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Latin America’s Deafening Silence

December 8, 2008 |
Latin America, with few exceptions, prefers today to look the other way when electoral fraud takes place, when authoritarian rule threatens and when human rights are systematically violated.
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To the myriad foreign challenges Barack Obama will have to confront upon taking office we may have to add a complex conundrum next door in Latin America. On three fronts that have posed serious problems for the United States before, there is a growing and worrisome democratic challenge in the hemisphere--and no one knows quite how to handle it.

The first problem is Nicaragua, where the Sandinista Front rigged and stole municipal elections in such an egregious fashion Nov. 9 that even the old PRI antics in Mexico pale by comparison. In the country’s larger cities, like Managua, the capital, as well as León, Granada and Masaya, ex-Sandinista opponents and supporters alike were harassed, intimidated and erased from electoral rolls. Their ballots were discarded, and they were subsequently forcibly banned from demonstrating against the stolen vote. Most analysts agree that the opposition at least won in Managua, though it may not have done so elsewhere. Yet virtually no one in Latin America said a word. When the Organization of American States’ secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, cautiously expressed concern about the situation, he was violently rebuked by President Daniel Ortega’s spokesperson and diplomats, as well as by Hugo Chávez’s minions in Venezuela. The rest of the region remained silent, even though its nations signed, on Sept. 11, 2001, an Inter-American Democratic Charter drafted to avoid such corrupt election practices.

In Venezuela, the recent gubernatorial and municipal ballots also raise concerns. Unlike previous elections, there was no significant tampering--with the exception of the state of Barinas, where the opposition is claiming Chávez’s brother, Adán, was fraudulently declared the winner. But there are other reasons for concern. The opposition achieved important victories and Chávez accepted his defeats more or less graciously, also unlike on other occasions. Yet he did so after he had threatened to send in his “tanks” if the opposition won. He also banned a number of leaders from running, including 37-year-old Leopoldo López, the most popular anti-Chávez politician in the country, and vowed to throw several other rival candidates in jail if they campaigned against him.

Chávez transformed the election into a referendum on his own presidency, and each time he has encountered electoral or political difficulties in keeping himself in power and constructing his “21st-century socialism” in Venezuela, he has returned swinging. This time, he has already insinuated he will appoint all-powerful deputy governors and deputy mayors to supplant elected opposition officials, and that he will run for re-election in 2013, despite having lost a referendum on both counts one year ago. Indeed, there are solid grounds for thinking that his most recent defeat will lead Chávez in the same direction as always: radicalization, nationalization of private companies and authoritarianism. And again, the rest of the region will say nothing.

Regional leaders will remain quiet about Cuba as well--and this may be Obama’s greatest hemispheric challenge. The nation has been stuck in the mud since July 2006, when Fidel Castro fell ill, but he has not yet relinquished power completely to his brother. On Jan. 8, Cuba will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Castro’s triumphal entry into Havana, and Obama’s Inauguration two weeks later will mark the date that Castro outlasted his 10th U.S. president. Meantime, the social and economic difficulties confronting Cuba are growing. As the world enters a recession, Venezuela has less money to subsidize the island, and migration from Cuba is rising once again. There will be growing pressure on Obama to forget Cuba’s record on human rights and democracy, lift the embargo and normalize relations.

The pressure will come from many quarters, but chiefly from Latin America. A couple of weeks ago, at a high-level meeting of the so-called Rio Group of Latin American governments in Zacatecas, Mexico, Cuba was made a member of the group, at the Mexican government’s request. This ad hoc association, which sprang up from the Contadora Group that tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a peace agreement in Central America during the 1980s, was always a club of at least “tolerable” democracies. In 1989, it suspended Panama because of Manuel Noriega’s human-rights violations. In 1992, it suspended Peru because of Alberto Fujimori’s congressional shutdown. Yet Cuba was invited to join despite the fact that it does not comply with any of the group’s tenets of representative democracy or respect for human rights.

Latin America, with few exceptions, prefers today to look the other way when electoral fraud takes place (Nicaragua), when authoritarian rule threatens (Venezuela) and when human rights are systematically violated (Cuba). As long as nothing else occurs, Washington can also simply look the other way. But if matters get out of control in Nicaragua, in Venezuela, or in Cuba, what will Obama do?

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