The Facade of Latin Democracy

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 6, 2005

The threat to Latin America's fragile democratic order grows steadily more visible, from the latest round of paralyzing strikes in Bolivia, to the creeping Sandinista coup against Nicaragua's beleaguered president, to Hugo Chavez's preparations to militarize Venezuela with Cuban-style popular militias. But the greatest danger of all may be the refusal of the region's remaining democrats to acknowledge what they see.

As President Bush addresses the general assembly of the Organization of American States today in Fort Lauderdale, his aides will quietly be struggling to persuade the organization's new secretary general, Jose Miguel Insulza, and the region's big governments to agree on ways to counter the anti-democratic movements that are steadily gaining ground in Central and South America, or at least to help the weak presidents and struggling dissidents they threaten to swamp.

Bush appears finally to have awakened to the challenge, which is embodied by Chavez. In his ever-closer bonding with Havana's security and intelligence apparatus, his aggressive encouragement of the insurgencies in Bolivia and elsewhere, and his constant stoking of Latin anti-Americanism, the elected but increasingly authoritarian Venezuelan is emerging as the natural successor to a fading Fidel Castro -- only Chavez is neither broke nor bound to an outdated Soviet ideology.

Bush, meanwhile, finds himself confounded by a familiar Latin conundrum: Direct U.S. intervention, however benign, risks regional rejection as Yanqui imperialism. But even the governments that secretly share Bush's anxieties resist standing up on their own -- partly out of deference to the region's tradition of nonintervention, partly because of their disgruntlement with Bush's first-term policies and partly because they covet a slice of Chavez's growing pile of petrodollars.

In preparation for this week's assembly the administration floated a couple of modest but rather useful ideas: not the military invasion of Venezuela that Chavez ludicrously warns of, or the regional boycott once employed against Cuba, but the elaboration of an OAS consensus on democratic standards and the creation of a mechanism that would allow nongovernmental groups in each of the organization's 34 countries -- labor unions, human rights organizations and the like -- to deliver reports about departures from those norms. But even these distinctly unimperialist measures have been hard to sell to the region's leading democracies, such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.

"We need for some of these governments to step up and show leadership," one frustrated administration official said. But "one of the things that is clear is that not many people in Latin America are where we are in sizing up Chavez and what kind of threat he does or doesn't represent."

That reality frustrates not only the State Department but Latin American citizens who are putting their lives on the line in defense of democratic values. One of the boldest, Maria Corina Machado of the Venezuelan election monitoring group Sumate, was in Washington last week before a meeting of 117 nongovernmental groups with the OAS ambassadors on the eve of the assembly. Machado stopped by to see me on her way to what she thought was a discussion with staff at the National Security Council; instead, upon arriving at the White House, she was ushered into a surprise meeting with Bush.

The briefing I heard from this 37-year-old single mother, who for more than a year has been fighting treason charges ordered up by Chavez, was deeply sobering. Since winning a recall referendum last August, the self-styled "Bolivarian revolutionary" has systematically gutted or intimidated Venezuelan institutions, from the courts to the media to the opposition parties, while preserving just enough formal democracy to give himself cover with his forgiving neighbors. "We feel very lonely," Machado said. "People outside say to us: 'You can come in and out of the country, you have a free press, you don't have thousands of political prisoners, you have elections -- so what's the problem?'

"But Chavez doesn't need to close newspapers in order to force people to censor themselves. He doesn't need thousands of political prisoners if he can make examples of a few people in every sector of society, a labor leader here, a journalist there. And he doesn't need to cancel elections if he can use his appointees to change the rules so that the voting can be easily manipulated. It is a terrific facade, but inside is an atmosphere of total control and fear. Traveling around the country, as I do, it's shocking to see how frightened people are about what the government can do to their lives."

Machado got to make her case to Bush and to the OAS ambassadors only because her organization was invited to the nongovernmental forum by the United States. A Venezuelan attempt to overturn the invitation procedure and ban her failed. Though her criminal trial is due to resume on Friday, she came and spoke freely; though she enraged Chavez with her blunt words outside the White House, she will return to Caracas and face the court system he now controls. By so conspicuously trying to stop her, she says, "the government has given evidence that everyone in the OAS can see, of how they use intimidation to silence dissent. If in Venezuela you speak out you are punished.

"But we are going to say it louder, because now maybe more people are listening to us," Machado said. That, anyway, is her hope.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company