The Cuban political dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in prison on February 23 after 85 days of hunger strike to protest against severe beatings in jail. Initially sentenced to 3 years imprisonment for contempt, public disorder and „disobedience„, he later was sentenced to 36 years for disobedience in jail. Actually, he was the victim of a very harsh regime of beatings and other privations, a situation very often mentioned in reports of various human rights organizations, Amnesty International being one of them.
A ruthless regime with its political dissidents, Cuba is a much praised model for some Latin American leaders and other leftists for its allegedly generous and egalitarian social system. Without exception, those leaders in Latin America and elsewhere who are trying to imitate this model and thus favor the social and economic rights over political and civil liberties are following an authoritarian trend and, unfortunately, the bulk of such leaders is growing and consolidating. What is much more surprising than the authoritarian entrenchment in Africa or Asia is the replication of this phenomenon in some Latin American countries and here the Venezuelan case is a most startling example. And even more worrying is the replication of this democratic deterioration in neighboring countries. From institutional changes in favor of the executive and leading to the paralysis of the judiciary and the legislative, to brutal attacks against the opposition and violence used against the civil society, the press and the people peacefully gathered to protest against the infringements of their civil and political rights, and up to the recent creation in Venezuela of vigilante troops of poor farmers armed by the government against other Venezuelan citizens – the landowners, a situation on the brink of a civil war, this alarming trend is not an exception today. To illustrate this in Latin America, the radicalization of the Venezuelan authoritarian trend encourages similar behavior in neighboring countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Honduras until last year) and contributes in various degrees to the instability in other countries, like Colombia through the drug-networks across the borders and the growing war rhetoric and arms race in the region.
Even more worrying, even as an enemy, Chavez continues to contribute to the deterioration of the state of democracy, and again Colombia is a suggestive case. Its incumbent president, Alvaro Uribe, is in the throes of a new constitutional change to allow him a third mandate precisely in the fight against drug-related disorders, economic hardships and guys like Chavez at the boarder menacing “our” democracy. And if nation states are incapable of stopping this democratic deterioration, who could be a better authority than a supranational player? Latin America has been the ground of many projects of regional organization but it still searching a viable formula. The most recent of them is on the table of 32 Latin American governments, but its foundational principle raises more worries than hopes.
At the same time with the struggle and death of the Cuban dissident, on February 24, the annual Summit of the Rio Group arrived at a sort of a groundbreaking decision for the Latin American and Caribbean countries. 32 States agreed on the creation of a new regional organization very much similar with the ailing OAS (Organization of American States) that will exclude the United States and Canada for a change. 32 is a really big number for this region, Honduras being the only country absent from this gathering as very few dare to take a decisive step and recognize the new presidency of Porfirio Lobo after the events last year leading to the forced exile of the former President, Manuel Zelaya. Moreover, the consensus on this issue seems rather extraordinary, given the highly conflictual atmosphere on the continent these days and the usually frequent failures in agreeing on regional issues and enforcing supranational decisions. However, this time the consensus was in place and the succinct formula of this accord would be: no US. Raul Castro, Cuba’s President after 83-year-old Fidel Castro retired, was there and enjoyed an equal standing with the other Latin American presidents in drawing the big lines of this new and ambitious project of regional integration. Cuba is not a member of the OAS as this would be impossible for an entrenched authoritarian regime and obviously unwilling to accept human rights monitoring according to the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter.
There are some significant points of this surprising consensus that deserve a closer scrutiny. The first would be the aggressive lobby in favor of this new regional formula made by Brazil. President Lula da Silva played a central role in making this project a viable one and his rhetoric is very suggestive: “Today, we have conquered our personality as a region”. For a long time considered one of the best options as a leader of the OAS after the very weak performance of the Chilean José Miguel Insulza at its head, President Lula da Silva seemed to favor a lot more the possibility of taking the reins of this new organization whose future he predicts to be a very long one. Another significant consensus reached at this Summit of the Rio Group was the continental solidarity with the Argentinean cause in its conflict with Great Britain on the recent oil drilling near the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and the fact that only after this regional support did Argentina decide to take its cause to the UN. Moreover, the Summit was also another opportunity for Brazil to claim a permanent seat at the UN’s Security Council as an official recognition of the actual global power balance today as against the anachronistic post-World War II order reflected in the present composition of the SC.
There should be made some amendments when noting this surprising consensus. Although all the regional leaders agreed on this new regional organization, there are two camps with different prospects concerning the fate of the OAS: while Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s outgoing President underlined the need to conciliate all the regional projects and organizations into a coherent vision, there are voices, among which Chavez and his ALBA allies are the most vocal, who would want to dismiss the OAS and thus to widen the gap between the US and the South. Facing a resolute and vocal opposition at home after gross violations of civil liberties, Venezuela’s political regime was singled out these days in a report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as an authoritarian one, with a subservient judiciary and legislative and with grave violations of human rights, freedom of the press and especially the jailing and harassing of the opposition. As the legislative elections are set for September this year, Chavez would obviously profit from the further waning scrutiny of the OAS.
A further observation worth mentioning concerning the Rio Summit is the maverick voice of the outgoing president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, Nobel peace prize winner and the negotiator during the recent Honduran turmoil. Instead of praising the new regional project, Arias noted the need to reform the “sclerotic and hypertrophied” Latin American states and warned against the temptation of some leaders to return to the “rusty ideological trenches that divided the world during the Cold War”, obviously referring to the Socialist revolution of Hugo Chavez and its increasingly authoritarian trend. Moreover, he underlined the need to strengthen the institutionalization of the states and of the rule of law instead of the large-scale project of constitutional re-writing in the context of “anemic structures of the state apparatus”, “tentacular governments” and “increasingly authoritarian leaders”. An equally pressing issue raised by Arias is the growing pressures at the continental level of an “arms race” in the context of ever growing tensions between some Latin American states and threats of invasion and war, as it is the case with the violent rhetoric of Hugo Chavez against Colombia. Now, with the growing tension between Argentina and Great Britain, the atmosphere is all the more tense in the region.
This new regional consensus over the exclusion of the US or Canada sounds almost like an (anachronic) declaration of independence in Lula’s wording, and his meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana as his first gesture after the Rio Group Summit is not a promising move for many democrats in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia or Cuba struggling to protest against a very obvious authoritarian trend now backed by this supranational consensus to close South America’s doors to its Northern neighbors. It is actually quite an irony in the fact that the new President of Honduras, democratically elected in free and fair elections after the end of a recent turmoil was not allowed to participate in the Summit, while Raul Castro, the head of a criminal government imprisoning democratic dissidents for long years and often leading to beatings or even their death in prisons, is there at the table of the Summit, taking pictures with the great socialist Hugo Chavez. However, more concrete and very urgent events in the near future should be considered by both regional leaders and the Obama administration, as this is the case with the legislative elections in Venezuela in September. Recently, President Chavez declared: “We cannot permit the bourgeoisie to take control of the National Assembly ever again because it would be catastrophic”. Considering the manner in which he recently dealt with the students’ street revolts, we cannot but fear the dimensions of the potential catastrophe.
An OAS without the US and Canada is just that. An ineffectual body with confusing swings as it proved to be in the recent months. Unable to deal with the Honduran case and moreover favoring the cause of a president’s greed for illegitimate power over the judiciary and the legislative, Insulza proved to be an incompetent head of the Inter-American organization. Now, a month before the elections for the seat of secretary of the OAS, this body, largely discredited, issues a long-awaited condemnation of the ominously authoritarian development of Venezuela just when all the Southern leaders decide for a change of track and seem to distance themselves from the US and the implicit constraints of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Whatever the fate of the new regional project will be, the newly discovered consensus in favor of widening the gap between the South and the US is not in favor of democrats in Latin America and even more worrying, might endanger the lives of a few restless of them as the dark clouds seem to announce it in Venezuela in the hot months before key legislative elections.