With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returning to Cuba this week for more treatment in his battle with cancer, much speculation has begun about the future of his authoritarian, anti-American populist model in Latin America. Will his movement die with him, or will someone be there to pick up the banner when the strongman falls?
Well, if there is anyone who has been auditioning for the job of new standard-bearer, it is Ecuador's Rafael Correa. Although he hasn't generated the same international attention as the Venezuelan caudillo, it hasn't been for lack of trying.
Mr. Correa may not have Mr. Chavez's vast oil wealth (although oil-producing Ecuador is a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) but he has enough. In any case, what the brash U.S.-educated economist does share with Mr. Chavez are a number of disturbing and destabilizing characteristics that threaten democracy at home and regional stability.
The hallmarks of their reigns have been class warfare, polarization and intolerance of dissent, and both have rammed through new constitutions that trample on separation of powers and rule of law.
Aping Mr. Chavez, Mr. Correa also has waged a political war against Ecuador's independent media, which The WashingtonPostcalls "the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media under way in the Western Hemisphere," and he, too, has expelled the U.S. ambassador in a fit of pique designed to play to the mob.
But more troubling is that Mr. Correa has mimicked Mr. Chavez's habit of maintaining close ties with dubious international pariahs such as Iran and displaying a lax attitude toward transnational criminal organizations that directly undermine inter-American security.
In the case of Iran, with Mr. Chavez acting as interlocutor, Mr. Correa has cultivated strong ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has abetted Iran's campaign to evade United Nations sanctions over its nuclear program. Mr. Ahmadinejad was a "special guest" at Mr. Correa's 2007 inauguration, and in their most recent meeting in January, Mr. Ahmadinejad called Mr. Correa his "brother," while Mr. Correa added, "We have to accelerate and deepen our efforts and deepen our financial and commercial relations for mutual benefit."
Also, Mr. Correa, like Mr. Chavez, views security cooperation with the United States as somehow an affront to his country's sovereignty, and his lackluster attitude has led the Drug Enforcement Administration's director for the Andes, Jay Bergman, to call Ecuador a growing "United Nations" of organized crime, with syndicates from Albania to China using it as a hub to arrange cocaine deals with regional producers.
Indeed, according to the State Department's most recent International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, "Mexican, Colombian, Russian and Chinese transnational criminal organizations are present and actively working in Ecuador. These organizations, including Los Zetas, the Sinaloa, Gulf cartels and the FARC, aggressively and successfully move narcotics through Ecuador."
What has been the Obama administration's response to all this? Unfortunately, not much. To the extent it has paid any attention to Ecuador, it has been to go about dryly trying to persuade the Correa government to accept a replacement for our expelled ambassador.
Predictably, the failure to hold Mr. Correa to account for his destructive anti-democratic and destabilizing behavior has only emboldened him. Even the NewYorkTimes editorial board has expressed frustration, noting, "Latin America has a bitter history of authoritarian rule. It has struggled hard to get beyond those days. All of the hemisphere's democratic leaders, including President Obama, need to push back against Mr. Correa."
Indeed, the Obama administration needs to get ahead of the curve. There is an excellent opportunity before it to help move the region past Mr. Chavez's brand of authoritarian populism, which has stunted progress and development. It certainly won't happen on its own. The administration's benign neglect has run its course in the region and needs to be junked for an active engagement that moves this process along for the benefit of democracy and regional stability.
Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.
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