The Bush administration expects to focus much of its attention in a second term on promoting a political transformation of the Arab Middle East. But it may also have to spend some time on a parallel problem: preventing the unraveling of the democratic change the United States successfully nurtured a generation ago.
As Ronald Reagan began his second term 20 years ago, the United States was struggling to foster democracy in Latin America. Amid deep skepticism in Washington, Reagan's team promoted imperfect elections in Central America while trying to train the feckless army of El Salvador to defeat insurgents. Meanwhile, it pushed dictators with whom the United States had once been friendly, such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet, toward holding democratic elections. In the end, democracy did sweep the region, extending to every country but Cuba. When several challenges to the new order were successfully turned back during the 1990s, it appeared irreversible.
Now Latin America's buried tradition of authoritarian populism is making a comeback, fueled by sluggish economic growth, corruption and weak leadership. In the past few weeks, what had been a slowly deteriorating situation has begun to snowball:
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has responded to his victory in a controversial recall referendum by aggressively moving to eliminate the independence of the media and judiciary, criminalize opposition, and establish state control over the economy. He is also using his country's surging oil revenue to prop up the once-beleaguered Cuban dictatorship of Fidel Castro, sponsor anti-democratic movements in other Latin countries and buy influence around the region. Last week he literally declared war against privately owned farms, sending troops to occupy one of the country's largest cattle ranches.
In Bolivia, the Chavez-funded Movement Toward Socialism has already driven one democratically elected president from office through violent protests. Last week it was working on his successor, Carlos Mesa, who faced paralyzing strikes by the leftists that closed off roads to the capital for two days.
In Ecuador, another populist president, Lucio Gutierrez, used his slim majority in the national legislature last month to pack the country's judiciary, including the Supreme Court, Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Electoral Council.
Nicaragua's president, Enrique Bolanos, avoided a de facto coup last week only by striking a deal with former Sandinista ruler Daniel Ortega, who has threatened to use a corruptly assembled alliance to alter the constitution and transfer power from the presidency to the Sandinista-run legislature. Though polls show that an overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans oppose him, Ortega is closer to regaining power than at any time since Nicaragua rejected his Marxist dictatorship and returned to democracy in 1990.
A decade ago Latin America's stronger democratic leaders could be counted on to rally against such authoritarian movements with the help of the United States, using the vehicle of the Organization of American States. Just three years ago the OAS adopted a democracy charter that allows for collective action against member states that violate such principles as an independent judiciary. But even the strong democracies, like Brazil and Chile, have grown weaker: Both have leftist presidents who frequently strike poses against President Bush's policies but have little stomach for taking on a menace such as Chavez. Even if they were to challenge the Chavistas, the Latin democrats would find few followers in the OAS assembly. Venezuela has bought off a raft of governments with subsidized supplies of oil.
All of this puts the Bush administration in a difficult position. If it assertively challenges the anti-democratic leaders, it may find itself alone, shunned by Latin leaders and accused by liberals in Washington of reviving Yanqui imperialism. Working from Castro's playbook, Chavez already uses Bush as a foil and excuse for persecuting democratic opponents. But quiet diplomacy doesn't work either. The Bush team has tried to quietly reach out to Chavez in recent months while urging his neighbors to stand up to him -- only to see his reckless "revolution" accelerate. Ignoring the trouble in Ecuador and Bolivia hasn't made it go away.
So what can be done? One option is simply to wait for Chavez and his populist imitators to crash and burn, as they have throughout Latin American history, while seeking to shore up democratic Latin governments in the meantime. But that could take a long time, especially if oil prices remain high; and a Venezuelan collapse could be costly, given the country's position as the supplier of 13 percent of U.S. oil. The alternative is a long, arduous and carefully calibrated program to rally support for democratic freedoms and convince Latin leaders that they cannot afford to allow their neighbors to subvert them. That would require deep engagement by Bush and his new secretary of state -- in other words, a reversal of the administration's neglect of Latin America during the past four years. It doesn't seem likely; but the way things are going, there may be little choice.