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Slouching to Populism

Friday, March 20, 2009

Embattled democrats in Latin America read the State Department’s reticence as weakness and indifference.

Those of us who have worked to promote democracy in Latin America have seen our share of disappointment in the choices voters in the region are making at the ballot box—topped off by last Sunday’s results from El Salvador.

Why are we worried? In 1998, Venezuelans handed the presidency over to a trash-talking lieutenant colonel who led a bloody coup only six years earlier. Bolivians gave an unprecedented margin of victory in 2005 to a candidate who had a role in the violent overthrow of two preceding presidents. Nicaraguans elected a former dictator president in 2006. Ecuadoreans forced several presidents from office and, in 2006, elected a man who promised to uproot the political order.

One would like to think that the undemocratic way in which Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, and Rafael Correa have run their respective countries would have been a cautionary tale to our friends in El Salvador. Alas, last Sunday, voters in that Central American country—arguably the United States’ best friend in the hemisphere—chose as their president the front man of a communist rebel group whose members have killed U.S. servicemen, are allied with terrorist groups, and celebrated the 9/11attacks. It remains to be seen whether El Salvador’s new president, Mauricio Funes, keeps his pledge to govern moderately or is overwhelmed by the leftist extremists who really run his party.

El Salvador’s recent election eliminates a key friend in a region beset by illicit drug trafficking.

Followers of the rightist ruling party in El Salvador have not had time to reflect on what they accomplished for their people after 20 years in power. Indeed, they negotiated an end to a bloody civil war, implemented the peace accords, and will preside over their nation’s first peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party since that war. Candidates campaigned freely. U.N. peacekeepers were not required to patrol the streets. An independent media (from whence the opposition candidate, Funes, came) criticized both parties with vigor. National electoral observers monitored an orderly, tranquil process. An impartial electoral council published the results, which the losing candidate accepted without rancor, within several hours of the last ballot being cast.

A majority of Salvadorans decided that two decades with one party in power was plenty. The impact of crime on personal security is a nagging problem in a country that is home to the region’s nastiest gang, Mara Salvatrucha. The ruling party candidate’s stint as public security chief apparently left some voters underwhelmed. After years grappling with spiraling energy costs, El Salvador’s dollarized economy was hit hard by the recent U.S. economic crisis and the drop in remittances from migrants, which are that country’s largest source of hard currency. And, after a spirited campaign, the opposition candidate touting moderate change scored a narrow victory. So be it.

That is the way democracy is supposed to work. Democrats from Mexico to Chile to Brazil to the United States take that sort of process for granted. We each have our share of extraordinary challenges, but, as long as we sort them out democratically, we assume that things are going to be just fine. 

Over the past several years, representative democracy has empowered people in Latin America who had been locked out of power; it also uncorked class tensions and unrequited demands that weak democratic institutions and poor states were hard-pressed to confront. Market reforms and trade produced economic growth, but in the absence of accountable and representative institutions, the poor majority saw themselves losing ground to privileged elites. So, it is no surprise to see a ruling party or an entire political class upended at the ballot box.

Does this mean that democracy is working? Well, yes and no. 

For example, competitive (and even extraordinarily close) elections in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and elsewhere have ushered in strong governments with mandates to tackle serious problems. When leaders on the left or right win elections and set out to govern democratically, institutions gain credibility and strength. 

As economies deteriorate and people flee unrest and violence, the flood of refugees northward will spell big trouble for the United States.

In a handful of countries, elected caudillos (strongmen) have abused the power they gained through the ballot to tear down the democratic institutions that are vital to dealing with dissent, settling disputes, or producing a consensus to confront the corrosive problems that are far too common in these weak states. As a result, entire nations find themselves depending on the whims of authoritarian populists.

The results are objectively negative. Bolivia’s Morales has mugged his country’s judicial and political systems to ram through sweeping constitutional reforms. Correa is working from an eerily similar playbook in Ecuador. In Nicaragua, Ortega has stolen local elections that observers say were won by the opposition, and last week he hinted at changing the “unjust” ban on his reelection. Venezuela’s Chavez is in a class by himself, using a series of progressively more bogus elections to wrest absolute control over the national assembly, courts, national oil company, central bank, electoral council, etc. When he loses an election, he usually lies about the result. In response to opposition victories last November in Caracas and several important states, Chavez plans to appoint a new vice president to supersede these local authorities, whom he already has stripped of all revenue and power.  

Chavez has used his petrodollars to bankroll acolytes throughout the region who share his vision and casual attitudes about democracy and the rule of law. Although he is bound to lose influence in the region and popularity at home as the price of oil dips, the damage is done. He has politicized the military and militarized politics so that he will never again have to pretend to win an election if that suits him.

So, why do we care? Beyond the fact that genuine democracy is an inherent good that produces more just societies and political stability, we have other interests at stake. Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have rejected cooperation with U.S. anti-drug efforts and have given safe haven, political backing, or financial support to a narcoterrorist group battling our ally, Colombia. The loss in El Salvador eliminates a key friend in a region beset by illicit drug trafficking displaced by Mexico’s stepped-up counternarcotics campaign. No other Central American nation has the security resources or the political will to confront this deadly threat. As economies deteriorate and people flee political unrest or drug-related violence, the flood of refugees northward will spell big trouble for Mexico and the United States.

Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have rejected cooperation with U.S. anti-drug efforts and have supported a narcoterrorist group battling our ally, Colombia.

There may be little the United States can do to reverse this dangerous trend in the region. Indeed, American diplomats have calculated that publicly defending democratic values will merely provoke our enemies. Well, the fact is our enemies are doing fine; it is our friends we should worry about. It is tragic that embattled democrats in the region read the State Department’s reticence as weakness and indifference.

President Barack Obama can begin to turn things around as he looks across the table at a handful of troublemakers at the Summit of the Americas next month in Trinidad and Tobago. He should do his fair share of listening to our friends in the region, but he can crib from his inaugural address for a ready-made message for opponents of the United States and our values:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense…. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the Westknow that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

 

Words are not enough, but these words—laden with values and resolve—will serve to remind everyone what is at stake and where we stand in the Americas.

Roger F. Noriega was a senior official in the State Department from 2001 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, a Washington advocacy firm that represents U.S. and foreign governments and companies.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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