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After Chavez, Authoritarianism Still Threatens Latin America

While Venezuela remains conflicted in post-election political violence, the followers of the late President Hugo Chávez continue to apply the playbook of authoritarian populism throughout Latin America in their pursuit of more power. This political perversion is going to continue to be a threat to genuine constitutional democracy in Latin America until new electoral majorities develop around genuine republican leaders. It will not be easy because Latin America’s new middle class voters have not yet settled on what kind of societies they want in the 21st century.

The death by cancer of Chávez in February and his replacement by Nicolás Maduro, the vice president, after a hasty election, produced a narrow victory that the Venezuelan opposition contends was fraudulent. While Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, demanded a recount, the governing coalition set about rounding up broad support from other Latin American countries for recognition of the result. The outcome may be uncertain, but economic and political factors are working in Maduro’s favor.

While oil-rich Venezuela continues to have abundant petro dollars to hand out as economic benefits to favored customers, the Bolivarian political structure Chávez championed will win support. A week after taking office, Maduro chaired a meeting of Petrocaribe, an organization through which Venezuela supplies $300 million in subsidized oil to 18 nations in Central America and the Caribbean. Maduro said Venezuela would continue the handouts and called for political collaboration. This drew enthusiastic support from the presidents of the Petrocaribe countries, including countries like Honduras and Guatemala that have no political affinities with Venezuela, but are now part of Maduro’s solidarity network. Cuba is of course the great beneficiary of this largesse because Venezuela provides Cuba more than 100,000 barrels a day in oil products that keep the lights on and motor vehicles running in Havana. The Bolivarian movement for 21st-century socialism was shaken by the death of Chávez, its charismatic leader, but it is not going to fall apart as long as Venezuela has the petro dollars to buy supporters and follows the astute political advice of its Cuban partners.

After lining up Petrocaribe’s political support, Maduro made a strategic trip last week, visiting Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, which are Venezuela’s partners in Mercosur, also known as the Common Market of the South. From President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil he received promises of huge shipments of foods, like beef, sugar, and vegetable oil. Uruguay threw in some rice, and accepted a Venezuelan offer to provide cheap oil for its state-owned refinery. Food shortages are rampant in Venezuela, where the government is supposed to provide cheap food through social markets. The Mercosur commitments are a strong political message that the largest South American countries are going to collaborate to keep Maduro in power if Maduro can keep the opposition protesters under control without excessive violence.

But this is not democracy, and none of the Mercosur partners are challenging the basic political practices of authoritarian populism implanted in Venezuela. On the contrary, they are adopting methods that subvert the checks and balances of a republican division of power. In Argentina, the radical Peronists now in power under Kirchner pushed a judiciary reform through Congress last week that seeks to end any independent judiciary in the country. The main objective of this maneuver is to overcome rejection in the Supreme Court of a constitutional reform that would allow Kirchner to run for a third term, now banned. Under the judicial reform approved by the Peronist majorities, the executive could pack the courts with new appointees considered favorable to the government. Judges now appointed by a process of judicial selection would be elected by popular vote. The federal government could override court injunctions by a vote of Congress. Peronists present this proposed change as a “democratization” of the current legal system, which has been holding Kirchner in check in her dispute with privately owned newspapers, also a target of attacks in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Emasculation of the judicial system is one of the first steps imposed when populist regimes seek to remove obstacles to unlimited power and permanent control of elected offices. This happened in Venezuela, early in the Chávez regime, and Bolivia and Ecuador have followed the same practice. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has already been elected to a second term, and President Evo Morales announced last week that he would be running for a third consecutive term in Bolivian elections next year if the Supreme Court validates a constitutional reform opening the way to ruling in perpetuity. Morales said he had to continue as president to keep Bolivia from falling into the hands of  “yanqui imperialism” and he backed this up by expelling the United States Aid Agency (USAID) from the country. The opposition says it will fight the change as unconstitutional, but what hopes are there for an impartial decision if the judges are all political appointees?

Ecuador and Bolivia have joined Venezuela and Cuba in the so-called Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) and also are active in the larger Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). These are political bodies that exclude the United States and Canada from their deliberations. So, Maduro can expect to be defended by these bodies from international criticism. As long as the oil keeps flowing, no criticisms will be heard from China, which has invested at least $20 billion in Venezuelan energy and infrastructure projects, in exchange for oil. Neither will there be any discouraging words from Russia as long as Venezuela keeps paying for major arms purchases.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would withhold recognition of Maduro until there was a recount of the votes, as demanded by Capriles, but that is a feeble sign of concern that lacks broad support. The Obama administration is unlikely to choose a fight and will probably seek an accommodation if Maduro and the governing Unified Socialist Party (PSUV) contain violence against the opposition.

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