South America's leftward tilt has gained momentum with the likely victory of Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales, the coca-farming Indian who calls himself "Washington's nightmare."
Morales, whose election is all but assured given his unexpectedly wide margin in Sunday's voting, takes guidance from anti-US populist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and considers Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara his hero.
Morales and Chavez, along with more moderate leftist presidents in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, have risen to power in part by appealing to their citizens' profound frustration with US political, military and economic influence in their countries -- rhetoric that suggests how much goodwill the US has lost in the region in recent years.
"Clearly in Latin America, things are not happening the way the United States would like to see them happen," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "And the question is: Will the US try to be more engaged and be supportive of the people who believe in the same thing as it does, or will it react to these trends as threats to the US, which could turn them into a self-fulfilling prophecy?"
Despite their strident anti-US rhetoric, these leaders seem intensely focused on big business. Setting aside some old grievances, they are busily expanding economic alliances, making energy deals and planning new roads. They're talking about a resurgent South America that finally delivers economic progress for its people, with little help or guidance from Washington.
Morales may have a sharper learning curve than Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who announced early payoff plans this month for their once-crushing IMF debts, saving billions in interest and restoring no small amount of national pride.
"I'm a little nervous," Morales confessed to an Associated Press reporter at his victory party.
And he should be -- a leader of street protests with an 11th grade education, Morales, 46, will have to build coalitions with his former antagonists among Bolivia's business elite to deliver quickly on his promises.
He's counting on help from Chavez, who was the first to congratulate him after Sunday's voting. Chavez reached Morales by phone at his family home on a dirt road in Bolivia's coca-growing region of Cochabamba, and told him he would spread the good news with Cuban President Fidel Castro, Morales said with a wide grin after hanging up the phone.
Such collegial relations among Washington's longtime irritants may capture the imagination of South Americans frustrated with US-backed free-market policies that have done little to alleviate entrenched poverty among the continent's 400 million people.
But Latin American history is littered with former leaders who promised sweeping reforms only to leave office in disgrace. With the exception of Chavez, who can afford to make grand gestures because of Venezuela's huge oil revenues, leftist leaders like Kirchner and Silva know they must work with the world's financial institutions and multinational corporations to prove they are any different.
Silva promised a "Zero Poverty" program in his 2002 campaign, so far with little effect, according to critics. Kirchner has increased social spending, yet 40 percent of Argentina's 36 million people remain in poverty, a shameful legacy for a country once regarded among the world's wealthiest.