Venezuela's Satellites

Saturday, January 27, 2007

AREMARKABLE year of democracy in Latin America has left the region generally stronger. Presidential elections were held in 11 countries in the past 13 months, and political moderates won seven of them, including those in the four largest countries: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. Throughout most of the hemisphere, the elections reinforced a consensus that continued growth must depend on free markets and free trade but that governments should concentrate on narrowing the large gap between rich and poor.

The new year nevertheless has begun with attention focused on a handful of countries where democracy is dead, dying or in danger. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez began his term this month with a flurry of authoritarianism, promising to cancel the license of the largest independent television station and seeking authority to rule by decree. He then rushed to attend the inaugurations of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, whom he hopes to convert into satellite leaders in a Venezuelan-led "socialist" bloc. Bolivia's Evo Morales and an ailing Fidel Castro are already in Mr. Chávez's orbit; thanks to Venezuela's petrodollars, Cuba's totalitarian system may survive Mr. Castro's demise.

Mr. Chávez's best chance may lie with Mr. Correa, who distanced himself from the Venezuelan and his policies to win the election, then swung back to his side on inauguration day. Mr. Correa denounced globalization and called the United States an "empire." More ominously, he adopted Mr. Chávez's political strategy, calling for a constituent assembly to bypass Congress and rewrite the constitution -- a step Mr. Chávez used to begin dismantling Venezuela's democracy seven years ago.

Mr. Morales's attempt to use the same tactics in Bolivia is foundering, but it is also pushing the country closer to another crisis. The Bolivian constituent assembly is deadlocked over voting rules; meanwhile, opposition governors in the relatively prosperous eastern lowlands are mobilizing masses against the president and his Venezuelan tutors. If he presses forward, Mr. Correa may encounter similar resistance.

Interestingly, Mr. Ortega is moving with considerably more caution, though he, too, has been showered with promises of Venezuelan aid and graced with an inaugural visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Elected with just 38 percent of the vote, the former Marxist dictator has avoided anti-American rhetoric and promised not to tamper with the Central American Free Trade Agreement. His new finance minister told the Financial Times that socialism is not the government's program.

At 61, Mr. Ortega may understand something that Mr. Chávez, 52, and his would-be followers have yet to learn: Socialist economics are a recipe for impoverishment, while political power grabs tend to boomerang. The mini-bloc of Latin outliers poses little threat to the United States or the region's overall stability. But even as their neighbors consolidate democratic institutions and unprecedented prosperity, the people of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba may be headed for a miserable year.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company