WASHINGTON – Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe testified before a House subcommittee last week on the challenges to democracy in Latin America, warning that some governments in the region are gradually dismantling democracy in their countries.
In his testimony to the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, the leader railed against countries in the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), referred to Cuba as a “failure,” and criticized the current peace talks between Colombia’s government and Marxist FARC rebels.
Uribe regarded Cuba’s recent efforts to open its economy as a façade. He said Cuba has been largely a failure since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has only been able to survive because of subsidies received from Venezuela and Brazil.
“In my opinion, the economic openness of Cuba is only an excuse – it’s only for appearance,” Uribe said. “There is no political openness and economic openness won’t be enough to satisfy the basic needs of the people of Cuba.”
He said ALBA countries – led by Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia – are on “a regressive path against democracy” and lack investor confidence because of the numerous cases of private property expropriation to fund social programs.
Above all, Uribe said, the biggest threat to democracy in the region comes from leaders who, once elected, set about undermining it from within.
“Whereas military dictators, brutal Marxist guerrillas, and one-party systems affected much of Latin America’s democratic progress throughout the 20th century, the current slow pace of democratic progress in some Latin American countries is due to the rise of radical populist governments,” Uribe said in his prepared remarks. “Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and, of course, Cuba, dominate their respective political landscapes through abusive speech and media restrictions, as well as laws that limit political opposition and give sweeping executive power.”
Uribe also said that Venezuela continues to be a refuge for “terrorists all over the world” and the government openly promotes anti-Semitic speech.
Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told a House panel recently that Iran has illegally laundered billions of dollars through the Venezuelan financial sector. Last year, the House Committee on Homeland Security submitted a report to the U.S. Congress linking Hezbollah to drug cartels in Latin America. The report found that Hezbollah and Iranian agents are working with drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia.
After downplaying the Iranian threat in the region, the State Department announced in August it had decided to reexamine its own assessment of Iran’s growing infrastructure to support terrorist activities in Latin America. The State Department issued its own report on Iran activity in the Western Hemisphere in May, which was panned as lacking “depth and seriousness” by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Uribe had some harsh words for the Organization of American States (OAS), which stayed mum during the coup in Venezuela against the congress two years ago, but took tougher stances against the coups in Honduras and Paraguay.
“We should not ask for replacing the OAS; the region needs democratic governments in joint action to make all the region comply with the democratic charter,” Uribe said.
Nevertheless, he said, OAS members need to reform and rethink what the role of the organization will be “because it seems that the OAS depends on the whims of dictators and quasi-dictators and not the rules of its own charter.”
In 2001, the General Assembly of the OAS, meeting in Lima, established the “Inter-American Democratic Charter.” Thirty four countries signed the charter into being, proclaiming that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote it and defend it.”
Since then, the organization’s several critics say the OAS has only been inclined to condemn anti-democratic attacks against sitting leaders, while turning a blind eye to political wrongdoing committed by those currently in office. The result, its detractors argue, has been an inconsistent enforcement of its democratic charter among its members.
“The [OAS] has been very strong against what happened in Honduras and Paraguay, but has been very weak regarding what happened in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The [organization] needs to be much more strict in preserving its democratic charter,” Uribe said. “It’s necessary to have political determination because it seems the OAS fears [these] governments.”
Colombia’s peace negotiations with FARC rebels are currently underway in Havana.
The five-point agenda in the peace talks includes rebel participation in politics, an end to the conflict, how to eliminate the drug trade, reparations for victims and agrarian reform — on which the two sides have come to a partial agreement.
The negotiations began last year but have come under harsh criticism from Uribe, who has accused president Juan Manuel Santos of “cozying up to terrorists.”
“The danger of granting impunity has been clearly demonstrated by recent resurgence of terrorism in Colombia. FARC attacks in the first half of 2012 rose 52 percent compared to the previous year,” Uribe said.
Dr. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center, told the subcommittee that it has been difficult to combine the procedural minimum of democracy – free and fair elections – with more substantive dimensions such as adherence to the rule of law in the majority of countries in Latin America.
The absence of some of the essential components of a liberal democracy, along with a concentration of power in the executive branch and inequality before the law, helps explain why political systems have imploded in several Latin American countries, giving rise to populist regimes, she said.
“Most significantly in the Andes, today’s populist regimes are focused on transformational or revolutionary projects that concentrate power in the executive and do not envision ceding power to political opponents,” Arnson said. “Even when leaders enjoy significant popular support (largely as a result of social programs financed by the boom in commodity prices), the institutions and legal frameworks that constrain the unfettered exercise of power have been systematically eroded.”
Arnson said the United States needs to promote democracy, but in a way that does not turn overt American support of the opposition in ALBA countries into “the kiss of death” to their efforts of democratic expansion.