Three full dictatorships at the heart of the Caribbean challenge the US democratic capitalism model, Martin Rodriguez Rodriguez reports
For the first time since the 1980s the Western Hemisphere is home to three full-fledged dictatorships. Last month Nicaragua’s sham elections granting Daniel Ortega a fourth consecutive term formally consolidated the so-called Troika of Tyranny. The term, coined by President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, describes Havana, Caracas, and Managua’s autocratic regimes and their destabilizing role in the region.
At the time of Mr. Bolton’s speech, most commentators decried it as a cynical ploy to rally the conservative base days before the 2018 midterm elections. According to this view, the long-term geopolitical consequences of the consolidation of this autocratic axis at the heart of the Caribbean were not relevant since Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are small nations without the means to attack the United States. Thus, the speech was nothing more than a get-out-to-vote strategy for south Florida.
However, on closer inspection, the bipartisan failure to prevent the democratic backsliding so close to the US homeland should be considered more carefully as it raises serious questions about US democratic appeal and its ability to promote democracy abroad.
In last month’s cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, Anne Applebaum reported how “The bad guys are winning.” She explains how autocrats have an easier time crushing democracy thanks to sophisticated networks of kleptocratic financial structures, collaboration among thuggish security services, and professional propagandists in the digital space that spread disinformation.
President Biden’s Summit for Democracy to be held virtually on December 9 and 10 is a recognition and a proactive response to the global fragility of democratic forces. The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently observed that more countries are trending towards authoritarianism over the past five years than those experiencing democratization.
The details about the Summit are still scant but, to be effective, Eric Farnsworth, vice-president at the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas, believes that “the right people should be at the table” and participant countries “should offer meaningful and tangible support, especially to democracies that are currently being challenged.” For example, he thinks Juan Guaido, which the US recognizes as Venezuela’s legitimate president, should be invited to the Summit, “otherwise, without that show of support, it could weaken him dramatically and cause political damage precisely to the people the summit wants to assist.”
In the case of Nicaragua, it seems unquestionable that the blatant tactics used by Mr. Ortega to clinch to power—brutally cracking down on citizen’s protest, jailing political opponents, including seven opposition candidates, closing of independent media, and harassing civil society organizations, suggest he did not fear for the consequences of his actions. That is troubling as it gives other dictatorial hopefuls, not a short tally in Latin America, the confidence that they too can amass the wherewithal to succeed at disbanding institutions and consolidating power.
Mr. Biden did recently impose severe sanctions on Nicaraguan government officials and their cronies, prohibiting them from entering the United States. While those actions are welcome, they are not enough, and many believe that more needs to be done to expose the true nature of these regimes.
Although unfashionable in some circles, the reality is that Cuba has played a chief role in subjugating the democratic project in Venezuela and now in Nicaragua. In both countries, Cuban security services have been dispatched to train and equip their peers in police state tactics long learned and perfected in the 60+ years the communist regime has been in power. Seeing the ferocity and ease with which the Cuban state crushed the July protest movement and how the planned national demonstrations for November 15 became a non-event quelled by repression and intimidation shows a degree of totalitarian control few in the West would comprehend.
However, what is surprising is that despite being a brutish regime running an airtight police state, Cuba still finds goodwill and justification amongst some elites in the US and Europe. Witness the early November vote on a US House of Representatives resolution expressing solidarity with Cuban people, where more than 40 Democrats, mainly from the Progressive Caucus, voted “nay” on the symbolic resolution.
When President Obama visited the island in March 2016, he said that “many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down—but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.” Those are precisely the aspirations that mobilize the Cuban people to the streets over the summer. How progressive politicians in the US did not find it worthwhile to morally support the most prominent pro-democracy demonstrations in decades on the island speaks about the ideological sway the Cuban regime still holds internationally and the problems it poses for Cubans in the face of their fight for freedom. That is why it is encouraging that last month; the Latin Grammy’s “song of the year” was awarded to “Patria y Vida”—Homeland and Life—the protest anthem the Cuban people have taken as a banner to challenge the ruling elite.
Policy-wise, Mr. Farnsworth believes the US must update its toolbox of democracy promotion. He wonders how it is possible that Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, under indictment by US authorities and credibly accused of human rights abuses before the International Criminal Court at the Hague, is still allowed unfettered access to US-based social media like Twitter and Instagram. Or how is it that Daniel Ortega had bot farms promoting his candidacy on Facebook while destroying all the other candidates, even putting them in jail.
Another step democracies can take is guaranteeing uncensored access to the internet in autocratic states, especially in times of civil resistance. That concrete measure would go a long way in aiding activist resistance and coordination while internationally showcasing these regimes’ brutality in the streets.
Indeed, it is pollyannaish to think that the Summit of Democracy will immediately impact regional dynamics. However, if leaders manage to go beyond the high-sounding platitudes about free and fair elections, human rights, and fighting corruption to produce concrete policy steps that protect fragile democracies, materially and morally support dissident groups, and disrupt despots’ financial networks, the gathering will have succeeded.
As for the Troika of Tyranny, Mr. Farnsworth does not believe that term captures the broader nuances of democracy issues around the hemisphere but concurs that Díaz-Canel, Maduro, and Ortega are qualitatively different from other leaders of troubled democracies in the region.
It remains to be seen whether the US can recapture its luster and achieve the lofty goal of an entirely free and democratic western hemisphere for the first time in history.
Martin Rodriguez Rodriguez is a Venezuelan policy entrepreneur working at the intersection of government and the private sector and always keen on creating good and necessary trouble. He is a section D partner.