In the past 20 years, pro-American, democratically elected leaders in the region have weakened democratic governance, according to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, which closely monitors several countries here. In Colombia, Alvaro Uribe pushed through a legally questionable constitutional reform to run again in 2006, and his aides are under investigation for their role in an illegal spying scandal on the Supreme Court. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori closed the Congress.
But Uribe was barred two years ago from seeking a third term, and Fujimori is now in jail.
Today, the most prominent and powerful of a handful of democratically elected leaders who enjoy near-total control of the political life of their countries is Chavez. Even as he recovers from cancer, the former lieutenant colonel is running for reelection in October’s presidential vote as he seeks to extend a presidency that began in 1999.
Other presidents who have consolidated their hold on power — controlling, among other institutions, the courts, which then give them leverage over opponents — include Ecuador’s Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
All vocally oppose the Obama administration, favor state intervention in the economy and have moved to strengthen alliances with Washington’s adversaries, among them Cuba, Iran and Russia.
On the pro-American side is Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli, a business-friendly leader who is accused of stacking the Supreme Court with supporters while using the power of the purse to reward allies.
“They are hybrid regimes, somewhere between imperfect democracies and imperfect dictatorships,” said Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla and now editor of Tal Cual, a Caracas newspaper that has an adversarial relationship with Chavez. “I prefer to define them as authoritarian and centered on the personality of their leaders. I think that in one way Chavez, Correa and Daniel Ortega all are alike in their search for power.”
In Latin America, to be sure, there is only one dictatorship – the 53-year-old Communist regime in Cuba, where there are no free elections, independent media is banned, dissidents are arrested and a vast spy apparatus monitors the citizenry.
In contrast, countries in Central America or the spine of the Andes where rights groups say democracy is threatened continue to have many of the characteristics of their fully democratic neighbors: an active news media, political opposition and civil society organizations, such as human rights and electoral observation groups. Their ability to operate in Venezuela or Ecuador is more restricted than in, say, Brazil but they provide a semblance of a vibrant democracy.
“For regimes that are dabbling in modern authoritarian means, having a limited free press, a limited opposition, is not just permitted, it’s actually necessary, because it allows them to maintain the facade of being a democratic system,” said William J. Dobson, author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” a recently published book about modern authoritarian governments.