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The Threat (Again) of Left-Wing Latin American Democracy

You can count on U.S. corporate media to express alarm about the threat posed by left-wing governments in Latin America. Sometimes it's military hype (think Soviet MiGs in Nicaragua), but more typically it takes the form of a generalized concern about certain governments' commitment to democratic ideals.

But how do you sound the alarm about left-wing threats to democracy when actual elected left-wing leaders are being removed in anti-democratic coups? That's no easy feat, but some reporters are up to the challenge.

In the Washington Post on July 22 (under the headline "Latin America's New Authoritarians"), reporter Juan Forero explains that today's quasi-dictators are clever enough to rule in what are nominally democracies:

More than two decades after Latin America's last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm.

Of course, another way of looking at this history might lead one to conclude that the United States posed the greatest threat to democracy in Latin America in the 1980s, either by fueling proxy wars or backing repressive dictatorships that were our political allies.

But that's not something we like to bring up. So Forero just ignores U.S. policy, then? Not quite.  Part of the argument here is that the United States is faulted for doing next to nothing. As Forero puts it, "What rights groups and some political leaders call a growing threat to hard-won democratic gains has drawn a tepid response" from the U.S.

Forero notes in passing that U.S.-allied leaders have been criticized, but the real problem are the leftists, as Forero notes with some alarm:

Today, the most prominent and powerful of a handful of democratically elected leaders who enjoy near-total control of the political life of their countries is Chavez. Even as he recovers from cancer, the former lieutenant colonel is running for reelection in October's presidential vote as he seeks to extend a presidency that began in 1999.

Other presidents who have consolidated their hold on power–controlling, among other institutions, the courts, which then give them leverage over opponents–include Ecuador’s Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

All vocally oppose the Obama administration, favor state intervention in the economy and have moved to strengthen alliances with Washington's adversaries, among them Cuba, Iran and Russia.

Forero adds that in Venezuela, Chavez has "built a vast state media apparatus that heaps scorn on his critics while venerating his policies." That's one way to see it; another view is  that the 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power was facilitated by private media owners who used their media holding to help orchestrate the removal of a democratically elected president. But the point of this article–which seems to borrow its premise from a recent book by William Dobson, who is quoted in the piece–is that the real threat comes from these authoritarians who rule just like dictators.

As Keane Bhatt wrote for NACLA (7/30/12), a notable omission in a piece about threats to democracy are the very recent removals of democratically elected presidents in Paraguay and Honduras:

in Forero's account of "creeping authoritarianism" in the region, it's as if two prominent examples of this phenomenon–the Honduran coup and last month's illegitimate ouster of Lugo–never happened.

And far from staying out of the region's affairs, Bhatt notes that the United States sends $50 million to the notoriously brutal Honduran police and military.

It's not just Juan Forero who's writing this story. In Newsweek, Mac Margolis–no stranger to the anti-left beatwrites that "Latin American democracy is in trouble." He explains:

While civil society and the rule of law have matured in Latin America, so has a new generation of autocrats. Forget about corpulent generals in aviator sunglasses: today's authoritarians are urbane, technologically savvy, and skilled at repurposing due process and popular elections in order to concentrate their power.

The prime example is Hugo Chavez, who has–among other things–"used government largesse to buy popular support in lopsided national referendums and elections." That's a fancy way of saying that the country's oil wealth is spread more evenly across society than it had been prior to Chavez's presidency.

Margolis' take is a lot like Forero's, but there are some notable differences. He doesn't ignore the Paraguay coup; instead, he argues that governments in the region that spoke out against the coup really did so in order to bolster Chavez's standing in a regional trade body–essentially backing a dictator's power grab.

So there's a threat to Latin American democracy, but it's not the removal of elected leaders that is the problem. The real problem is when countries speak out against undemocratic coups. Is that confusing? A little. But there's an easier way to understand how the corporate media keep score: If something's good for Chavez or other left-wing leaders in Latin America–it's bad for democracy.