- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

Over the last 20 years, Latin America and the Caribbean, with the notable exception of Cuba, have made remarkable strides toward democracy.

I believe much of the credit is due to the courageous leadership of many democratically minded people in the region who grew weary of constant communist threats and several brutal dictatorships. However, these brave patriots could not have succeeded without the dedication and leadership of people like former President Reagan and others who invested in the future of these countries by planting the seeds of hope, democracy, and free markets, and patiently nurturing them.

But in recent years sustaining that solidarity with our friends in Latin America has become more and more difficult, as some disturbing trends have started to take stronger shape. We should be under no false illusions that everything is fine and dandy in our Hemisphere, and today the reality is that democratic progress in much of Latin America and the Caribbean has almost come halted and is no longer measured by yards but by inches.

While democracy still holds on, it is not without opponents. Bankrolled by the drug trade and sky-high oil profits, coming in part from the U.S., and hiding their anti-democratic ambitions behind populous slogans, these opponents of freedom are systematically creating a new block of leftist-run, anti-American states across Central and South America. As this block moves to stamp out liberty, it is harder for our friends in the region, who are resolved to hold on to freedom and democracy, and increases the risk they, too, will fall.

Inevitably, the failure of democracy in Central and South America will bring the return of totalitarian government or, even worse, anarchy and civil war. Those people who can will leave, and where do you think they will go? They’re coming here, and in greater numbers than now.

Besides the serious effect on the economy and social fabric of the United States, the return of our Latin American neighbors to dictatorship or lawlessness will just as seriously affect our own national security, an issue of concern to all Americans.

Anti-American sentiment anywhere in the world gives incentive to our enemies to make common cause against us. In this case, those to our south who oppose the United States and democracy in general, are inviting others with the same view to collaborate against us. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups may not follow the same ideological path, but if they see anti-American attitudes creeping into the peoples, groups and governments of Latin America, they will very likely befriend those opponents of the U.S. to advance their own agendas.

For example, the human-trafficking and drug-smuggling gangs of South and Central America already have a system to get their “goods” illegally into the United States, complete with armed “coyotes” who oversee the operations and kill anyone who gets in the way, even our own Border Patrol agents. Terrorists looking to smuggle weapons of mass destruction — or themselves — inside the U.S. can easily exploit these well-established routes into our country.

And though there is no official evidence of connections between any terror groups and these gangs and cartels, there have been reports suggesting widespread collaboration between al Qaeda and the brutal Salvadoran-based gang known as MS-13 inside our own country.

It doesn’t stop there.

As democracy wanes and more anti-American forces take hold, our enemies will gain more influence in the region. The leftist block in Central and South America has already forged alliances with rogue regimes in Cuba, North Korea and now, Iran. And with the latest news about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and stated determination to destroy democratic states like Israel, there can be little doubt “the Great Satan” will be next on their list.

This is most alarming.

Ronald Reagan once said, “Of the four wars that were fought during my lifetime, none came about because the United States was too strong.” That great American president fought hard to contain the spread of communism in Latin America so fledgling democracies could flourish. We must build on his legacy instead of ignoring it, and ensure the region’s stability not only for our own security but for the interests of our democratic friends in the Hemisphere as well.

Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and vice chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

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