By Carlos E. Ponce
This year the realities of a divided Latin America are being placed in stark contrast as two very different countries with very divergent political models go to the polls. In Peru, positive progress has been made in shedding its repressive and violent past and moving along a path to stable democracy and economic growth; meanwhile, in Nicaragua, ghosts of a similarly miserable political past continue to haunt the halls of power.
First is the case of Peru. It is easy for us to forget that 20 years ago the violent guerrilla group called the Shining Path killed hundreds of people in a merciless insurgent war. The ensuing chaos caused financial instability that led to Peru defaulting on its debt, with an inflation rising to 397% in 1990.
While the world has moved on, Peruvian politicians have not forgotten. Deciding to combine effective social security programs with policies that promote private investment and innovation, Peru has successfully balanced free market forces, regulation, and social policy to build a healthy mixed economy consistent with the rule of law and democracy.
They have chosen as their recipe successful countries such as Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Panama. They have abandoned the tired arguments of “left” and “right” and focused instead on pragmatic solutions which create opportunities for investment, employment, and innovation while generating social policies that reduce inequality and poverty.
Importantly, fostering such success inevitably means respecting the rules of the democratic game.
The Peruvian economy has experienced nine years of positive growth. According to the IMF it is expected to grow more than any other Latin American county in the next five years.
A stable democracy for the past ten years, Peru has set in place a system that assures an effective transition of power void of ideological excesses and anchored upon its respect for the rule of law. Peru’s improvement will continue unless Peruvians decided to look back and elect the ghost of the past represented by Ollanta Humala, Hugo Chavez protégée.
Peru’s story is paralleled in Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. In those countries, presidents from both the left and the right opted to pursue market-oriented policies with a “social face,” transcending old ideological divides while providing a re-definition of democracy and economic policymaking.
All of them had the opportunity to use repression or take advantage of populist sentiments to change the laws and the constitution; however they have chosen instead to follow the rules of the democratic game.
As a result, their countries have and continue to progress unlike the regimes of Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela, Evo Morales’ Bolivia, Rafael Correa’s Ecuador, Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, and the Castro brothers’ Cuba.
These countries instead have fallen victim to autocrats who have manipulated institutions and violated democratic principles to the point of turning their countries in failed states.
An opposite case of Peruvian election this year will be Nicaragua’s election. This country has decided instead to follow down the path of Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador. These countries trumpet ideological values cemented with populist platforms paid for by un-transparent governments dependent upon extractive industries.
Instead of freedom and wellbeing, the pages of the newspapers in Nicaragua are rife with terrible news of corruption, murder, and evidence of state failure. This is the other Latin America, the one that, as Oscar Arias says, “marches resolutely into the past, to the ideological trenches that separated us during the cold war”.
What we have are two Latin Americas, one looking with hope to the future and the other immersed in defensive ideological excuses to disguise failed policies, ineffective governments, corrupt elites and sanguinary leaders.
Perhaps equally concerning, the policies generated by the populist leftists are not only destructive for their own countries — they are also dangerous for peace and security in other countries as well.
From Morales’ encouragement of drug production in Bolivia to the increase in trafficking in Venezuela with the complicity of Chavez’ inner circle; to terrorist groups and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “jointly” investing in the region, this ‘other’ Latin America is no longer only a threat to its own people, but to the entire Western Hemisphere.
It is time for the United States to encourage and support a Latin America that looks to the future — to help democracy activists counter regressive policies and begin to steer the ‘other’ Latin America in the direction of those countries that have enjoyed success stories in recent years.
Upcoming elections in Nicaragua provide a chance to do just this as the United States will have new opportunities to support those civil society and democratic leaders who have been struggling for free and fair elections that will offer something more than Ortega’s eternal presidency.
The United States should also realize the need to counter autocracy in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba.
All Latin American countries must be allowed the opportunity to share in a common, region-wide story of success, and now is the time for the United States at long last to offer help along the way. Dr. Carlos E. Ponce is the Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and General Coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy, a network of over 210 leading civil society organizations across the Americas. In his native Venezuela, Dr. Ponce led the Justice and Development Consortium (Asociación Civil Consorcio Desarrollo y Justicia) — a nongovernmental organization that develops justice-reform and conflict-resolution programs at the local level. He previously worked as executive secretary of Venezuela’s National Human Rights Commission and as an advisor to the Venezuelan Congress.
Ponce earned his PhD from Northeastern University, Master of Arts in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University, Master of Studies in Environmental Law (M.S.E.L.) (Magna Cum Laude) from Vermont Law School, and his law degree from Andres Bello Catholic University in Venezuela. He was also a Fulbright Fellow, Tufts Fellow, World Bank/Fundayacucho fellow, European Union Visitor Program fellow, and in the US Department of State Visitor Program. The views expressed in this article represent the opinions and analysis of the writer and do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy or its staff. Twitter: @ceponces