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Fearing the Chávez Model

Friday, October 8, 2010

For many in Latin America, the Chávez model is the greatest threat to economic and political liberalism since the armed insurrections of the 1980s.

GUATEMALA CITY— One word is repeated to me by all the Guatemalan businessmen I'm meeting while here: Chávez. The Venezuelan strongman is the bete noire of Guatemala's economic leaders. What Hugo Chávez represents to them is nothing less than the rollback of liberal democracy in Latin America. They fear the "Chávez model," as they put it, of using democratic tactics to undermine liberal governing systems.

Venezuelans recently voted for a new National Assembly, and though Chávez supporters retained their majority, they lost their two-thirds supermajority that allowed them to push through constitutional changes on their own. This puts Chávez in a strong position for his 2012 reelection bid. Democrats throughout Latin America wait to see when Washington will finally take Chávez seriously as the most dangerous man in the Western Hemisphere.

The Guatemalan businessmen I met with lament that the United States has forgotten about them and democracy in Latin America.

For many in the region, the Chávez model is the greatest threat to economic and political liberalism since the armed insurrections of the 1980s. Since coming to power in 1998, Chávez has steadily whittled away at Venezuelan society. His nationalization of key areas of production, particularly the energy sector, has crippled the Venezuelan economy, yet he has gained diplomatic attention, not least by forming close ties with left-leaning leaders in Ecuador and Bolivia, and regularly lambasting the United States. Chávez has pressured opposition parties and clamped down on the free press, receiving support from Cuba in asserting further control over his society. He and his allies in Quito and La Paz have also watched former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega use his position as the elected president of Nicaragua to attempt the same kind of constitutional changes to gut democracy as Chávez and his followers have done.

In Guatemala, democrats believe that President Alvaro Colom cannot or will not control the corruption endemic in every segment of society and is surrendering to the narco-lords.

The Guatemalan businessmen I met with lament that the United States has forgotten about them and democracy in Latin America. They believe Washington left former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on his own to suppress the Colombian rebel FARC as well as drug gangs, and they are convinced the Obama administration should be helping Mexico far more in their war with the narco-lords. That Mexican crackdown, moreover, has caused the drug gangs to move south, into Guatemala, leading to a horrific rise in violent crime in recent years. While in Guatemala City, I was driven around in a bulletproof SUV, and chauffeured to a dinner just half a block from my hotel. My hosts point to growing violence along the U.S.-Mexican border, and warn that without American action in the region, growing violence and instability will spread north and south, eventually dragging America into the fray. 

While in Guatemala City, I was driven around in a bulletproof SUV, and chauffeured to a dinner just half a block from my hotel.

In Guatemala, democrats feel caught between Mexico and Venezuela, between anarchy and Marxism. They believe that President Alvaro Colom cannot or will not control the corruption endemic in every segment of society and is surrendering to the narco-lords. They also suspect his leftist inclinations, as his wife, a former Marxist guerrilla, is rumored to be considering running for president herself (a la the leftist Kirchners in Argentina). Their concern borders on a sense of fatalism that the democratic moment in Latin America is over. It is fear of losing what is left of their normalcy that motivates democratic Guatemalans.

That is the real threat of Chávez and other anti-liberal movements in Latin America, that they will turn the region back into a basket case, erasing decades of steady gains in democracy and free markets. Just last week, leftist President Rafael Correa of Ecuador faced a spontaneous coup by police forces upset with his economic program, and he found moral support from his ally Chávez. My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Roger Noriega, rightly argues that Chávez is in cahoots with the Iranian nuclear program and working closely with China, thus representing a direct threat to America and our interests. Yet much of the Washington focus stresses the Venezuelan threat to the United States and not to the region itself.

Washington must awaken to the withering of democracy in Latin America, which is abetted in no small part by Chávez. Our president and secretary of State must give their attention and moral support to America’s neighbors struggling to save democracy. More U.S. aid to fight drug traffickers, promote clean government, and train police and militaries is needed. The $165 million in aid pledged under the 2009 Central American Regional Security Initiative is nowhere near the amount needed to help stabilize the region. If the administration won't take up the challenge, then Congress should step in to hold high-level hearings and distribute more aid, as well as reach out to leading Latin American democrats. Just as the Cold War was fought throughout the Third World, the new struggle for freedom will be waged in smaller countries like Guatemala that see their future slipping away.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Roger Noriega asks "Will the U.S. Hand Chávez a License to Kill?" and wrote "Testing Chávez." Apoorva Shah explores "The Mullah, the Caudillo, and the Terrorist," Ambassador Richard Williamson says the United States is "Turning a Blind Eye to Egypt," and Leslie Forgach looks toward a world "After Kim Jong Il." 

 

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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