Main menu

Where Are the Leaders?

August 15, 2009

At the Summit of the Americas, President Barack Obama spoke of a new era of partnership between the United States and the hemisphere. Latin American leaders, demanding greater deference and equality from the U.S. applauded Obama's statement that there is no senior or junior partner to this new engagement.

But, for all the talk of a new partnership, recent events in Honduras and Colombia have demonstrated a vacuum in regional leadership. Unfortunately that vacuum is being filled by the likes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

This month's Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting allowed for a much-needed airing of a more-responsible voice in the region. Despite the encouraging speeches by Argentine and Brazil presidents, though, their speeches were mere words, a reaction to the extreme rhetoric in the region.

Coordinated action is still lacking; where it will come from is still unclear.

Recent events in Honduras provide a sad example of collective weakness. Evidence of institutional tampering was clear before President Manuel Zelaya's forced removal on June 28. The institutional showdown between the three branches of government over the president's efforts to reform the constitution was precisely the sort of executive steamrolling and deadlock of checks and balances that the Organization of American States Inter-American Charter was intended to head off.

OAS slow to react on Zelaya

Instead, the OAS's reaction was to send a delegation to observe a referendum that two democratic institutions had declared unconstitutional.

It was only when President Zelaya was forced into exile that the OAS shook itself out of its lethargy and declared a coup. Technically it was, but regional failure to respond to the impending crisis turned a man who himself had violated the constitution into a victim.

It took Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to spark action. Her endorsement of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias as a mediator opened the door for a regional process. When that broke down, because of the intransigence of the Honduran de facto government, things became stagnant. Rather than reinforce Arias' role as a mediator, most countries, except Mexico, remained silent as Zelaya reverted to stunts encouraged by his Chavista allies. Other countries were reduced to demanding that the United States do something to break the will of the de facto government.

The same vacuum is occurring over the expanded U.S. presence in Colombia. As responsible leaders echo President Chávez's rhetoric about what is nothing more than the shift of anti-narcotics operations to Colombia, they willfully ignore the greater threat: the growing evidence of Colombia's neighbors' involvement with the FARC.

Allegations of connections between Chávez's government and the FARC include evidence of FARC (an internationally defined terrorist organization) possession of anti-tank missiles, originally sold by Sweden to Venezuela, and FARC files implicating Chávez's government assistance to the FARC in purchasing arms in Venezuela. Characteristically, Chávez heaped scorn on the evidence and pivoted to the U.S. anti-narcotics buildup in Colombia claiming that the United States is surrounding us with military bases.

Chávez's smoke screen

In a region sensitive to creeping American imperialism, it was the perfect smoke screen that obscured all the real issues. Disappointing was the response of other leaders in the region, too. It took a two-day, seven-country tour by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to tamp down the rhetoric. Finally, at last week's UNASUR meeting President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina called for a serious discussion of the facts.

If the United States is going to be a partner with Latin America—a healthy and laudable goal—the aspiring powers of the hemisphere need to shake off their timidity and worn-out rhetoric.

While UNASUR showed movement in the right direction, the question is still action. Yes, there should be a serious airing of the U.S. relationship with Colombia. But more important is a balanced airing of Ecuador and Venezuela's relationship with the FARC.

Problem is: Which partner is going to step up to demand that? And which partner is going to do more than just exhort the United States to do more in Honduras?

Partnership requires leaders. Where are they?

Christopher Sabatini is senior director of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Stephanie Junger-Moat is with Kissinger Associates.