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Various Transitions of Power Reflect Latin Political Maturity
The Washington Diplomat / May 2010

By Larry Luxner

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Ten years ago, the State Department was warning Americans not to set foot anywhere inside Colombia, and with good reason: This country had one of the world’s highest murder rates. The very mention of its name conjured up images of murderous drug dealers and rifle-toting guerrillas in the jungle.

Ever since Álvaro Uribe’s election as president in 2002, however, things have changed dramatically. Kidnappings have tumbled by 88 percent, and the homicide rate has been halved.

“Today, middle class shoppers browse retail outlets in Bogotá’s glitzy Zona Rosa [neighborhood],” notes the Financial Times. “In Cartagena, foreign litterateurs visit the colonial Caribbean town every year — not to don flak jackets but to read their novels at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival offshoot. Even Medellín, a pleasant city set amid rolling hills but once synonymous with violence, is touted as a tourist destination.”

Colombia’s image has improved so much that last month, Cartagena hosted the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2010 — a prestigious gathering that attracted 550 top executives from 40 countries, as well as Uribe and the leaders of half a dozen other countries including Guatemala, Panama and the Dominican Republic.

“The fact that this year’s World Economic Forum on Latin America was held in Cartagena is an expression of confidence in our country,” declared Uribe. “We will live up to that expectation.”

Credited with cleaning up his nation’s rampant violence and driving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) away from urban areas and into Colombia’s remote jungles, the 57-year-old Uribe remains extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that he tried to have the constitution changed to allow him to run for an unprecedented third term.

Yet in February, the Constitutional Court barred Uribe from ever seeking the presidency again. Rather than fight the ruling, Uribe accepted it immediately, clearing the path for a six-way election race that will be decided May 30. And even though the president enjoys tremendous public support — with approval ratings hovering above 70 percent — many outside observers say Uribe’s exit from the scene will be a good thing over the long term in cementing Colombian democracy and helping to reinforce peaceful transitions of power throughout the region.

“The legacy that Uribe leaves us is that he has strengthened the rule of law and its institutions,” said Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Carolina Barco. “So even though Uribe will not be running for a third term, he leaves the country with a strong democracy which will endure.”

Nearly 200 years after Simón Bolívar managed to liberate huge swaths of South America from Spanish colonial rule, the continent is at peace and enjoying a prosperity that often flies under the international radar, with nearly every country enjoying democracy and economic growth despite continuing global financial difficulties.

The glaring exceptions to this trend, of course, are Cuba — the hemisphere’s only communist dictatorship — and Venezuela, whose capital, Caracas, now endures daily power blackouts despite the country’s massive oil wealth, and where the homicide rate has tripled since leftist President Hugo Chávez took office nearly 12 years ago.

Latin America’s success story, minus these and a few other examples, will be trumpeted during this month’s 40th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas, to take place at the Inter-American Development Bank and the State Department. The May 11-12 event, hosted by the Council of the Americas, will likely attract 200 business and political leaders from throughout the hemisphere.

“Colombia has improved so much over the last eight years, and in such a significant way, but that perception has not caught up with reality,” Barco told The Washington Diplomat. “People still have a vision of Colombia which has to do with 2000, not with the Colombia of 2010 — where tourism is growing, where there is security, where you have optimism and things are definitely moving ahead. This forum has raised the profile of our country, allowing investors and the media to see this new Colombia, and to talk to others about it.”

Yet Colombia — like its Latin counterparts — still face numerous challenges. Poverty and economic disparity remain rampant — Colombia’s poverty rate alone is 43 percent despite the country’s overall growth. And according to Freedom in the World 2010, an annual survey by Washington-based Freedom House, Colombia is still considered only “partly free” with a score of 3 in political rights and 4 in civil liberties, based on a scale of 1 to 7 in which 1 is the best any country can attain and 7 is the worst.

According to this freedom index, Uruguay and Costa Rica scored the highest in Latin America, with a 1 in both categories for each country. Argentina and Brazil scored 2 in both categories, while Mexico and Peru earned a 2 in political rights and a 3 in civil liberties.

It’s no surprise that the worst-scoring in the hemisphere is communist Cuba, with a 7 in political rights and 6 in civil liberties. Following not far behind is Venezuela, where Chávez seems to be moving his country farther and farther to the left while marginalizing all opposition and dissent. (Venezuela earned a 5 in political rights and a 4 in civil liberties.)

Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to the United States and now Latin America director at Washington’s Hudson Institute, says Cuba and Venezuela are going against the tide of democracy that has swept much of the region in recent years.

“Havana’s strong support for Chávez is driven far more by economic necessity than leftist ideology. Without Chávez, the weak Cuban economy would collapse and the Castro regime along with it,” Daremblum said of the two nations’ interdependence.

“Preserving the Bolivarian strongman is thus a top priority for Havana, which is why the Castro brothers have been flooding Venezuela with highly accomplished practitioners of repression and censorship. Chávez is relying on them to fortify his revolution. With each passing day, the two countries become more and more interdependent, and Venezuela gets more and more Cubanized.”

Although the political leaderships in Venezuela and Cuba tend to consume American policymakers and generate the most headlines, their stories are hardly indicative of the broader trends taking place throughout the region, where moderate nations such as Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have become widely respected global players (also see “Despite Some Leftist Leanings, Democracy Takes Root in Latin World” in the February 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Roberto Saladin, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to Washington, said “nobody can deny the trend toward democracy,” which has totally transformed his Caribbean country, beginning with elections in 1966 and continuing with a constitutional amendment that separated the executive and legislative branches of government while encouraging the development of three strong political parties that have shared power in Santo Domingo ever since.

“In the last few decades throughout Latin America, there’s been a consolidation of democracy in most of our countries, with more active participation by voters and political parties,” he told The Diplomat. “This has led not only to greater civil liberties and respect for human rights, but also economic growth in spite of the inequalities that persist.” Besides his own country — whose gross domestic product grew 3.5 percent last year and expects growth of 6 percent in 2010 — Saladin praised Costa Rica as “a leader in democracy”; noted Mexico’s political evolution after 70 years of control by the Institutional Revolutionary Party; and said “Brazil has been one of the most dynamic democracies in Latin America” under the leadership of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

And as democracies in the rest of Latin America become ever-more sophisticated, there’s even been an increasing eagerness for countries to punish former dictators and reconcile with the demons of their past, a further sign of political maturity that would have been unthinkable of two decades ago (also see “Latin America Tries to Reconcile With Dirty Secrets of Its Past” in the October 2008 issue).

One of the most notable examples of this trend is Peru, where the once-popular but controversial President Alberto Fujimori — who ruled the country from 1990 to 2000 — will probably die behind bars, having been sentenced to more than 25 years in jail for a variety of crimes, notably his role in ordering killings and kidnappings by his security forces.

Likewise in Uruguay, under leftist President José Mujica — a one-time member of the Tupamaro guerrilla movement of the 1960s who was tortured and jailed for 14 years by the country’s former military regime — the government has locked away its last dictator for the rest of his life. Gregorio Alvarez, who effectively ruled this small nation from 1973 to 1985, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the killing of 37 leftists in a region-wide crackdown known as “Operation Condor.”

Not long after, another former Uruguayan dictator, 81-year-old Juan Maria Bordaberry, was sentenced to 30 years in jail for violating the constitution when he dissolved Congress and banned political parties, paving the way for military leaders to seize power outright in 1973.

Latin court systems are taking aim not only at blatant human rights abuses, but also at the region’s notorious reputation for corruption at the highest levels of government.

Last month, a trial began for former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez, in office from 1998 to 2002, and eight others accused of taking bribes to award a $149 million government mobile phone contract.

A month earlier in Guatemala, a criminal court agreed to extradite former President Alfonso Portillo to the United States where he faces money-laundering charges. And former Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares is under investigation for money-laundering accusations.

Leaders are also owning up to some of the most shameful aggressions committed under past governments. For instance, three decades after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, El Salvador for the first time publicly commemorated the widely revered Catholic figure, who had advocated for the poor and whose death pushed the country into a bloody civil war that pitted a U.S.-backed right-wing government against Soviet-backed leftist guerrillas.

Today, the political party that represented the guerrillas now governs El Salvador, where two decades of rule by the rightist Arena party recently came to an end.

A political transformation also recently occurred in Chile, where a right-leaning billionaire businessman won the presidency following two decades of electoral dominance by leftist coalitions opposed to the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which lasted from 1973 to 1990.

Interestingly, during the massive earthquake that hit Chile just before the new president’s inauguration in February, the public welcomed the sight of soldiers assisting in the relief efforts, a remarkable turnaround in a country that for years associated the military with authoritarian abuse.

As part of that turnaround, former President Michelle Bachelet recently inaugurated the $22 million Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. The museum honors the tens of thousands of Chilean victims — Bachelet herself included — who were imprisoned, tortured or killed during Pinochet’s reign. Among the thousands of artifacts displayed at the new museum is a small metal bed that victims were tied to before receiving electric shocks.

At the inauguration, Bachelet, who was the first female president in Chile’s history, said her country should “never again suffer a tragedy like the one we are remembering here ... a tragedy that from the first day brought together denial and concealment, and the pain of captivity or death.”

Like Chile, Guatemala has been gradually coming to terms with its brutal past. An estimated 300,000 people died during three decades of civil war from 1966 to 1996 in what is by far Central America's largest country, with 12 million inhabitants.

Francisco Villagrán de León, the country's ambassador in Washington, says that despite widespread recognition of the civil war's toll, the transition to democracy has been slow and difficult.

"Historically, we were relatively stable when we had authoritarian regimes led by dictators. Democracy was an aspiration enshrined in our constitution but rarely exercised, and political institutions were chronically weak and inefficient," he said.

"Today, the rule of law, we have to admit, is still weak. But on the other hand, open and transparent elections are now the norm. Congressional oversight is gaining ground, the media is playing a more focused role in scrutinizing government, and civil society is growing. Our challenge now is not only to consolidate democratic institutions and protect civil liberties, but also to deliver economic growth, jobs and prosperity. And all that takes more than having democratic governments."

Nevertheless, the rise of democracy in the 1990s coincided with a number of economic advances, including a wave of trade agreements throughout the region aimed at lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty. The results though have been mixed, with many Latin American nations posting consistent growth even though huge gaps in prosperity remain entrenched throughout the region.

One of the most important trade blocs in fact, Mercosur, has not worked well because of violations and non-compliance. As a result, some European and Asian trade partners question how serious Latin America really is when it comes to free trade — an issue examined in depth during the World Economic Forum in Cartagena.

In Latin America, less than 20 percent of trade is intraregional, compared to roughly 50 percent in Asia and 75 percent in Europe. At the same time, the region as a whole has far less influence on the international arena than its population and total GDP would suggest.

To spur things along, 11 countries bordering the Pacific, led by Chile, have proposed working as a bloc. Concurrently, Mexico and Brazil — which together account for half of Latin America’s population and two-thirds of its GDP — are in the process of negotiating not an FTA, but a “strategic integration agreement” that could further reduce barriers.

In the meantime, the United States continues to debate the merits of a free trade agreement with Colombia. The Obama administration has proposed to double U.S. exports over the next five years, yet Congress is holding up approval of the long-awaited U.S.-Colombia FTA on various grounds, including concern over American jobs and what critics say are continuing human rights violations by the Uribe government, particularly the killing of labor leaders.

Barco warned that Colombia is one of the region’s main buyers of corn and soy, and that “the U.S. is starting to lose market share because of FTAs that Colombia has signed with Argentina and Canada.” She urged Congress to award her country for doing the right things while also creating American jobs in the process.

“At this moment, we have free access to your market, but the U.S. does not have free access to ours,” she told The Diplomat. “We’re motivated by the fact that President Obama spoke about free trade in his State of the Union speech. FTAs are the basis for job creation and exports, and that’s why we think there’s a new possibility for it to pass. So we’re working very closely with the administration and reaching out to Congress to see if it’s possible, within the next month, to include the FTA in the legislative process. We are committed to moving this along.”

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