And then, there were three. Brazil has joined the socialist camp, which shouldn't surprise anyone as the gulf between rich and poor widens in most of Latin America.
Unfortunately for Brazil's poor, if history repeats itself, their new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will only make them poorer and the corruption he so eloquently campaigns against will only grow.
That's what has happened in Venezuela. Since 1999, Hugo Chavez has led a country rich in oil into a corrupt economic mess, with 2.5 million more poor people today than before his election.
Lula and Chavez worship Cuba's Fidel Castro, the strongman who has run the communist island's economy into the ground in 43 years by resisting sensible free-market reforms and blaming the U.S. trade embargo for his failed Marxist experiment. Castro, of course, didn't need a popular vote to impose his way of thinking. Firing squads in the early years took care of that. The irony for struggling Cubans today is that if we are to trust the regime's figures they are among the most educated in the hemisphere and yet they remain mired in poverty.
Brazil is not a little Caribbean island stuck in a revolution lost. It's a huge country with vast natural resources and a growing middle class. It is in many ways what America was in 1900 a nation primed for greatness, particularly if the global economy returns benefits to its workers.
"Only in America," we like to say about those whose hard work and initiative took them from rags to riches. Only in Brazil, we can now say, would a former shoeshine boy with a fifth-grade education get elected president of Latin America's most populous nation.
Lula's overwhelming support among the poor and liberal intellectuals signaled a public rebuke of the previous president's eight years of U.S.-backed economic policies to rein in Brazil's staggering inflation. Brazil's economy grew dramatically in the 1990s, but the wealth didn't reach the poorest workers. The rich hoarded too much, and now the economy has tanked.
By not raising the pay for the poorest workers, by keeping more and more money at the top for the few, the avarice of capitalism plays right into the worst in socialism. It plays right into the class divisions and forces a nationalistic jargon that embraces unproductive nationalized industries and a top-down economic model that quashes individual creativity with little stimulus to work harder.
Brazilians' saving grace is that Lula's Workers Party has steered clear of corruption scandals, which bodes well for the country if he seeks to build coalitions with other parties. But if he seeks a popular vote to change the constitution and move more power into his handsbypassing coalition-building as Chavez did in Venezuelathen Brazil is doomed to fleeing investment, a stagnant economy and evermore poverty.
It all depends on Lula. If he's willing to compromise with moderates and conservatives on reforms, if he's able to see the big picture of the benefits of a global economy, then Brazil will thrive. I doubt he has that kind of vision.
Early on, Lula blasted U.S. free-trade proposals as an imperialist ploy to "annex" Latin America. There may be good reason to question some U.S. policies that haven't helped the poor. Brazil, a big U.S. trade partner, certainly has the clout to negotiate a true partnership that benefits its people, though.
Lula needs to open his eyes to this new world of global partnerships. The European Union is getting richer, not poorer. Lula has said he wants to follow Spain's model of liberal policies and a market economy, and if that's so, there's hope. Because the alternative the intransigent, hard-left policies offered by Cuba and Venezuela offer nothing but more poverty and hopelessness.