As Russian tanks and infantry roll through distant, democratic
Georgia, a less provocative yet troubling assault on democracy in
the Western Hemisphere continues unabated. Exploiting the U.S.
leadership and media's preoccupation with the Caucasus conflict, as
well as the Beijing Olympics, elections, and high gas prices,
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela went on the offensive
with a power grab of his own. From nationalist muscle-flexing with
Russian arms to the issuance of decree-laws, from nationalizations
to blacklisting opposition candidates, Chávez's recent
antics are designed to secure victory in Venezuela's November state
and municipal elections. Such electoral triumph would accelerate
the advance of Chávez's brand of socialism and is therefore
another setback for hemispheric democracy.
Elsewhere in the Andes, the presidents of Bolivia and
Ecuador--ally and friend, respectively, of Chávez--are
inching closer to constitutional overhauls would that allow them to
prolong their stays in office and wield greater centralized power
over their central banks, courts, and legislatures at the expense
of economic freedom and individual liberty. In Bolivia, the
consolidation of power by President Evo Morales and his indigenous
backers threatens to split the nation asunder. And, as we have
reported separately, Chavez and Morales have also been busy trying
to undermine Peru's fragile democracy.
Under the banner of social justice, Chávez and his allies
have been busy with the following:
- Dethroning the old economic elites and traditional political
- Eliminating checks and balances;
- Curbing individual rights;
- Allegedly reining in "rapacious" foreign companies;
- Resurrecting socialist and redistributionist policies that have
a consistent track record of failure in Latin American and around
the world; and
- Engineering a new network of cooperation with the enemies of
Western democracy--Russia and Iran in particular--in an effort to
advance a provocative, generally distorted, anti-American
Other than maintaining a dignified silence punctured by the
occasional hand-wringing, Washington appears to possess few
responses to the march of Chávez and his Latin American
allies. Yet countering these adverse trends in the Western
Hemisphere should not wait until the U.S. is deep in the next
Venezuela and Russia: Accelerating
In late July, Chávez traveled to Moscow to meet with the
ruling duopoly of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin. During his stay, Chávez praised Venezuela's
"strategic partnership" with Russia and committed to purchasing an
arsenal of weapons including advanced fighter aircraft, battle
tanks, air defense systems, and submarines, thus further cementing
a growing Russia-Venezuela arms relationship.
In addition to his military hardware shopping spree,
Chávez also affirmed a readiness to host Russian troops.
"Russia has enough resources to secure its presence in different
parts of the world," he said. "If Russian armed forces would like
to be present in Venezuela, they will be welcomed warmly. We will
raise flags, beat drums and sing songs, because our allies will
come, with whom we have a common worldview." On August 14,
Chávez's government again aligned with Russia and charged
the U.S. with "planning, preparing, and ordering" the Georgian
government's actions in South Ossetia.
Learning to Be a Better Despot: How
Hugo Spent His Summer Vacation
On his return from Moscow, Chávez used an expiring decree
authority granted by the Venezuelan legislature to issue 26 new
decree-laws. These new decree-laws closely resemble measures
previously rejected by a majority of Venezuelans in the December 2,
Several of these new decrees bring Venezuelan military policy
into closer alignment with the Chavista nationalist
ideology. The national army, for example, now becomes the
Bolivarian army, ideological education is made compulsory, and an
extensive Bolivarian militia, answering directly to the president,
will act as watchdog and protector for the Chávez
The new decrees also grant the government extensive authority to
control the production, processing, and distribution of foodstuffs,
including criminalization and jail terms for anyone violating price
controls or interfering with food production and distribution.
Other decrees authorize Chávez to siphon off earnings from
state enterprises to fund social programs and grant him the
authority to create a new layer of appointed officials to serve as
regional vice presidents and agents of the central governments
operating outside of electoral control.
In late July, Chávez also announced that Venezuela will
purchase and nationalize Banco de Venezuela, a privately owned bank
that belongs to Spain's Banco Santander. Defenders of this decision
claim Chávez intends to create a bank for the poor modeled
on Brazil's Caixa Economia do Brasil. This move,
nonetheless, will give Chávez even greater control over the
economy as well as enhanced patronage power in an economy where
roughly one-third of all formal jobs are located in the public
Chávez's sights are set on the November 23 state and
municipal elections. With popular support uncertain, Chávez
fears a repeat of the December 2007 constitutional reform fiasco.
Ignoring the massive corruption and cronyism that have become a
hallmark of the regime, Chávez's agents have blacklisted 272
mostly opposition candidates accused--without trial or
conviction--of corruption. Pivotal opposition figures like Leopoldo
Lopez, a popular mayor in greater Caracas, are barred from running
By controlling the reins of legislative and economic power, and
by promising more benefits to the masses, Chávez hopes to
smash a recuperating domestic political opposition, thus further
consolidating his grip on power. On August 2, a confident
Chávez promised to make the "transition to socialism in a
much more precise, planned, accelerated, exact, scientific manner"
after the November 23 elections.
Bolivia: Morales Wins a Divisive
On Sunday, August 11, Bolivia's indigenous President Evo
Morales, Chávez's ally and protégé, moved
closer to consolidating power and installing the Bolivian version
of the Chávez-inspired socialist revolution. Bolivia--a
member of Chávez's Bolivarian alliance (ALBA) along with
Cuba and Nicaragua--is increasingly wedded to Chávez's
anti-U.S./anti-globalization agenda and the rolling back of free
market reforms undertaken in the 1990s.
Recently, voters considered whether to recall President Morales
and eight of the country's nine provincial prefects (governors).
With 97 percent of the vote counted, Morales gained 67.7 percent of
the vote, well above the 54 percent he won in 2005. Governors in
four of the largely mixed-race (mestizo) and relatively
wealthy eastern lowland (Media Luna) provinces seeking
greater autonomy from the Morales government also won substantial
majorities and will keep their offices.
Morales gambled that the referendum would strengthen his hand, a
wager he seems to have won. Observers now expect Morales to move
for approval of a new constitution that "redistribute[s] wealth
from the country's hydrocarbons industry, introduces land reforms,
empowers indigenous backers in the Andean highlands, and opens the
way for a run for a second presidential term."
Although Morales gained critical ground, the referendum also
pushes a fractious nation (the poorest in South America) closer to
a breakup that would destabilize the entire Andean region. As
Professor Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University
notes, the election results will "fortify the political extremes
and leave a dwindling number of Bolivians in the center" while
sending the Bolivian state into a "free fall."
Bolivians of all political stripes must engage in serious
dialogue and seek compromise if the contending parties wish to
avoid a costly and potentially bloody internal conflict. The
inclination of Morales--backed by his confrontational ally and
chief supporter, Chávez--may be to seek the riskier track of
class and ethnic confrontation with Bolivia's opposition.
Ecuador: Slouching toward Populist
On July 24, a constituent assembly approved a new constitution
for Ecuador. Backers of the new constitution--the nation's 20th
since 1830--promise that it will correct the ills that have made
Ecuador one of Latin America's most politically unstable states.
This new constitution will permit left-leaning President Rafael
Correa, elected in 2006, to dissolve the Congress, influence the
high court system, and exercise extensive control over the formerly
autonomous Central Bank. It will also allow Correa two consecutive
four-year terms, opening the door for his retaining office until
2017. The new constitution contains numerous nationalist planks,
such as the rejection of international arbitration of investment
disputes and a prohibition against foreign military bases, a clause
aimed at ending the presence of the U.S. forward-operating,
anti-drug air base at Manta.
Since March 1, 2008--when the Colombian military crossed the
border to destroy a well-established camp of the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and kill the insurgency's
number-two leader--Correa has worked to enflame nationalist
sentiment. This nationalist fervor is expected to help carry a
constitutional referendum on September 28.
Some analysts see Correa and Ecuador as a more distant, less
autocratic reflection of the Chávez model and urge the U.S.
to redouble its efforts to preserve good relations with Correa. The
government has sent high level emissaries to Washington to
encourage stronger ties, but it is unclear if Correa can resist the
siren call of Chávez's populism and financial
Democracy's Friends in Latin America
Need U.S. Support
To consolidate their political positions, Chávez and his
allies rely on international distractions and U.S. inattention and
immobility in the waning days of a lame duck Administration. Yet,
the Administration and Congress need not be so predicable and
Indeed, before the November elections, Congress should
accomplish the following:
- Hold hearings to determine what can be done immediately to
combat the authoritarian tide;
- Develop a rescue plan for democracy in the Andes and
- Focus inter-American attention on the upcoming November
elections in Venezuela; and
- Put aside partisan bickering and pass the Colombia Free Trade
Agreement, thus cementing a binding tie with our largest, most
reliable, and arguably most democratic partner in the Andes.
In the longer term, the U.S. must pursue a stronger, bipartisan
effort to forge a more active, pro-democracy consensus in the
Western Hemisphere. Such a consensus must develop stronger
lifelines to civil society and the private sector, both of which
are currently being steamrolled by Chávez and company.
Democracy's friends in Latin America deserve greater support than
they are presently receiving.
Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in
the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a
division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, and James
M. Roberts is Research Fellow for Economic Freedom and Growth
in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage