September 19, 2008
WASHINGTON -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in Chile this week hailing South America's determination to defend democracy and decrying the days when the region's leaders stood by as a CIA-backed coup toppled Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. "Things are no longer as they were," Chavez boasted. He is right -- to a point.
Chavez and eight other South American presidents had gathered in the Chilean capital in response to a developing crisis in Bolivia, where recent violence has heightened concern for that country's stability. Such an emergency summit in support of the democratically elected Allende would have been unthinkable 35 years ago. At the time, six of the leaders of those nine countries were military dictators unlikely to complain about the rise of Gen. Augusto Pinochet or the demise of a Marxist leader.
The United States too has come a long way. To Heraldo Munoz, a former Chilean dissident and now his country's ambassador to the United Nations, the best indication of that evolution came during President Bush's first years in office, when Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the U.S. role in support of the coup and the Pinochet regime was "not a part of American history that we are proud of."
That's quite a change from the days when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger instructed the U.S. ambassador in Santiago "to 'stop the political science lectures' to Pinochet" on human rights, as Munoz recalls in his new book, "The Dictator's Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet." Those were the days of the Cold War when both President Richard Nixon and Kissinger "dedicated extraordinary time and resources to removing what they perceived as a 'red threat' in the Americas," Munoz writes.
But the Cold War has been over for nearly two decades. And while some Washington officials still seem to have a hard time letting go, no political leader in the Americas today stands out as more willfully stuck in that past than Chavez himself.
The Bolivian crisis is rooted in political and geographic divisions, exacerbated by the rise of indigenous power in a country once tightly ruled by a white minority of European descent. But at the Santiago summit, Chavez lambasted Washington, alleging that behind Bolivia's crisis was "a conspiracy financed and directed by the U.S. empire, just as it occurred here in Chile."
Chavez couldn't waste what seemed a prime opportunity to blame the U.S. for a complicated Bolivian internal situation. Grasping at straws, Morales last week expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, accusing him of conspiring against Bolivia's democracy and integrity. Chavez followed suit and within a day had U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy expelled from Venezuela.
No other South American president felt compelled to do the same -- including left-of-center leaders such as Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay. They insisted instead that the summit deal with the Bolivian crisis and in doing so revealed a more autonomous region, much less obsessed with Washington and more preoccupied with finding solutions to its problems.
By the summit's end, the leaders condemned the destabilizing actions by some in the Bolivian opposition, offered to create a commission to accompany an urgently needed dialogue between Morales and the opposition, and supported an independent investigation into the killings that resulted from the outbreak of violence. "We believe that the region's problems have to be solved in the region," Chilean Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley said in an interview with Chilean television on Tuesday. "I don't like going around making others responsible."
At one point, Chavez's insistence on conjuring up the ghosts of past U.S. interventions threatened to undermine the summit, according to Foxley. But after six hours of closed-door negotiations Monday night, Chavez backed down. The final declaration makes no mention of Washington.
Reflecting on the Pinochet years, Munoz describes in his book how "we can see that Pinochet was partly our own creation." He writes that "the unrealistic demands of the left for radical change from a government elected by a plurality," combined with an inflexible political center and an uncompromising right, all contributed to deeper polarization. What followed were "the breakdown of Chilean democracy and the emergence of Pinochet."
Chavez is right to say that regional commitment to democracy is such today that the emergence of another Pinochet is simply unthinkable. But that is not just because the region would stand up to a military dictator backed by an intrusive outsider. More importantly, most South American nations now seem more willing to recognize responsibility for their own problems -- an essential precursor to begin solving them.