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Even before Hugo Chavez revealed he is battling cancer, his political star was on the wane in Latin America. More and more, voters in the region have simply realized that class warfare, polarization, and centralization of power are not prescriptions for economic growth and political stability. (As a case in point, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, a one-time Chavez acolyte, couldn’t run away fast enough from the Venezuelan leader during his recent successful campaign – even if he had no qualms about taking Chavez’s cash.)
Still, the fading appeal of the Chavista model is of cold comfort to those still suffering under radical populist rule elsewhere in the region. Specifically, in Ecuador, Rafael Correa continues to trample democratic institutions, although regrettably nowhere to be found is any expression of concern by the Obama administration.
“The sun may be setting on Chavismo in Latin America, but that’s no excuse for inaction.” — José R. Cárdenas
In late July, in a “trial” that lasted less than a day, a cowed Ecuadorean judge sentenced prominent newspaper columnist Emilio Palacio and three of the directors of his newspaper, El Universo, to three years in prison and fined them $40 million for publishing a column critical of Correa last February.
The defendants said they will appeal — but so did Correa. He says he wants the full $80 million in damages he requested when he filed his defamation suit.
“We’re making history, my friends, we won’t retreat,” he said after the verdict. “There’s no room for magnanimity in the face of such miserable humanity.”
Even as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and every major international media defense organization denounced the verdict, nary a word of concern has been expressed by the Obama administration.
Intimidating the media and using the judicial system to quash freedom of freedom expression are hallmarks of Chavismo, ones that Correa has embraced with relish. He has sued, fined, and seized control of numerous outlets since his rise to power in 2007. Where the government once owned one media outlet, under Correa it now controls 19 television and radio stations and newspapers.
It gets worse. Last May, Correa won a referendum vote granting him the power to restrict media ownership and to create a government oversight body to regulate “excesses” in the media under threat of sanction.
Moreover, the same referendum gives Correa the right to restructure Ecuador’s judicial system by overseeing a commission that will select new judges, compromising the entire integrity and independence of the system. Until then, any presently sitting judge who hopes to have a job in the future is rather unlikely to cross the president – as in, reversing the El Universo verdict on appeal.
Of course, expressions of concern from Washington are unlikely to discourage Correa from his destructive, anti-democratic course (just days ago, he threatened to dissolve Congress and call new elections if his candidate wasn’t elected to head the assembly; his candidate won), but they do matter.
Contrary to what most professional leftists in the region want you to believe, most Latin Americans do want good relations with the United States, for a whole range of reasons – economic, family, education, among others – and it registers when those relations are seen to be off-kilter. Struggling democrats, as well, rely on expressions of solidarity from the United States to sustain their courageous efforts.
The sun may be setting on Chavismo in Latin America, but that’s no excuse for inaction. Rebuilding democratic institutions will take a lot longer than bringing them down. The Obama administration needs to have a policy of making sure the situation doesn’t get worse before it gets better.
José R. Cárdenas is a contributor to AEI’s Venezuela-Iran Project.
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