Argument

The Ghost of Che

The same old authoritarian revolution is back.

ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

Rumor has it that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya might be on his way back home. It’s not thanks to any great diplomatic breakthrough; despite minor compromises, acting President Roberto Micheletti still refuses to discuss Zelaya’s reinstatement, and Zelaya insists on coming back to power. Instead, Zelaya is said to be sneaking back in. As his former foreign minister told reporters, "He is already on his way."

No matter whether and how Zelaya returns, however, much of the damage is already done. The coup has exposed just what a beating liberal democracy has taken in Latin America by the latest gang of strongmen in a two-centuries-long line. Zelaya, along with Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Evo Morales of Bolivia, is a new face of the utopian-revolutionary dreams that have wreaked havoc and sowed totalitarianism across the region for so long. The legacy of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who fomented Marxist revolution in the 1950s and 1960s and left authoritarians in his wake, is bloody and unending.

Chávez, Ortega, Correa, Morales, and formerly Zelaya base their rule on the premise that the enlightened caudillo, or strongman, can execute the will of the people better than the people themselves. It’s an idea that dates back to Simón Bolívar, liberator of the continent from colonial rule, and has since been embraced by everyone from left-wing orthodox Marxists to right-wing military thugs. The caudillo is entitled to use force if acting for the people. Power cannot alternate between different rulers, because to allow for that would doom the revolution. This Orwellian paradigm allows leaders to twist their constitutions, attack the independent press, destroy due process, and justify their perpetual hold on power — just as Zelaya did. While his ousting was sloppy, Zelaya was hardly a democrat. There is no question that he overstepped the Honduran Constitution in his bid to call a referendum. Once the Supreme Court ruled against him, that same Constitution mandated his removal, and the Congress voted him out.

Time and time again this model has failed. But its inefficacy has not eclipsed its appeal, in part because of the persistence of deep poverty and inequality, and in part because of the failure of the traditional political elite to stop the rampant corruption and open the political process in meaningful ways.

Plus, the newest utopian-authoritarian vision comes flush with cash, funded by Venezuelan oil money and inspired as much by Iran’s Islamist revolution as by Che. Chávez supplied Honduras with cheap oil, promised investments, and even printed the ballots for the "clean" referendum that attempted to extend Zelaya’s rule. All that gave the Honduran president the confidence to defy the Supreme Court, attorney general, and Congress and go forward with the unconstitutional vote.

And here’s the most dangerous part of all: The leaders of today act not in the name of Marxism — but democracy. Venezuela and its Bolivarian allies call for Zelaya’s reinstatement for rule of law’s sake. Yet these are the very countries that have most measurably moved toward authoritarianism.

So across the region, the Bolivarian revolution is unwinding the hard-won democratic gains made in the past 15 years, while pretending that it’s doing everything in the name of democracy itself. In Nicaragua, the formerly U.S.-backed Contra rebels disarmed and the Sandinista military and police were tamed. The democratic system Ortega now tramples was the same one that was finally open enough to see him reelected. In Bolivia, repressive military regimes gave way to elected governments — opening the way to Morales’s election. He has since turned back the democratic clock by attacking the press, allowing his followers to physically target the opposition, and illegally passing sweeping constitutional reform.

There are consequences beyond the mere tragedy of lost democratic gains. The new Bolivarians divide the world into pro-revolution or anti-revolution spheres. As Morales said in March, "If  you are in the opposition, then you are right wing, of the racist-fascists, of the neoliberals. … There is no middle ground." Hence the Bolivarian axis’s continuing support for the Colombian rebel group FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), even though the Marxist group is a major drug-trafficking organization, a designated terrorist entity by the European Union and the United States, and the enemy of a democratically elected government. Despite its abysmal human rights record and criminal activities, the FARC is welcomed as pro-revolution.

The hypocrisy is evident. Latin America has seen this movie before, and it’s far from revolutionary.

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