The Ripon Forum

Volume 43, No. 3

Summer 2009 Issue

Ileana’s Cause

By on December 3, 2015

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Too often we in the United States take freedom and the rule of law for granted and give little thought to the need for their defense. Yet the liberties we assume are far from secure in many other countries, especially in our own Hemisphere, where a growing assault on democracy is threatening U.S. interests and the human rights of millions of people.

Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa are but the latest in a long line of authoritarian rulers in Latin America. Their embrace of the Castro dictatorship in Cuba and their efforts to employ its methods to secure their rule have already undermined basic freedoms and democratic institutions.

Their ambitions are growing, as demonstrated by the recent events in Honduras where an attempted coup by former president Zelaya was defeated by a coalition determined to defend the rule of law. Chavez openly proclaims his determination to overthrow the legitimate government there and reinstall his ally, including by military force. Ortega has added to this threat even as Morales, Correa, and others work to ensure that Zelaya is reimposed on the people of Honduras.

This is but the latest assault on democracy in the region. In pursuit of his absolute rule and under the guise of populism, Chavez is working to destroy the little media freedom left in Venezuela, eliminate property rights, and strip his opponents of all resources and ability to oppose his expanding power. In Nicaragua, Ortega’s blatant manipulation of last November’s municipal elections are but the latest step toward destroying those who defy him, while Morales and Correa have successfully imposed changes in their countries’ constitutions that have greatly enhanced their powers.

This growing threat is made worse by Iran’s expanding influence. Using trade and investment deals to purchase the friendship of anti-American leftist leaders, the Iranian regime has established a growing presence throughout the region. Its demonstrated willingness to use its embassies and proxies, such as Hezbollah, to carry out its extremist agenda makes this presence a direct threat to U.S. national security.

All of these rulers regard the U.S. as an enemy and seek to eliminate its influence in the region. If we are to successfully defend our interests, we must act to strengthen our democratic allies, such as Colombia, which are under assault. Unfortunately, we have fewer allies than many think.

Far from being a reliable force for promoting peace and democracy in the region, the Organization of American States, or OAS, has become an instrument for undermining the principles in its founding charter. Just months after issuing the welcome matt for the Cuban regime’s re-integration into the inter-American system, it chose to support and legitimize Zelaya’s blatant violations of the Honduran constitution and rule of law. But these are only the latest examples in an increasingly disturbing pattern.

These actions underscore the growing irrelevance, and even threat, of the OAS to promoting democracy in Latin America. That is why I recently offered an amendment to the bill providing funding for foreign policy operations that would have reduced the United States’ contribution to the OAS by $15 million. I see no reason why American taxpayers should continue to be the primary contributors to an organization that often serves more as an enabler of dictators than a defender of democracy. But this amendment is but a first step toward leveraging U.S. contributions to effectuate reform and positive change throughout the OAS system.

U.S. interests would be better served by giving those funds to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organization with a long record of fighting for fundamental freedoms and democracy around the world. The same month that the OAS was opening its doors to the Cuban regime, the NED was honoring Cuban democracy activists who continue to be oppressed and imprisoned by Havana. Instead of giving credibility to the Castro brothers as the OAS did, the NED was working to strengthen and support those struggling for freedom against enormous odds and a merciless oppressor.

Some in this country believe that being popular among Latin America’s left-wing dictators is the key to a successful U.S. policy in the region.

Some in this country believe that being popular among Latin America’s left-wing dictators is the key to a successful U.S. policy in the region. But the U.S. and our interests will only suffer if our policy continues in joining the chorus of apologists, enablers, and outright fans of Castro, Chavez, and their allies. Instead, we must defend freedom, human rights, democratic values and institutions, and free market principles.

Our policies must never hedge or retreat when our interests are stake. Whether in Latin America or elsewhere in the world, we cannot afford to be silent or accommodating when freedom is under siege, nor appease tyrants when they are on the march. RF

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the Ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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