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
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
- Eliminating checks and balances;
- Curbing individual rights;
- Allegedly reining in "rapacious" foreign
- 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 attitude.
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 Administration.
Venezuela and Russia:
Accelerating Chávez's Revolution
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 revolution.
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 sector.
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 for office.
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
Bolivia: Morales Wins a
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.
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
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.
toward Populist Authoritarianism
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 assistance.
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
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
James M. Roberts, "Fighting for Freedom in Rural Peru: 'ALBA Houses'
Threaten Democracy," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2173,
August 18, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/LatinAmerica/bg2173.cfm.
Ariel Cohen and Ray Walser, "The Russia-Venezuela Axis: Using Energy for
Geopolitical Advantage," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2000, July
21, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/RussiaandEurasia/wm2000.cfm.
Anne Bernard, "Russia: Venezuela Offers to Host Bases," The New
York Times, July 24, 2008 at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/24/world/
1&sq=chavez%20russian%20bases&st=cse (August 14, 2008).
Foreign Ministry of Venezuela, "Communicado," August 14, 2008 at http://www.mre.gob.ve/Noticias/A2008/comunic-227.htm
(August 15, 2008).
Steve Bodzin, "Chavez Says He Will Speed Socialism after November
Election," Bloomberg News, August 3, 2008, at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?
Intelligence Unit, Country Profile: Bolivia, June 5, 2007, p. 5 (May 2,
John Lyons, "Bolivia Vote Likely Won't End Stalemate, Undermining
Stability," The Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2008, p. A-6.
Naomi Mapstone, "Bolivia Elects Morales in Recall Vote," Financial
Times, August 11, 2008, at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f7358b92-6
769-11dd-8d3b-0000779fd18c.html (August 17, 2008).
Tyler Bridges, "Tensions run high ahead of recall vote; A vote on whether
to recall President Evo Morales and governors could deepen Bolivia's political
crisis," The Miami Herald, August 10, 2008, at p.A-12.