Dictators in our Back Yard

Authoritarianism is once again on the rise in our own hemisphere. Just last month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez successfully amended his country's constitution, giving him a chance to maintain power for life.

It would be easy to write off events in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and other Latin nations as of little significance to us. And yet, while our leaders argue over big spending domestic programs, we should also focus on defending the institutions of democracy and liberty close to our own shores.

To be sure, the vote in Venezuela was fairly close, only 54 to 45 percent in favor of allowing Chavez to run again in 2012 and thus remain in power for (at least) two decades.  But even the most casual observer realizes that the outcome was the culmination of a multi-year media blitz complete with arm twisting and calls of "traitors" for all those opposing the president's efforts.

In a time when we may think that "dictatorships" and "autocracies" are relics, Venezuela's recent election is a stark reminder how fragile the peaceful transition of power from one democratically-elected chief executive to another really is.

Sadly, charismatic and popular leaders extending their time in public office in Latin America is nothing new. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, military strongmen, also known as caudillos, have been ruling many parts of Latin America with mostly mixed results.  Among the more prominent include Mexico's Santa Anna, Guatemala's Jose Rafael Carrera and Venezuela's Jose Tadeos Managas.

More contemporary caudillos include Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. His 30-plus year tenure was among the bloodiest. Or consider the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua. And of course no list of tyrannical caudillos is complete without mentioning Cuba's maximum leader, Fidel Castro, and, now, brother Raul.

At best, a couple of these caudillos could be credited with bringing about modest reforms to improve living conditions while encouraging modernization. But at worst, these regimes reflect an assault on democracy, civil liberties and humanity. The few benefited at the expense of the many. History tells us of the rampant abuse, cronyism and corruption that followed caudillos' promises of a better life and a stronger nation.

Nearly 50 years since its revolution, Cuba remains a good example of the danger in concentrating power in the hands of few. The island -- blessed with natural beauty -- stumbles along with a broken economy and backward-looking leadership. It has suffered a series of "lost decades" of potential growth. Meanwhile, many of the problems its revolution sought to eliminate remain: income inequality, discrimination and underdevelopment. The human price paid for police repression, censorship and enforced conformity may never be calculated. 

And yet, despite authoritarianism's dismal track record, it seems the appeals of populism and redistribution are too intoxicating for many to resist.

Ultimately, democracies differ from dictatorships and totalitarian regimes because they elevate the rights, freedoms and liberties of the individual over the state. Recognizing the value of free and fair elections, freedom of the press and upholding the dignity of every human being while respecting the right to own property and rule of law are just a handful of the characteristics found in democracies.

Ultimately, every country will chart out its own course in the years ahead. But as beneficiaries of many of these democratic values, it's important to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be living in this country. And we must remain vigilant when authoritarianism is on the march, particularly in our own hemisphere.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation
Authoritarianism is once again on the rise in our own hemisphere. Just last month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez successfully amended his country's constitution, giving him a chance to maintain power for life.

It would be easy to write off events in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and other Latin nations as of little significance to us. And yet, while our leaders argue over big spending domestic programs, we should also focus on defending the institutions of democracy and liberty close to our own shores.

To be sure, the vote in Venezuela was fairly close, only 54 to 45 percent in favor of allowing Chavez to run again in 2012 and thus remain in power for (at least) two decades.  But even the most casual observer realizes that the outcome was the culmination of a multi-year media blitz complete with arm twisting and calls of "traitors" for all those opposing the president's efforts.

In a time when we may think that "dictatorships" and "autocracies" are relics, Venezuela's recent election is a stark reminder how fragile the peaceful transition of power from one democratically-elected chief executive to another really is.

Sadly, charismatic and popular leaders extending their time in public office in Latin America is nothing new. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, military strongmen, also known as caudillos, have been ruling many parts of Latin America with mostly mixed results.  Among the more prominent include Mexico's Santa Anna, Guatemala's Jose Rafael Carrera and Venezuela's Jose Tadeos Managas.

More contemporary caudillos include Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. His 30-plus year tenure was among the bloodiest. Or consider the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua. And of course no list of tyrannical caudillos is complete without mentioning Cuba's maximum leader, Fidel Castro, and, now, brother Raul.

At best, a couple of these caudillos could be credited with bringing about modest reforms to improve living conditions while encouraging modernization. But at worst, these regimes reflect an assault on democracy, civil liberties and humanity. The few benefited at the expense of the many. History tells us of the rampant abuse, cronyism and corruption that followed caudillos' promises of a better life and a stronger nation.

Nearly 50 years since its revolution, Cuba remains a good example of the danger in concentrating power in the hands of few. The island -- blessed with natural beauty -- stumbles along with a broken economy and backward-looking leadership. It has suffered a series of "lost decades" of potential growth. Meanwhile, many of the problems its revolution sought to eliminate remain: income inequality, discrimination and underdevelopment. The human price paid for police repression, censorship and enforced conformity may never be calculated. 

And yet, despite authoritarianism's dismal track record, it seems the appeals of populism and redistribution are too intoxicating for many to resist.

Ultimately, democracies differ from dictatorships and totalitarian regimes because they elevate the rights, freedoms and liberties of the individual over the state. Recognizing the value of free and fair elections, freedom of the press and upholding the dignity of every human being while respecting the right to own property and rule of law are just a handful of the characteristics found in democracies.

Ultimately, every country will chart out its own course in the years ahead. But as beneficiaries of many of these democratic values, it's important to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be living in this country. And we must remain vigilant when authoritarianism is on the march, particularly in our own hemisphere.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation