A Leadership Vacuum in Latin America

On December 2, leaders from across the Western Hemisphere gathered in Caracas to establish a new regional forum known as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Their two-day summit produced a great deal of populist, anti-U.S. bluster, but very little diplomatic substance.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez promised that CELAC would eventually “leave behind the old and worn-out” Organization of American States (OAS), which was founded in 1948. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa argued that the OAS “should have come to an end” in 1982, when the United States supported Britain’s war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega declared that CELAC was “sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death.” Bolivia’s Evo Morales condemned the International Monetary Fund (always a convenient villain), saying it had “pillaged us and led us to poverty.” And Cuba’s Raúl Castro blasted the recent NATO military campaign in Libya.

Unlike the Washington-based OAS, CELAC will not include the United States or Canada. Indeed, that’s the whole point: It is intended to weaken U.S. influence in the hemisphere and give Latin America’s populist autocrats a new venue for promoting 21st-century socialism. “While the CELAC is a regional effort, it’s Chávez’s baby,” explains Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald. “Originally scheduled for July, the formation of the CELAC was delayed as Chávez traveled to Cuba to undergo treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer.”

The Caracas summit provided yet more evidence that Latin America is suffering from a dangerous leadership vacuum. It came on the heels of egregious electoral fraud in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega and his ruling Sandinista Party used a variety of autocratic methods to sway the outcome of national elections on November 6. Government authorities deliberately made it hard for voters to acquire their identification cards; they sought to limit the number of election observers and poll watchers; and the Supreme Electoral Council once again operated with a disturbing lack of transparency.

Luis Yáñez-Barnuevo, who headed the European Union’s team of election observers, has affirmed that Ortega and the Sandinistas were victorious, but he has also questioned the size and nature of their victory, saying, “We don’t know what would have happened without all these tricks and ruses.” The disputed election results sparked a wave of protests and violence. Several Nicaraguans were killed, and many more were injured.

Such is the intensely polarized and volatile atmosphere that Ortega has fostered. By rigging elections, trampling the constitution, persecuting his political opponents, and bullying journalists, he has laid the foundation for another Sandinista dictatorship. Indeed, the only reason he was eligible to stand for reelection is that his judicial allies used legal thuggery to abolish presidential term limits. In the words of former U.S. ambassador Robert Callahan, “Daniel Ortega’s candidacy was illegal, illegitimate, and unconstitutional.”