December 20, 2002

December 20, 2002 | WebMemo on Latin America

Bush's Twin Headaches In Latin America

Two neighbors in Latin America are on the brink of implosion.  Government collapse in Haiti could unleash a flood of refugees on American and Caribbean shores, while crumbling democracy in Venezuela is already threatening oil supplies at a moment when Washington contemplates military action in the Middle East.

In both countries, powerful populist presidents have stoked class warfare, creating deep divisions between regime supporters and opponents instead of promoting consensus and equality before the law.  Efforts to expand their own authority have weakened legislative and judicial institutions to the point that they no longer function.   Corruption has spread, their economies have faltered, and opponents have taken to the streets to force their resignation.

In one of the largest demonstrations in Haitian history, 15,000 protesters gathered in the city of Cap Haïtien on November 17 to demand President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's resignation.  Elected in 1990 and then ousted by a military takeover when he failed to organize a functional government, he was restored to power in 1994 by a U.S.-led multi-national invasion force.  Since then, Haiti has had a make-believe democracy.

After the end of his first term in 1995, Aristide ruled through President René Préval, a submissive proxy, until he could be elected again in 2000 through a vote boycotted by opponents.  Since 1997, the country has been without a legitimately elected parliament.  Hundreds of millions of aid dollars were wasted on projects Aristide failed to support, prompting donors like the United States to suspend direct assistance.  Now pro-Aristide gangs with names like "Cannibal Army" and "Asleep in the Woods" roam the streets to suppress dissent.

Meanwhile in Venezuela, some 2 million citizens marched on December 14 to urge the resignation of President Hugo Chávez, fearing that he would use emergency powers to establish a Castro-style dictatorship.  The one-time coup plotter and cashiered army officer was elected in 1998 promising to help Venezuela's 80 percent poor majority and clean up corruption.   Riding a wave of popular support, he rewrote the constitution to expand presidential powers and extend his term in office.

But instead of helping the downtrodden, he diverted government funds to military cronies to buy loyalty and to organize armed, partisan street gangs called "Bolivarian Circles." Unconstitutional decrees to curb property rights and hobble private enterprise led to a rebellion last April, temporarily toppling him from power.  Since then, the breech between Chávez and opponents has widened with a series of national strikes, one of which paralyzed the government's cash cow-the state-owned petroleum industry-in turn affecting oil exports to the United States and other neighboring countries.  On December 15, Chávez claimed his orders could not be overriden by the courts.

Years ago, U.S. officials could have nudged events in a different direction.  In Haiti, they might have planned for an extended international presence until it became truly self-governing.  And over the years, they could have made effective democratic governance an engagement priority in Venezuela.   Now, it has fallen to the Organization of American States (OAS) to resolve these crises with meager tools.

A deliberative body, the OAS has no aid to offer as a lever. And its one-year-old Inter-American Democratic Charter can only be used to promote mediation or suspend the membership of non-democratic states.  Without a two-thirds vote among members, suspension can't be approved and, even if applied, suspended states can turn around and kick out the mediators.  Nonetheless, it is a starting point.

Indeed, the United States and other member states should invoke the charter to recognize the political breakdown in each country.  In Haiti, President Aristide has violated the letter and spirit of the 1987 constitution by manipulating the electoral process and failing to protect human rights.  President Chávez has subverted his charter through arbitrary decrees, by usurping the authority of local officials, and actions to block the courts and National Assembly.

With respect to Haiti, the United States and other international parties could leverage aid.  Because of Haiti's faltering economy, Aristide has been lobbying for a bailout.  The Bush Administration, in coordination with other donors should offer to restore direct assistance, but only if Haitian leaders accept a U.S.-led donor oversight commission to provide for supervised elections and long-term direction in salvaging and rebuilding democratic institutions.

Venezuela is more complicated.  Since the government controls the lucrative state petroleum industry, aid is not a factor.  Many in the opposition want new elections as a way of replacing the entire administration.  But that would require an extraconstitutional deal between contentious elites or an unlikely and cumbersome change to the national charter.

Chávez could also be removed by a referendum halfway through his term-next August.  But, Vice-President José Vicente Rangel-the brains behind him-would become president, posing new problems.  Although the National Assembly has the power to impeach Chávez at any time and schedule new elections, half of the Assembly is out on strike and Chávez could declare marshal law and suspend the body before they act.

While the Bush Administration might favor an electoral solution in principle-it should refrain from a specific proposal that, absent a Venezuelan consensus, could lead all sides to blame the United States for any failure.  It should bring pressure to bear on Chávez and his opponents to allow a constitutional solution and once agreed, press for international supervision of the process to guarantee the rights and free expression of all participants.  In the meantime, U.S. and allied diplomats might encourage opposition parties to develop a plan for how they would govern in case Chávez leaves or is recalled from office.

In the interests of regional stability and security, the United States should redouble lagging efforts to back those struggling for democracy and help guarantee space for its practice to flourish.  Diplomacy and coordinated action with hemispheric allies is a good place to start.

Stephen Johnson is Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Latin America