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A Leadership Vacuum in Latin America

Jaime Daremblum

On December 2, leaders from across the Western Hemisphere gathered in Caracas to establish a new regional forum known as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Their two-day summit produced a great deal of populist, anti-U.S. bluster, but very little diplomatic substance.

Venezuelas Hugo Chávez promised that CELAC would eventually leave behind the old and worn-out Organization of American States (OAS), which was founded in 1948. Ecuadors Rafael Correa argued that the OAS should have come to an end in 1982, when the United States supported Britains war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Nicaraguas Daniel Ortega declared that CELAC was sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death. Bolivias Evo Morales condemned the International Monetary Fund (always a convenient villain), saying it had pillaged us and led us to poverty. And Cubas Raúl Castro blasted the recent NATO military campaign in Libya.

Unlike the Washington-based OAS, CELAC will not include the United States or Canada. Indeed, thats the whole point: It is intended to weaken U.S. influence in the hemisphere and give Latin Americas populist autocrats a new venue for promoting 21st-century socialism. While the CELAC is a regional effort, its Chávezs baby, explains Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald. Originally scheduled for July, the formation of the CELAC was delayed as Chávez traveled to Cuba to undergo treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer.

The Caracas summit provided yet more evidence that Latin America is suffering from a dangerous leadership vacuum. It came on the heels of egregious electoral fraud in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega and his ruling Sandinista Party used a variety of autocratic methods to sway the outcome of national elections on November 6. Government authorities deliberately made it hard for voters to acquire their identification cards; they sought to limit the number of election observers and poll watchers; and the Supreme Electoral Council once again operated with a disturbing lack of transparency.

Luis Yáñez-Barnuevo, who headed the European Unions team of election observers, has affirmed that Ortega and the Sandinistas were victorious, but he has also questioned the size and nature of their victory, saying, We dont know what would have happened without all these tricks and ruses. The disputed election results sparked a wave of protests and violence. Several Nicaraguans were killed, and many more were injured.

Such is the intensely polarized and volatile atmosphere that Ortega has fostered. By rigging elections, trampling the constitution, persecuting his political opponents, and bullying journalists, he has laid the foundation for another Sandinista dictatorship. Indeed, the only reason he was eligible to stand for reelection is that his judicial allies used legal thuggery to abolish presidential term limits. In the words of former U.S. ambassador Robert Callahan, Daniel Ortegas candidacy was illegal, illegitimate, and unconstitutional.

Last week, Callahan and I (along with Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center) discussed the situation in Nicaragua before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Numerous lawmakers asked us: Why have other Latin American countries not been more forceful in denouncing such obvious Sandinista election cheating? The chief reason, I believe, is the aforementioned hemispheric leadership vacuum. When U.S. diplomats are insufficiently engaged with the various layers of government in Latin America, it is harder to mobilize regional officials to voice alarm about illegitimate elections and push back against creeping authoritarianism.

Speaking to the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, President Obama pledged to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration. In practice, unfortunately, Obama has treated Latin America mostly as an afterthought. He deserves praise for (belatedly) securing Congressional passage of the Colombia and Panama free-trade deals, and also for expanding anti-drug aid to Mexico and Central America. But in each of those cases, Obama was merely continuing or building on a policy he inherited from George W. Bush, rather than spearheading a new initiative of his own.

Unlike Ronald Reagan (who established the Caribbean Basin Initiative, or CBI), George H. W. Bush (who started the NAFTA negotiations), Bill Clinton (who signed NAFTA and enhanced the CBI trade preferences), and Bush 43 (who signed trade pacts with Chile, Central America and the Dominican Republic, Peru, Colombia, and Panama), Obama has not promulgated a clear vision for trade liberalization throughout the hemisphere. As a result, the U.S. trade agenda in Latin America remains stalled.

In terms of supporting democratic institutions and addressing the rise of leftist autocrats in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, the Obama administration has yet to champion a robust agenda for OAS reform. The 63-year-old institution has become increasingly irrelevant, though not for the reasons listed by Chávez and his fellow populists. As I have written elsewhere, U.S. policymakers should aim to fix the structural deficiencies that have made the OAS a relatively ineffective tool for defending democracy.

More specifically, they should propose (1) turning the Inter-American Democratic Charter into a formal treaty and giving Inter-American System of Human Rights (IASHR) the authority to ensure compliance; (2) strengthening the IASHR, the OAS drug-control panel, and the OAS terrorism commission, all of which are functioning well and doing important work; and (3) downsizing the bloated OAS bureaucracy (in order to deploy resources more efficiently). A stronger, better-managed OAS would be good news for regional cooperation, good news for democratic stability, and bad news for the likes of Chávez and Ortega, who have taken advantage of OAS sclerosis and grossly undermined democracy in their respective countries.

OAS reform should be just one part of a broader U.S. re-engagement with Latin America. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rightly called the region vital to U.S. interests. If U.S. officials hope to prevent further democratic backsliding in Nicaragua and elsewhere, they must act on Secretary Clintons words and make the Western Hemisphere a much higher priority.

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