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Democracy is Winning in Latin America

Latin America’s dictators are losing, and the forces of freedom and progress are winning.

12:00 AM, Oct 6, 2010 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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Chávez isn’t the only Latin American autocrat who had a rough month of September. In Cuba, government officials announced that they would be laying off nearly 500,000 state workers to cope with the deep economic crisis. The Communist regime is increasingly desperate, and is thus taking small steps to expand private enterprise. It has also agreed to release political prisoners in hopes of convincing the European Union to normalize relations.

Of course, the Castro brothers and Hugo Chávez remain in control of their respective countries. But the underlying story from Cuba and Venezuela is the same: Latin America’s dictators are losing, and the forces of freedom and progress are winning.

Just look at Honduras, a true Latin American success story, whose remarkable democratic achievement is sadly underappreciated by many journalists and politicians here in the United States. Not so long ago, it appeared that Honduras would become another Venezuelan satellite. Manuel Zelaya, elected president in 2006, had brought his country into the Chávez-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, and he was gradually steering it toward authoritarianism. In June 2009, Zelaya attempted to hold a referendum that the Honduran supreme court had rejected as illegal. It was a thinly veiled power grab, representing a direct challenge to the country’s constitutional order. The supreme court responded by authorizing Zelaya’s removal from office.

Foreign governments cried foul, labeling his ouster a military coup. But a subsequent U.S. Law Library of Congress study concluded that: “The judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.” Indeed, the country’s democratic institutions rose to the occasion and prevented a would-be dictator from using mob tactics to subvert the law. 

Last November, Honduras held its 2009 national elections right on schedule. The victor in the presidential contest, Porfirio Lobo of the conservative National Party, has since worked to assist the post-Zelaya reconciliation process. “President Lobo has done everything he said he would do,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in June. “He was elected through a free and fair, legitimate election. He provided political amnesty. He set up a truth commission. He has been very committed to pursuing a policy of reintegration.” As a result, many Latin American governments have reestablished formal diplomatic relations with Honduras.

The triumph of Honduran democracy was an embarrassing defeat for Chávez, who had angrily demanded Zelaya’s return. Now he has suffered an even bigger embarrassment on his home turf. It is way too soon to make any long-term predictions about the future of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution.” After all, Chávez is a brutal autocrat who has recovered from earlier setbacks. But the 2010 election may one day be seen as a turning point.

Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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