In country after country since 1998, Latin Americans have freely elected left or progressive presidents, beginning with Hugo Chávez’s election in Venezuela. From 2002 to 2009, left or center-left candidates have won the presidency in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Having concluded that US and IMF/World Bank prescriptions that privatized state resources and prioritized neoliberal trade and investment policies failed the region, a new generation of leaders are intent on recasting Latin America’s relationship with the United States and the world at large as they seek economic and social development through homegrown strategies.

Contrary to the US media’s frequent depictions, Latin America is home to vibrant democratic societies in which organized citizens press for social changes against political elites, an openly hostile corporate media and traditional oligarchs who still control most economic activity.

Though this peaceful transition has been freely achieved through the ballot box, the mainstream US media regularly employs headlines such as “The Mad Adventures of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez,” “Chávez and the Latin American Left: Muzzling the Media?” and “Hugo Chávez increases his support for Islamist terrorism” to depict the region as a site of instability, the refuge of drug lords, transnational gangs, terrorists, guerrillas and other threats.

Despite the paranoia of the media and much of the Washington foreign policy establishment, changes occurring in the region are not driven by anti-US plots hatched in Caracas or La Habana. In fact, many in Latin America are quietly “giving up” on the United States, developing regional trade and strengthening ties with countries such as China, India, Russia and South Africa.

After 1998, progressives in the region attained power through elections and employed the democratic process to broaden civic participation, prioritizing the needs of the impoverished majority and beginning to transform the political culture.

“Civic revolutions” of the sort we have seen in Latin America are mass social movements that have achieved power through elections. Resulting governments have tended to foster socioeconomic transformations through policies supported by peaceful, massive civic engagement. Venezuela and Bolivia best express the “civic revolution” trend. Though there are significant cultural and historical distinctions between these countries, Hollywood directors couldn’t have cast more symbolically laden characters for revolutionary leaders: an Afro-indigenous Chávez in Venezuela and an indigenous Aymara-descent Evo Morales in Bolivia.

It is important to note, however, that the conditions faced by Latin America’s center-left governments are not uniform. For example, the experiences of Brazil and Chile underscore that although center-left presidents remain popular, it is unlikely they can leverage their support to elect future center-left presidential candidates.

Thus one lesson of the civic revolutionary process is that to ensure progressive changes, continued expansion of rights for citizens and immigrants, and popular reforms, social movements must take the lead and incorporate changes into the national constitutions–as has been done in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Venezuela: From Model “Democracy” to Bolivarian Revolution

Ironically, Venezuela’s path to change dates back to 1989, the year in which the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the “West’s” triumph over socialism. Indeed, Venezuela’s revolutionary trend burst onto the scene in February 1989 with a popular rebellion (and subsequent massacre) against IMF-imposed price increases on basic food stuffs and gasoline, called “the Caracazo.”

The Caracazo led to a Chávez-headed failed coup in 1992. Transformed into a martyr while in prison, Chávez formed an electoral movement upon his pardon in 1994 that culminated in a landslide victory in Venezuela’s 1998 presidential election.

Chávez campaigned against neoliberalism and advocated for regional integration and socioeconomic policies that favored the poor. As promised, he convened a constitutional convention that rewrote the laws of political engagement to include previously excluded poor sectors and limited the power of the elite.

While Chávez remains a controversial figure worldwide, he is viewed as a hero by many in Latin America and beyond. In 2006 he was easily re-elected with more than 63 percent of the vote, by an electorate that because of massive registration drives and popular mobilization had nearly doubled since his initial election.

Venezuela continues to befuddle a US foreign policy establishment that views it through outdated cold war lenses. Venezuela once served as an important pro-US Latin American alternative to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a reliable source of oil that generated mega-profits for US oil companies. Thus, “losing” Venezuela to revolution is a bit like being betrayed by a longtime amigo.

Bolivia: Rebellion in the Andes

In the heart of South America, popular discontent exploded in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000 when the government attempted to privatize water, and then in El Alto in 2003 against the sale of its massive natural gas reserves to transnational firms.

In December 2005, Morales, of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), and a leader of the coca growers association, was elected as the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Shortly after taking office he nationalized the gas industry, and in January 2009 Bolivians passed a new constitution that recognizes the country as a plurinational state (one in which indigenous peoples have cultural and language rights recognized) and where access to water has become a fundamental human right.

Morales has faced open rebellions from elites in the eastern provinces of Bolivia, known as the Media Luna, where the US ambassador was expelled for conspiring with coup planners. Presidential elections scheduled for the end of this year will once again test the power of the popular movements.

Today Latin America is building unity around the promotion of regional integration, including formation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA) and the RIO Group, which includes all Latin American countries. Both UNASUR and ALBA have begun to establish independent financial institutions, including the Bank of the South and the ALBA Bank, to provide development assistance to member nations. In addition, they are forging South/South relations establishing new levels of cooperation between South America and African nations.

Unfortunately, with Barack Obama in the White House, US policy toward Latin America has changed little. Though the Summit of the Americas early this year raised expectations, Obama’s administration has in fact escalated Bush-era policies. The United States refuses to label the June ouster of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras a coup; it is moving ahead with plans to establish seven new military bases in Colombia, setting off an arms race in the region; it has extended the embargo on Cuba; and with the Merida Initiative it supports continued “drug war” militarization of Mexico.

The establishment of military bases in Colombia seeks to increase US military presence in the region as well as challenge the prerogatives of the nascent UNASUR, whose members have called for South America to be a Zone of Peace, free of foreign military bases.

As the leftist governments in Latin America have demonstrated, concerted social and political action can produce results. Progressive governments have raised the living standards and quality of life of their increasingly empowered citizenry despite opposition from local oligarchs (such as those in Honduras) and hostile policies from President Bush and now President Obama.

Today the majority of Latin Americans live under center-left governments brought to power by civic revolutions that are enacting innovative alternatives to failed foreign models. National and regional initiatives by Latin Americans to improve their conditions should be embraced, not feared by the people of the United States. Returning to the past–where the state and the military maintained the privileges of elites while poverty levels increased and Latin America was considered the US backyard–is no longer an option.