Over the years, many men (and a few women) have been president of the different nations of South America. Some have been crooked, some noble, and some misunderstood, but their lives and accomplishments are always interesting.
His reputation precedes him: Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's fiery left-wing dictator once famously called George W. Bush a "donkey" and the distinguished King of Spain once told him to shut up. But Hugo Chavez is more than merely a constantly running mouth: he's a political survivor who has left his mark on his nation and is a leader to those Latin Americans who seek an alternative to United States leadership.
President of Ecuador from 1860-1865 and again from 1869-1875, Gabriel García Moreno was a dictator of a different stripe. Most strongmen used their office to enrich themselves or at least aggressively promote their personal agendas, whereas García Moreno simply wanted his nation to be close to the Catholic Church. Real close. He gave away state money to the Vatican, dedicated the Republic to "The Sacred Heart of Jesus," did away with state-run education (he put the Jesuits in charge nationwide) and locked up anyone who complained. In spite of his successes (the Jesuits did a much better job in the schools than the state had, for example) The people of Ecuador eventually got fed up with him and he was assassinated in the street.
Ask ten Chileans and you'll get ten different opinions of Augusto Pinochet, president from 1973 to 1990. Some say he's a savior, who saved the nation first from the socialism of Salvador Allende and then from rebels who wanted to turn Chile into the next Cuba. Others think he was a monster, responsible for decades of terror inflicted by the government on its own citizens. Which is the real Pinochet? Read his biography and make up your mind for yourself.
Like Pinochet, Fujimori is a controversial figure. He cracked down on the Maoist guerrilla group the Shining Path which had terrorized the nation for years and oversaw the capture of terrorist leader Abimael Guzman. He stabilized the economy and put millions of Peruvians to work. So why is he currently in a Peruvian jail? It might have something to do with the $600 million he allegedly embezzled, and it might have something to do with the massacre of fifteen citizens in 1991, an operation that Fujimori approved.
Francisco de Paula Santander was president of the now-defunct Republic of Gran Colombia from 1832 to 1836. At first one of Simon Bolivar's greatest friends and supporters, he later became the Liberator's implacable enemy and was believed by many to be part of a failed plot to assassinate his former friend in 1828. Although he was an able statesman and decent president, he is today remembered primarily as foil to Bolivar and his reputation has suffered (somewhat unfairly) because of it.
President of Chile from 1886 to 1891, José Manuel Balmaceda was a man too far ahead of his time. A liberal, he wanted to use the newfound wealth from Chile's booming industries to improve the lot of ordinary Chilean workers and miners. He even angered his own party with his insistence on social reform. Although his conflicts with Congress drove his country into civil war and he eventually committed suicide, Chileans today remember him as one of their best presidents.
The peculiar Antonio Guzman Blanco served as President of Venezuela from 1870 to 1888. An eccentric dictator, he was eventually deposed by his own party when his visits to France (from where he would rule by telegram to his subordinates back home) became intolerable. He was famous for his personal vanity: he ordered numerous portraits of himself, delighted in receiving honorary degrees from prestigious universities, and enjoyed the trappings of office. He was also a die-hard opponent of corrupt government officials...himself excluded, of course.
President Lula of Brazil is that most rare of politicians: a statesman respected by most of his people and by international leaders and figures as well. A progressive, he has walked the fine line between progress and responsibility, and has the support of Brazil's poor as well as captains of industry.