By Carlos E. Ponce
Numerous Latin Americans have developed a bizarre love-hate relationship with the United States, most of them populists who tend to blame the American government for all that is wrong with their lives, even if these faults are the product of their own mistakes. As a result, the United States has become an easy excuse for bad government, repression, and restrictions on freedom of expression and association in recent years.
In some cases, actions taken by the United States that are intended to sanction repressive regimes actually have the opposite effect — for example, the American embargo on Cuba. Similarly, the confrontational rhetoric exchanged between former President Bush and President Chavez allowed the latter international leverage to persecute civil society activists and curtail fundamental freedoms.
The United States’ reciprocal response to the expulsion of American ambassadors to Bolivia, Venezuela, and most recently, Ecuador, has unfairly provided populist authoritarian leaders valuable political capital. It is all too easy to just blame the United States. It is also too easy to keep old memories of the cold war alive for “ideological” reasons.
And, it is not just the authoritarians who blame the United States. Extremists in the opposition, those who have campaigned for the United States to more actively involve itself in Latin American regime change á la military intervention, also s blame the US for being too soft. The United States just can’t win. It is true that the United States doesn’t have a good policy toward the Western Hemisphere, but that is part of another history.Last week I wrote of two Latin Americas:
one, comprised of countries with effective policies that balance the utility of free markets with the necessity of social justice, and another, consisting of countries stuck in the past that leave their citizens poor and ignorant in order to control them.
The first has experienced tremendous advances in terms of equality, evidenced by countries like Brazil, where more than 20 million people have moved from poverty to the middle class thanks to an effective social program that has motivated parents to bring their kids to school and ensure they receive medical services. In these countries, presidents from the right and left have brought political stability, democratic governance, and economic development, and have done so with a social face.
We can include countries like Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Panama on this list. It looks like El Salvador—despite its problems with violence and economic limitations—is also headed in this direction. On the other hand, there is Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, all of which are going backward.
The success of the first set of countries did not involve blaming America. Instead, these countries found their own way. Latin Americans must work as citizens of their countries and region to solve their own differences, reduce the inequality between them, and eliminate social exclusion by effectively balancing market forces and social justice. There is no magical solution that will come from the north. The people must do this work themselves.
In terms of how to deal with elected authoritarians, those who persecute opposition and violate democratic values human rights, the best solution is effective South-South diplomacy — for governments like Brazil, who have been successful, to positively engage countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua on issues of human rights and democracy.
We need governments that have carved out democratic paths to assist in exporting democracy to this “other” America so that it too can share in the prosperity. Democratic countries in Latin America have tremendous potential when it comes to sharing democratic stories and lessons with their more authoritarian neighbors, and it is exactly this, as well as holding the feet of leaders in this other Latin America to the fire.
Civil society organizations in countries like Brazil, Chile and Uruguay should working in conjunction with civil society groups in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. These groups should share experience , an effective tool building healthier opposition politics and stronger civil society. In addition to civil society development, democratic governments in Latin America should align their foreign policy with their expressed domestic commitment to democracy and human rights. Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Panama, among others, have been consolidating their democracies internally and have thus increased the opportunities for their civil societies to advance democracy and human rights in other countries.
However, despite enormous potential for cooperation of civil society groups across borders, we too often witness a lack of solidarity between civil society organizations, most importantly between civil society organizations in countries with authoritarian regimes and those with consolidating democracies. Not only this, but some democratic countries have seemingly loaned support to the repressive countries.
It is important that newly emergent democracies do not forget their global commitment to democracy in the tranquility that has corresponded with their political and economic success. Further action is required to promote an awareness of the status of democracy in countries outside one’s own — to more actively engage civil society organizations and diplomats to further democracy across borders, to consolidate democracy in Latin America as a whole rather than leaving the continent to be divided in two, one democratic and successful and the other not.
The voting record of Brazil at the UN Human Rights Council and its support of authoritarians in Venezuela, Iran and Cuba should bring shame on a country that has managed to achieve such a vibrant democracy and fervent respect for human rights in such a short period of time.
Effective diplomacy is possible. For example, look at how the Czech Republic has engaged Cuba, allowing Cuban civil society leaders to use computers in its embassy to blog free from the Castro regime’s usual controls and leading efforts to strengthen and inter-link civil society groups. Czech and Cuban civil society groups have worked with each other on numerous projects.
Democratic countries in Latin America are not without similar examples. For example, look at the effective role Conectas, a small civil society organization in Brazil, has had in promoting responsible diplomacy in the south. There are positive examples of South-South diplomacy. We just need more of them, and we need them to be consistent.
My view of South-South Effective Diplomacy requires responsible governments to facilitate the sharing of best practices among civil society organizations, youth groups and other social, political and economic actors, support the construction of civil society networks, educate civil society leaders on the use of new tools and technologies, promote democratic solidarity across the continent, and promote awareness of what has been accomplished in much of the continent.
Countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador should not be left behind. Instead, they should have their eyes opened to the successes experienced in other countries so that they too may build such democratic foundations.
North-South diplomacy has its place, but South-South diplomacy also has an important role to play. The United States is not all-powerful, and it is time for democrats in the region to come to together to strengthen regional and sub-regional bodies, to adopt country-to-country initiatives, to level the playing field between authoritarians and democratic forces in the countries left behind.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