But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.
“What we’re seeing in Latin America are very popular presidents using their majority status to overwhelm the opposition, to erode the checks and balances,” said Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College and co-author of “Dragon in the Tropics,” a 2011 book about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “These presidents in Latin America have come in and then very cleverly manipulated the system to their advantage.”
Yet what rights groups and some political leaders call a growing threat to hard-won democratic gains has drawn a tepid response from the most vibrant and influential democracies in the Americas, among them Brazil and the United States, some observers say.
“A country that just doesn’t act is the United States,” said Santiago Canton, an Argentine legal expert who is director of the human rights program at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “And Brazil is sadly more in line with the Latin American tradition of not getting involved. They permit things to happen that shouldn’t be permitted.”
Looking the other way
Republicans in Washington have sharply criticized the Obama administration, accusing it of looking the other way in the face of creeping authoritarianism and the budding relationship that Iran and Syria are forging with Venezuela’s government, South America’s most stridently anti-American state.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who as chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee has held hearings on the dangers to regional democracy, defended the White House as “more engaged” in the region than past administrations.
But he said more support should be provided for democratic movements and to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous arm of the Washington-based Organization of American States that investigates rights abuses in the region.
The commission has rankled presidents here with reports blasting their governments for violating human rights and civil liberties, including carrying out arbitrary arrests and closing media outlets.
Though much of the commission’s recent investigations have been directed at the United States, Colombia and Honduras, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has accused the organization of being a pawn of the United States. He is leading several other countries in an effort to adopt reforms that would effectively cripple the commission.