This article was originally published in the September/October 2011 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas, "The Politics of Human Rights."
In a frenzy to realign right-wing forces and pressure President Obama to protect “human rights” and security in Latin America, Otto Reich, a former senior official in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, convened a hemispheric conference in Washington on May 26 called “Legitimacy Lost: How 21st Century Socialism Subverts Democracy in Latin America.” The event was co-sponsored by the right-wing Washington think tanks the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, and the Center for Security Policy, as well as the Miami-based Inter-American Institute for Democracy and the Venezuelan opposition group Liberenlos Ya!. The text from the conference flyer reads as follows:
Hugo Chávez’s 21st Century Socialism, while touted as a modern method of correcting inequities for the poor, has instead revealed itself to be a step-by-step plan to subvert democracy and cement autocratic presidents in power. More ominously, the plan is being exported to the neighboring countries of Chávez’s allies in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and elsewhere in Latin America. Please join us on Capitol Hill to discuss how the Bolivarian alliance of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have joined forces to undermine the rule of law and systematically violate the human rights of their citizens under the rubric of 21st Century Socialism and the ALBA alliance.
According to the promotional materials, the conference featured “members of the U.S. Congress, regional experts, and the victims of oppression and human rights violations from throughout Latin America.” The keynote speaker was Miami-based Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a staunch anti-Castro Cuban American. As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ros-Lehtinen has been an outspoken critic of Chávez and the Latin American left. Since July, she has lobbied to cut U.S. funding to the Organization of American States for its “warm overtures” and support for Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, as well as to the United Nations for its support for Palestinian statehood.
Ros-Lehtinen started with an introduction in Spanish before admitting that she does not speak the language very well and quickly transitioning into English:
This is such an important and timely topic for our region: the subversion of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a real and present danger to the people of this hemisphere . . . these fragile democracies, and what we can do to help those democracies and how we can partner with them so that they don’t get that left-leaning tilt, which is always dangerous for the power of the people because these despotic leaders dress themselves up as democratic leaders, but then anyone who disagrees with them, they yank their licenses from media companies, they take away budgets if they are office holders. . . . If they are a judge, they dictate, and put someone else in their place.
We know this, as Cuban Americans, we know this path well and it worries us. . . . We have seen some nations take responsible strides and remarkable ones towards consolidating democracy, strengthening free market structures, and advancing the region’s security. But we have seen others, step by step, dismantle the very democracies which have allowed them to gain power in the first place. . . . U.S. standing in the hemisphere has diminished significantly, while autocrats and tyrants have been empowered. Democratic allies have been forsaken while anti-U.S. regimes were courted and engaged. We have seen this throughout the hemisphere . . . look at how Colombia has been treated.
She concluded with a warning to the Obama administration:
We must not allow these tyrants to trample democratic principles, harbor extremist groups, and ally themselves with other anti-American regimes to increase their influence and capability in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. must be prepared to lead and to defend democratic institutions, to defend fundamental freedoms, to defend our stability and security against challenges of anti-American dictators in the region. I am hopeful that the next assistant secretary of Western Hemispheric affairs will understand this mandate and our important role and reassert those principles in the region. So Otto and all of our participants, I wish you much success in this conference. . . . Viva la democracy, and may it arrive to all of the pueblos in our region!1
What is so striking about this conference is how this newly politicized and globalized rhetoric of democracy, human rights, and security has become the platform for defending and reinstating free market economics and neoliberal ideology in Latin America, which North American conservatives view as under attack by left-leaning leaders. As a whole, left-leaning socialist or social-democratic states have challenged the historic asymmetrical power relations with the United States. They have insisted on respect for national sovereignty by controlling their natural resources, rewriting their national constitutions to incorporate some of the most disenfranchised peoples, and promoting regional economic or trade pacts that do not include Washington. While during the Cold War, the U.S. promoted a discourse of security across the Western hemisphere over fears of the communist threat, we are now witnessing a strategic right-wing political platform whereby democracy is equated with free market capitalism, and “human rights violations” refer to new forms of state control over private interests.
1. For a full transcript, see America’s Forum for Peace and Prosperity.