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Statement of Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), Hearing of the House International Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, March 9, 2005

Opening Statement of Congressman Dan Burton,
Chairman, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere
Hearing of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere

Title: “The State of Democracy in Latin America”
March 9, 2005

As many of you may know, I served as Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere over ten years ago (1995-1997) and I am glad to be back. I am also glad to be back working with my colleague Bob Menendez, the Subcommittee’s Ranking Minority Member, and I want to thank him and his staff for all of their help preparing today’s hearing.

When I Chaired this Committee ten years ago, much of Latin America and the Caribbean region were just starting to embrace the concepts of individual freedom and democracy that we, in many ways, take for granted as citizens of the United States. Over the years, Latin America and the Caribbean, with the notable exception of Cuba, have made remarkable progress toward democracy. I believe much of the credit for this progress is due to the courageous leadership of many democracy-minded people in the region who grew weary of the brutal dictatorships and the advances of Soviet and later Cuban communists. But, these brave patriots could not have succeeded without the dedication of people like former President Ronald Reagan and others in the U.S. and elsewhere who invested in the future of these countries by helping to plant the seeds of democracy and nurturing them over time.

As I reacquaint myself with the issues of this hemisphere, I am pleased to see that the investment of so many is paying off. But, I am under no illusions that the work is complete. The reality is that today, democratic progress in Latin America and the Caribbean is being measured by inches. And, as the committee will soon hear from our distinguished witnesses, while democracy is still holding on, it is not without its opponents, and there is a real danger that parts of the region could slide backwards into tyranny.

Several of our neighbor nations now face considerable challenges to their maturing democracies. Persistent poverty, violent guerrilla conflicts, non-democratic leaders, drug trafficking, corruption, terrorist infiltration and increasing crime are making it difficult for many in the region to see the value of democracy.

As we all know, Colombia is valiantly fighting a 40-year old civil war, and although the government of President Uribe is seeing some success, the violence of the FARC, ELN and the AUC - all listed by the State Department as Foreign Terrorist Groups - and fueled by profits from drugs and arms trafficking, could still bring down the oldest democracy in South America. President Uribe, and his daring Plan Patriota, is engaging these rebels with vigor, but these groups possess the capabilities and the will to carry on the struggle indefinitely. Without our consistent support, and constant vigilance the gains made in Colombia will be lost.

Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru do not have to deal with wide-spread military insurgencies but all have faced varying levels of political instability in the past two years. Weak leadership, corruption, violent internal political movements and drug trafficking have led to the political isolation or destruction of sitting presidents. For example, ongoing political upheaval, caused by persistent protests over natural gas reserves and coca production, has now forced President Mesa of Bolivia to tender his resignation. President Mesa took over for former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada when violent protests forced him to flee Bolivia less than two years ago.

President Chavez of Venezuela, although democratically elected, is seemingly and deliberately moving away from the democratic principles he once claimed to espouse, especially since his August 2004 victory in the recall referendum. Since that time, Chavez has made bold movements toward carrying out his “Bolivarian Revolution.” Although the Bolivarian Revolution is supposed to espouse the rights of the poor and other social interests, President Chavez, appears to be using it to justify a series of actions which are less and less democratic. Recently, President Chavez increased the size of the Supreme Court, so that he could appoint more Pro-Chavez jurists to the bench. A few months ago, he signed a bill restricting the freedom of the press, so as to squelch the voices of opposition to his rule. Just a week or so ago, President Chavez even went so far as to publicly and vocally embrace socialism as his ideology of choice. As history has shown us, Socialism and Democratic ideals rarely co-exist in the same State.

President Chavez’s critics claim, as do many here in the United States, that he is also trying to increase his influence in neighboring countries as well as elsewhere in the world. Evidence continues to accumulate that President Chavez is actively supporting leftist movements in Colombia and Bolivia. In addition, his close ties to Cuba’s Dictator, Fidel Castro – another avowed Socialist with a penchance for trying to export violent revolution - are well known.

In Uruguay, a former leftist guerilla, Tabare Vazquez, has just been sworn in as President. While this, in and of itself, is not a threat to democracy in Uruguay, it does warrant a closer look.

After twenty years of bloody conflict, the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are developing stronger democratic institutions. However, political corruption and a growing outbreak of violent crimes, especially by gangs, have posed serious challenges to these young democracies.

While Guatemala has made significant progress in its peace process, greater effort needs to be made toward improving the government’s human rights policy, including vigorously investigating and bringing to justice illegal and heavily-armed groups, and clandestine security organizations.

Corruption is a cancer that is eating away at many of the democracies of Central America. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama have bravely taken action to fight it, and all have resolved to investigate and prosecute anyone involved with corruption, including former leaders. Pledging to fight corruption is easy though, actually fighting it is hard. The President of Nicaragua, Enrique Bolanos, has stepped up to the challenge and attacked corruption head on, by prosecuting former President Arnoldo Aleman, for reportedly embezzling more than $100 million in his country’s limited assets. Aleman is now imprisoned. Again, pledging to fight corruption is easy. To actually fight it and win, more efforts like this are desperately needed.

And finally, last but not least, Haiti – the hemisphere’s poorest nation – continues to be plagued by violence and political instability. Since President Aristide’s departure in February 2004, Haiti’s interim government has been propped up by a United Nations Stabilization Mission. Their efforts to ensure a secure and stable environment and to restore the rule of law in Haiti are showing signs of strain and I fear that Haiti continues to be a powder keg waiting to explode.

I believe there can be little doubt that democracy is under serious threat in main parts of the Western Hemisphere. Simply promoting democracy as an alternative to Socialism or totalitarianism will not be enough. As we did throughout the 1980s and early 90s, the United States, in conjunction with other democracies throughout the world must become more engaged in solving the persistent problems currently facing Latin America. Efforts to reduce poverty, strengthen democratic institutions, develop independent judiciaries and provide markets for local products are just a few of the ways we can proactively confront these issues. It is here where we must focus our resources to help protect the gains already made, and to continue to push for the lasting peace, prosperity and security that only a true democracy can provide.

As Chairman of this Subcommittee, with the support of my good friend the Ranking Minority Member Menendez, I intend to pursue an aggressive agenda of oversight and investigation with the ultimate goal of strengthening democracy in our hemisphere. I look forward to working with the Department of State, the elected leaders of the nations in our hemisphere and the various non-governmental organizations dedicated to freedom and democracy within our neighborhood to accomplish this objective.

Thank you

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