There was a telling moment during the Mar del Plata summit of the Americas in Argentina earlier this month. As the 34 leaders walked to the seaside spot chosen for their group photograph, they chatted and joked among themselves. But while they strolled in groups, one leader walked alone: the US president.
George Bush's isolation was more than symbolic. It was borne out by the failure of the summit to rubberstamp the US-backed creation of a south American trade zone. Both President Bush's isolation and the failure of the latest US-inspired trade plan for the continent highlight a question preoccupying US policy-makers and Latin American leaders: is the region drifting away from the influence of its northern neighbour?
Between now and the end of 2006, 11 presidential elections will be held in Latin America. The political changes and challenges that ensue could see a continent redrawn.
"In a real way Latin America is up for grabs," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based thinktank. "At the very time when the US has one of the most conservative administrations, it's dealing with a Latin America that is moving to the left, not to the far-out left, but sufficiently to the left that Latin America is beginning to think about non-traditional relationships and affiliations."
Washington's unease is heightened by the presence of leaders who, at least nominally, come from the left. In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected from the Workers' party; Chile elected Ricardo Lagos, the first socialist president since Salvador Allende; Argentinians voted in Nestor Kirchner, who came from the leftwing faction of the Peronist party; and Uruguay chose Tabaré Vázquez, the candidate of a coalition of leftwing and progressive groups.
Indigenous political groups are revitalising the political terrain in several countries, while the strict free-market neo-liberalism espoused by the US could be threatened by the election of candidates promoting a mixed economy and government spending to alleviate poverty. In February the CIA director, Porter Goss, listed the coming elections as one of the "potential areas of instability" that cause the agency concern.
For the US, the major source of instability is Venezuela and its leader, Hugo Chávez, who provided the focal point for anti-Bush protests in Argentina. "There is Hugo Chávez and then there is everybody else," said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "While Chávez was elected democratically, his background is not the background of the traditional democratic politician. The others all came out of the democratic system, they are products of it and are committed to it, and committed to orthodox market-orientated economies."
This December sees a presidential election in Bolivia, where protests over natural resources and the rights of indigenous groups have caused the fall of two governments in as many years. The leading candidate is Evo Morales, whom many see as a natural ally of Mr Chávez. "There is a possibility that Chávez will get his first governmental follower," said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "Up to now he has been a lone wolf."
"Bolivia presents a troubling panorama for the US and for Brazil and Argentina," said Mr DeShazo. "The country is on the brink of instability and it will be difficult for a coherent government capable of uniting the country to emerge. Let's hope it does."
Jean McNeil of the Latin America Bureau in London said that the unification of the Bolivian opposition was spurred by its objection to the privatisation of natural resources. "Most people are opposed to privatisation," she said, "that is the one common theme to the broad range of movements in Bolivia. You can extrapolate that across the region."
Indigenous movements have made themselves heard across the region: in Peru, which holds an election in April; Ecuador, which goes to the polls late next year; and Colombia, where the conservative leader, Alvaro Uribe, seems set to seek a second term in May. While the re-election of Mr Uribe would appear to rule out any conclusion that Latin America is drifting to the left, analysts argue that the old ideological labels do not help describe the region's politics.
"Clearly from some perspective the number of presidents who have been elected from the left has been growing and will continue to grow," said Mr Hakim. "But what does that mean? Chile's management is probably more conservative than Washington's. Even in Uruguay a president with a background in frontline politics is keeping the budget balanced."
In Chile, where elections are to be held on December 11, Michelle Bachelet is expected to succeed Ricardo Lagos. The election of the socialist daughter of an army general who died in prison following the ousting of President Salvador Allende in 1973, and who was herself imprisoned, is unlikely to disrupt the continuity of the country's economic policy.
"People have been seeing a leftward drift in Latin America since about 1925," said Richard Feinberg, a Latin American specialist and President Bill Clinton's adviser. "If you look around central America it's wall-to-wall private sector conservatives. That's not a leftward drift."
Even so, Mr Birns countered: "There is a leftist juggernaut that has brought back a rhetoric that hadn't been heard in Latin America since the early 1990s. In common in all these elections is that there is a leftist alternative. And the basso profundo is the grave unpopularity of the US."
One cause of that unpopularity is that neo-liberalism has failed to address the region's underlying poverty. "What people want is growth with equity," said Prof Feinberg. "The problem with Bush is that he's not so interested in the equity component. That's his blind side. His retort is that trade produces jobs. Most Latin Americans look at Bush and see him as a heartless conservative. Then you add Iraq, which was immensely unpopular in Latin America because it touches all the wrong nerves, and his Texas swagger."
Most observers agree that what is likely to emerge from the electoral cycle is a growing number of governments keen to pursue a mixed economic model to address social needs while seeking political alliances beyond the US. "What's interesting is this move to appoint social democratic administrations in the region," said Ms McNeil. "Whether they are going to present a united front or a challenge to the hegemony of the US, I don't know. Perhaps they will on the economic front, but politically and ideologically, I don't know."
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