Latin America has democracy, but lacks democrats

Latin America's democratically elected leaders paraded through the last remaining dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere and paid homage to its totalitarian rulers.

They were in Havana for a summit last week of the Community of Latin American States (CELAC, in Spanish), an anti-U.S. concoction of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Currently the organization’s rotating presidency is held by Cuban dictator, Gen. Raul Castro.

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Seemingly these elected leaders were neither interested nor concerned that Cuba’s government had threatened, beaten and arrested hundreds of the island’s democracy advocates who had tried to plan and hold a parallel summit to discuss the lack of freedom and human rights in Cuba.

In regards to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, this would seem to be particularly unfortunate. Both were once themselves victims of military dictatorships and scorned dignitaries who coddled their repressors. 

So why would Latin America's democratically elected leaders willingly participate in such a hypocritical charade? What does Cuba's morally, politically and economically bankrupt regime offer them that they would stake the loss of credibility by attending?

Some take part in these charades of diplomacy because they fear left-wing agitators back home; others simply attend to pursue business deals without transparency and some simply want to show they are anti-American.

Of course the main reason for their irreverence is that, despite being democratically elected, they lack democratic zeal and conviction. Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega have all evidenced authoritarian ambitions. Others hide them better.

What inhibits them is the institutionalization of "representative democracy" as the backbone of hemispheric relations, as was agreed upon in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter signed by 34 of the 35 countries of the Western Hemisphere. To skirt the Charter, they try to manipulate laws and institutions and exert greater executive control while maintaining a facade of democracy.

The biggest deterrent to breaking their public commitments to "representative democracy" is the omnipresent economic isolation of Cuba as the result of U.S. sanctions. So these leaders pay homage to Castro and engage in fiery rhetoric, but tip-toe around serious aggression.  They are keenly aware that they need the United States to survive economically. A case in point is Venezuela, whose struggling economy is entirely dependent on exporting oil to the United States.  Thus U.S. sanctions on Cuba serve as “the stick” to “the carrot” of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and obeisance, if not enforcement, of its principles.

It's precisely the authoritarian underbelly of these Latin American leaders that makes them such zealous lobbyists for the end of U.S. sanctions on Cuba.  It's for this reason that they want to see the Castro regime embraced and "fully integrated" into inter-American system despite its blatant disregard for representative democracy. Such a U.S. policy change would allow them to accelerate their own authoritarian tendencies and free their zeal for absolute power.

If U.S. sanctions toward Cuba are lifted and Castro's dictatorship is "fully integrated" -- what's to keep a return to the Latin American dictatorships of the 20th Century?

The people of the Americas can’t afford a return to the dictatorships -- whether leftist or rightist -- that once ruled Latin America. Some of those governments may have seemed to be “good” for business at their time, but would be severely damaging to the national interests of the United States and the Western Hemisphere in the 21st century.

For the United States to “normalize” relations with Cuba's dictatorship without political reforms or a rule of law opens a Pandora's Box that can lead to history repeating itself.  Sadly there are plenty of Latin American “leaders” who would gladly seize the opportunity to permanently close the door on democracy.  Let’s not hand them the opportunity.

Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and host of "From Washington al Mundo" on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio. He is an attorney who formerly served with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and has served on the full-time faculty of The Catholic University of America's School of Law and adjunct faculty of The George Washington University's National Law Center.

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