On Jan. 31, the Venezuelan Congress gave recently re-elected President Hugo Chavez sweeping powers to rule by decree, allowing him to continue his march to a one-party state. In Bolivia, Evo Morales lags somewhat behind his Venezuelan mentor, having still to contend with a recalcitrant judiciary and legislature. And only weeks ago, former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua.
Clearly, Latin America's anti-American left is enjoying a second wind.
How are they doing it? According to Mr. Morales, Cuba's Fidel Castro advised him in 2003 not to stage an "armed uprising" but to "make transformations, democratic revolutions, what Chavez is doing." But who is Mr. Chavez's model? It is Chile's Salvador Allende - with appropriate improvements.
This may seem odd, because Augusto Pinochet's 1973 removal of Mr. Allende's Marxist government in Chile, and human rights abuses by security forces within Mr. Pinochet's subsequent military government, have overshadowed international perception of the Allende years. Yet Mr. Allende nearly succeeded in three short years in turning Chile, Latin America's oldest and most stable democracy, into a Marxist dictatorship. How did he go about it?
Mr. Allende narrowly won the presidency with 36 percent of a three-way vote and the confirmation of a fair-minded congress after committing himself to a Statute of Guarantees of individual liberties. This was a mere tactical ploy (as he told the French communist writer Regis Debray), which he never intended to honor. Instead, he used every device to subvert the Chilean Constitution, negate the law or bypass the congress.
Mr. Allende resorted 32 times in respect of 93 measures to an emergency power permitting him to override congress and the courts. All but one Chilean bank was acquired by the state through share-buyouts, using misappropriated revenues; factories were requisitioned through misuse of administrative decrees; and farms were expropriated, often at gunpoint, thanks to a forgotten decree from 1932 that remained by oversight on the statute books. The only nationalization that proceeded legally, with due approval of congress, was that of some large multinationals.
That these policies led to triple-digit inflation, currency devaluation, economic chaos and social tumult bordering on civil war is not surprising; nor is the fact that the congress eventually voted 81-47 to call on Mr. Pinochet's military to remove the government. The surprise is to see a return to - indeed an improvement on - Mr. Allende's methods in Venezuela while today Chile prospers.
Mr. Chavez now possesses Mr. Allende's ability to rule by decree. He has stacked the courts with judges dependent on his favor. Aware of Mr. Allende's alienation of the military by seeking to politicize it, he has simply purged it of anyone who might oppose him. Foreign oil operations and electrical and telecommunications companies are being taken over by stealth and political pressure not dissimilar to the stratagems that were used by Mr. Allende to acquire Chilean banks.
Mindful of the fragmentation of the radical left that helped undo Mr. Allende's hold on power, Mr. Chavez has announced moves to merge several pro-government parties into one. He is also setting his sights on curtailing the media and curbing the parliamentary opposition, the last two pillars of the old liberties still standing. Francis Fukuyama of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University calls Venezuela a "postmodern dictatorship, neither fully democratic nor fully totalitarian," but he appears to have forgotten about Mr. Allende's Chilean prototype.
In Bolivia, Mr. Morales can lay claim to having purged Bolivia's military leadership and broken contracts with energy investors. Lacking the emergency powers under the constitution that permitted Mr. Allende so much mischief, Mr. Morales is trying simply to rewrite it. Frustrated in that quest for the moment by the absence of the necessary two-thirds majority in the Constituent Assembly, he is proposing that a simple majority is sufficient.
Who will decide? The country's Supreme Court? But here Mr. Morales is seeking to appoint four judges via recess appointments - a reasonable democratic procedure in itself, except that, in this case, Mr. Morales has not bothered to initiate the legal parliamentary nomination process. It is easy to understand why: Presumably, his preferred nominees would be voted down by the Assembly.
In Nicaragua, manipulation of election laws and perhaps also pre-existing Sandinista control of some key institutions, including the election authority, permitted Mr. Ortega to return as president. It is too early to say what Mr. Ortega will do in - or more precisely, to - Nicaragua, but he has at his disposal some ready models to the south.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua lack some key democratic virtues - a nonpoliticized military, an independent judiciary, a strong parliamentary opposition - that enabled Chile to extricate itself from Mr. Allende. What will be their deliverance?
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