BY FRANCISCO FLORES
A few years back, our hemisphere was making huge strides to insure political and economic liberties. Except for Cuba, military dictatorships had succumbed to a wave of freedom that produced new and vigorous democracies. In general, governments throughout Latin America were convinced that the key to defeat poverty was to generate sustainable growth.
Economies throughout the region abandoned their protectionist economic policies and embraced free markets. Free trade agreements integrated North and South America, and regional integration rapidly became an engine of growth.
The success of these policies is astounding. Through their consistent application, Chile for example, can no longer be considered an underdeveloped nation. In only ten years, Central America slashed its poverty level down 20 percent and achieved consistently higher growth rates than the world economy.
Yet what is more astounding, is that today throughout the region, in ever increasing numbers, countries are dismantling their democracies, closing their economies, creating an intense North-South conflict, and going back to class struggle as an explanation of socio-economic realities.
Though the most obvious example is Venezuela, it is not the only one. And perhaps what is most perplexing is that these new versions of the communist or socialist regimes have not been born through the imposition of a revolutionary movement. They have come to power through popular vote, the most democratic instrument imaginable!
Why, we ask? It is important that we search for an answer, especially for those of us who believe that society should be structured around the principle of individual freedom. Where can we begin our scrutiny?
History is a good start, as it allows us to see our contemporary reality in light of a broader perspective. Human nature is of course a necessary and perhaps the essential angle. And of course politics, as our question is why our hemisphere is turning its back on political freedom. We should not avoid political analysis.
The historical perspective is well illuminated by two examples that eloquently demonstrate, that the periods in western civilization, when humanity has enjoyed freedom, have been sporadic and restricted. This reality is even more noteworthy when we realize that the greatest advances in our civilization have happened in precisely those short periods of human liberty. (...)
When we witnessed the crumbling of the Berlin wall and with it the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we thought that we would never see in our life time those same ideas taking hold again. Now we are perplexed at the construction in our own hemisphere of that same proposition in present day Venezuela.
What we didn't realize then, however, was that communism or capitalism, are the contemporary political manifestations of a deeper, universal human struggle. Namely, that when dissatisfied with our present condition we are faced with two clearly defined choices: either we honestly admit that our present condition is our creation, and take the tougher course of building a solution, or we take the far easier choice of blaming the system, and convince ourselves of our unquestioned virtue and of course enjoy the leisure of constant procrastination as there is nothing we can really do at a personal level to better our lives. If, for example, we are poor because others are wealthy, then it must immediately follow that only by destroying their wealth we will insure our prosperity. (...)
In our hemisphere, the success of the radical left is also due to profound strategic changes in their tactics to seize power. The radical leftist movements in our continent have had the following five distinguishing mutations.
FROM WARFARE TO ELECTIONS
First as to their method: they believed that power could be seized only through guerrilla warfare; that democracy and its accompanying electoral system was a façade for the domination of the ruling classes and must therefore be sabotaged.
Now, armed warfare has been abandoned and elections have become the new method. Once the first election has been won, a new election is called to reform the constitution. This new platform, a constitutional assembly, dismantles the division of independent judicial and legislative bodies and concentrates power in the executive. The limitations in presidential terms are eliminated, and new laws are passed to effectively control the media and free speech.
This is modern day Venezuela. Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua are following with different dynamics the same overall path. Contrary to the world's outrage for Pakistan’s declaration of martial law, there has been no indignation for the dismantling of democracy in these countries. A dictatorship is being born, just as in Pakistan, but with the novelty that it has been sanctified by popular vote. A frightening metaphor is that the same concept used by Bin Laden during his 9/11 attack is now applied to democracies in our hemisphere: use their own resources to destroy them.
LEADERSHIP & ENTREPRENEURS
The second change has to do with their leadership. The guerrilla movements used to be publicly and effectively operated by someone that embodied the Marxist radical program. This of course entailed, decades ago, a direct relationship with the Soviet Union and recently in Latin America, with Cuba.
Today leadership is carefully chosen to ensure the support of public opinion. During elections a carefully managed campaign portrays their candidate as an authentic national leader. His independence from a leftist support network is stressed during the electoral campaign so that his success is in no way compromised. It is only afterwards that the same old radical program is revealed.
The third change has to do with entrepreneurs. For radical movements the true enemies of the proletariat were the wealthy entrepreneurs. Anyone that could be labeled prosperous was an oppressor and an accomplice in the brutal injustice of the system against the poor. Previously they were called oligarchs and were their main target. Today businessmen are never antagonized in the radical left's route to power.
On the contrary, through careful manipulations, communications with key entrepreneurial leaders are established. Sometimes, there are those businessmen that are naïve enough to believe their intentions and are later profoundly embarrassed to confess their campaign contributions. Most likely they believe they are really clever and think that if they strike an individual arrangement with the regime, they will be spared.
Somehow, the obvious fact eludes them. A public appearance with their previous enemies is what legitimates the new public persona of the radical left, and ironically they willingly provide them with the single most effective element of their communications strategy: the message that they are different, that they have changed, and now you can trust them.
ARMED FORCES & RELIGION
Perhaps the most dramatic strategic change is the fourth. I mean the relationship with the national army. The army was detested as the oligarchy's instrument of oppression, and it had to be destroyed and substituted by a people's army. The archenemy of the left is now not only never confronted, but is co-opted and becomes part of the new regime.
Those that favor the new regime are strategically located at key positions. Those courageous enough to alert the dangers of political involvement are demoted or banished from the ranks. After decades of being held responsible for the abuses of military dictatorships, they are now placed in the position to participate in governing the country as a key element. The new guerrilla movement is now pro armed forces.
The fifth strategic change has to do with religion. True to Karl Marx’s belief that religion is the opiate of the people, guerrilla movements were atheist movements. Any organized religion was perceived in the same way as the political system - a superstructure designed to maintain the dominance of the economic exploitative relationship or inner structure. In present day Venezuela, the Chavez regime's penetration of the urban and rural poor communities is named "mision cristo" or Christ mission. It seems that atheism was not politically profitable so it has been abandoned.
These strategic changes in the radical left's tactics have had huge success. Every year a new country in our hemisphere takes apart its hard-earned democracy to embrace a new version of the old dictatorships and joins the ranks of the "new socialism of the 21st century."
Understandably the United States, after the national security challenges of 9/11, has had different priorities, Latin America not being one of them. But even with that perspective in mind, isn't it cause for thought that the most aggressive diplomatic and cooperation ties are being built by Iran with precisely these countries? And that the combination of petroleum, radical left, and furious anti U.S. feelings might make this hemisphere profoundly insecure? (...)
In 1972, the more radical sectors of the communist movement decided that conditions were ripe for an armed insurgency in El Salvador. These isolated groups were greatly stimulated by the Sandinista victory in 1979 in neighboring Nicaragua. A year later, under the direct command of the Castro regime, the full support of the Soviet Union, and the logistical compromise of the Sandinistas, the various guerrilla movements were integrated under a unified movement.
LAST COLD WAR SCENARIO
The Reagan administration decided to help the Central American governments to stop the communist takeover of the region. And so, El Salvador became from 1979 onwards, the last armed scenario of the Cold War.
El Salvador was destroyed by 13 years of armed conflict. Every Salvadorian family had to mourn the loss of at least one of its members. In one of the greatest diasporas in modern history, one-third of the population fled to neighboring countries. Our streets were filled with beggars due to the brutal impoverishment of our campesino ["farming"] families.
I cannot erase from my mind the image of young men hanging by their necks in the bridges at the entrances of San Salvador, our capital city, with signs tied to their chests labeling their corpses "oligarchs" or "terrorists" depending at whose fanatic's hand their lives had ended.
And yet today, only fifteen years from the events I describe to you, El Salvador is a different country. It has slashed its poverty level by half, from 60 percent in 1992 to 30 percent today. El Salvador has achieved the highest poverty reduction rate in the continent.
INTEREST RATES FALL
After having interest rates around 30 percent, we achieved by 2004 the lowest interest rates in the region, 6.8 percent, thereby giving a chance for a great part of our population to own a home, to purchase a vehicle, to pay their debts and to invest as small entrepreneurs.
From a socialist dictatorship, we now have a vibrant democracy, a free and independent press, a true separation of powers.
What is El Salvador’s secret? What can explain this dramatic change in less than fifteen years? I am convinced that it has to do with choosing freedom as the structuring principle of our society. Political freedom to incorporate all actors and end the war. Freedom of speech and independent branches of government so that every administration is directly responsible to its people and is accountable to them. Freedom of opportunity for the poor so that in an open free economy they can choose their path to defeat poverty. Economic freedom so that the productive and creative energies of the country are unleashed. (...)
Liberty is scarce and fragile. Living in freedom means to live by the dictates of our own conscience. It requires courage to raise our voice and challenge abusive authority. Liberty demands responsibility, risk and constitutes a great personal challenge. It is for these reasons that liberty is so fragile.
So even in the face of the dangers that this commitment requires we must fight for our freedom.
This from someone that has fought for his country has had the joy of seeing it reborn and carries proudly the scars of having done his responsibility.
Francisco Flores, El Salvador's president from 1999 to 2004, is currently president of the América Libre Institute. This column is based on an excerpt of the keynote speech at last week's 2007 Freedom Dinner organized by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.