Recent elections in Argentina and Venezuela have reinvigorated democracy activists in the hemisphere. Over the last decade or so illiberal populism has been ascendant in parts of Central and South America. Backed by Venezuela’s oil revenues and animated by Hugo Chávez’s socialist “Bolivarian” vision, several Latin American countries have adopted populist economic programs, run roughshod over the political opposition, and undermined fragile democratic institutions.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration and America’s allies in the region have largely ignored, or paid scant attention to, these abuses, apparently in an effort to avoid public disputes with neighboring countries. In the process, many democrats in Latin America have become dispirited and dismayed.
But the victories by Mauricio Macri in Argentina for president and the political opposition in Venezuela’s legislative elections have reshuffled the deck and dealt a new hand to democracy advocates in Latin America, giving them the hope and encouragement that have been absent in recent years.
In Argentina, Macri’s victory puts an end to the 12-year sway of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, populists who railed against foreign investors, the IMF, and the United States, all the while cozying up to Russia, Iran, and the Venezuelan-led ALBA pact.
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In Venezuela, the opposition won an overwhelming victory against the inept Chávez-Maduro regime, a victory that poses a real challenge to Bolivarian preeminence well beyond Venezuela itself. And in Brazil, which under presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff has made common cause with populist governments and overlooked their authoritarian tactics, President Rousseff is fighting for her political life while facing a trial for abuse of power.
These profound changes come as the Obama administration is a year into its Cuban initiative, described as “empowering the Cuban people to decide their own future,” though there has been little evidence of that. Instead, the Castro government arrests dissidents in record numbers while numerous U.S. government and business representatives visit the island with little to show for it.
In fact, it seems that Washington has accepted the argument by some in Latin America and at home that it should not respond to — or even criticize — governments in the region that take positions inimical to American values and interests.
In Nicaragua, for example, the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega has fixed elections, co-opted or bought most of the media, and illegally altered the constitution to allow Ortega to remain in power. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has closed the DEA operation, declared one American ambassador persona non grata, and harassed opposition media. His soulmate, President Evo Morales in Bolivia, has thrown out the American ambassador — the position has been vacant since 2008 — and sent the DEA, the Peace Corps, and the Agency for International Development packing.
In response, the United States has said and done little. Besides the expulsion of the offending countries’ ambassadors in retaliation for their tossing ours, which is customary diplomatic practice, and occasional statements denouncing the abuses, the Obama administration has shown mostly patience, offering meager assistance to those seeking democratic change.
If the true democrats in the region are to build on the fragile opportunity that these recent elections have given them, two things must happen.
▪ First, the opposition must unite, as they did in Argentina and Venezuela, and once in office they must govern effectively. For too long and in too many countries democrats have engaged in petty squabbles to the detriment of their parties and nations. And, when they have come to power, too many of them proved to be more interested in enriching themselves than in improving the lives of their people.
▪ Second, the United States must be more assertive in promoting and defending democracy. If a government restricts the basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and press, if it rigs elections and tampers illegally with the constitution, if it adopts policies that damage American interests, then we must condemn these actions and show our displeasure through measures that call to account those responsible.
This is not to say that we should exchange public insults with individuals who revel in smearing others and fabricating stories. Nor is it to suggest that we resort to gunboat diplomacy or political skullduggery to get rid of an antagonistic government.
But we do have aid programs and preferential trade agreements in place and we can suspend or alter many of them. We also could work to create a hemispheric free-trade zone for those countries that subscribe to and practice good governance.
And we could speak out, unabashedly, from the White House and State Department, about our belief in basic liberties, human rights, and democracy. If that makes us unpopular, or if it leads to the bankrupt charges of Yankee imperialism or interventionism, so be it.
The brave men and women fighting today for these ideals in the hemisphere need our support. Now is the time to provide it.
Lino Gutierrez is a retired U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Argentina and Nicaragua. Robert Callahan is a former U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 to 2011.