In April 2009, four months after taking office, President Obama wooed Latin American leaders and liberal elites at the Summit of the Americas by apologizing for decades of U.S. foreign policy and promising a new era of cooperation. Obama said:
I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values. So I'm here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration.
But as the president prepares to return to the Summit of the Americas, three years later, it is clear this new era of “engagement” has not included important issues such as democracy or the rule of law. Indeed, Obama made no mention of political abuses in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela when he traveled to the region in 2011. Instead, the president went so far as to say that “[t]oday, Latin America is democratic. Virtually all the people of Latin America have gone from living under dictatorships to living in democracies.”
Yet in recent years, despite flourishing republics in Brazil and Colombia, Latin America’s democratic movement has suffered major setbacks as independent courts have been undermined, elections rigged, free speech trampled, and human rights abused.
Today’s socialist movement is led by the populist anti-Americanism of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. In Caracas, Chavez’s decade-long power grab has resulted in consolidating executive power and fundamentally dismantling the core of Venezuela’s previously democratic political system. Together, with his socialist allies, Chavez rewrote the country’s 1961 constitution in 1999, packed the Supreme Court with 17 new justices in 2004, and abolished term limits for elected officials—including the president—in 2009. The government has also taken dramatic steps to silence opposition groups, shut down freedom of expression, and intimidate voters.
Beyond Venezuela’s borders, Chavez has spread his version of “21st century socialism” to regional allies across the region, mainly using billions in petrodollars.
In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has suppressed free speech and opposition rights. Last year, Ortega was “reelected” to a second consecutive term despite rampant fraud and widespread intimidation by the government. The election itself was marred by complaints from the European Union and Organization of American States that monitors were shut out of polling sites across the country. It is no wonder Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended Ortega’s inauguration ceremony.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is responsible for, as the Washington Post editorialized, “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere.” Correa has dramatically expanded the government’s ownership of media sources—including magazines, newspapers, radio, and television stations—while systematically targeting independent or critical journalists through defamation lawsuits.
The Inter-American democratic charter, adopted on September 11, 2001, states that “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” Yet for three years, the Obama administration has watched silently from afar as freedom and prosperity have come under attack.
Obama may appreciate being warmly welcomed by leftist leaders across the region, but his inability—or refusal—to stand firmly against grave abuses of political power is a crushing blow to the region’s democratic movements. It sends a signal to dissidents jailed in Cuba, opposition leaders fighting for elections in Venezuela, and voters robbed of their rights in Nicaragua that the United States is more concerned with maintaining the status quo than supporting the cause of freedom. As Senator Marco Rubio (R, Fla.) recently wrote, “Today, because of decisions made by this president and his administration, freedom fighters throughout Latin America and around the world wonder if the United States will stand with them as tirelessly as we should.”
President Obama’s upcoming trip to the Summit of the Americas this month provides an opportunity for the White House to affirm its commitment to change this course. Let’s hope the president does not miss this important chance.
Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.