobs in both south Florida and Venezuela. He said his group likely would have to cancel the upcoming ExpoVenezuela trade show, especially if buyers could not count on reliable future transport of goods.
Three days after his threat, Chavez delayed the ban to allow talks with U.S. carriers and the FAA. Ultimately, he got what he wanted: After sending a team to Venezuela, the FAA increased the country's safety rating, effectively allowing the Venezuelan carriers into the U.S. market.
To Gov. Jeb Bush and many others, the episode is vintage Chavez. The Venezuelan leader injects lots of bluster into the trade picture and rants against U.S. capitalism, but he's no real threat to business. "To use a Texas expression," the governor says, Chavez is "all hat and no cattle."
And, in fact, Florida's trade with Venezuela and the rest of the region has continued to climb over the course of Chavez's eight years in office. But Chavez is just the most visible crest of a wave of neo-populist leadership that has washed through Latin America. Not all of the new leaders mimic Chavez's antics or anti-Americanism, but most support policies they feel will protect their domestic economies and seem less inclined toward free-trade initiatives.
To what extent the political trends will slow the free-trade momentum built over the past decade is an open question. Protectionism -- on both sides of the border -- has shelved dreams, first expressed during the Summit of the Americas in Miami a dozen years ago, of creating the hemisphere-wide trade pact known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Whether neo-populism also will hobble the more recent idea of a slimmed-down "FTAA of the willing" remains to be seen.