Andres Oppenheimer

Something different.

Instead of starting with the facts and ending with my opinion as we usually do, I'm going to rant from the start.

The reason: It's hard to keep cool while watching the dismantling of democracy in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras.

When the presidents of these countries met in Maracay, Venezuela, for a special summit to welcome Ecuador and other countries to the nine-nation ALBA bloc -- the Venezuelan-led alliance of mostly radical leftist countries -- it was hard not to see the group as a society of mutual support for self-perpetuation in power.

Participating leaders were elected democratically for their vows to fight corruption and poverty, but most of them have focused their energies upon taking office on changing the constitution and trying to remain in power indefinitely.

Just look at what has been happening in recent days:

-- Honduran President Manuel Zelaya vowed on June 25 to ignore a Supreme Court ruling ordering him to reinstate the head of the armed forces Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Romeo Vasquez. Zelaya had fired the general for refusing to support a non-binding referendum the president had called to change the Constitution and allow his reelection.

The Supreme Court, Congress and the country's attorney general have said that Zelaya's referendum is illegal. Hours after Zelaya's vow not to heed the Supreme Court's decision, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez complained that ''there is a coup d'etat under way in Honduras,'' led by the ``retrograde bourgeoisie.''

-- Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who has already changed the Constitution to allow his reelection, is stepping up his attacks on the press after the daily Expreso reported that shell companies owned by his brother Fabricio Correa have won government contracts for up to $80 million over the past two years.

Days after the newspaper's report, the president signed a decree prohibiting government institutions from advertising in major newspapers. Last week, the government's telecommunications agency issued a second administrative fine against the independent Teleamazonas television station amid warnings that it will shut it down.

-- Venezuela's Chávez, who pioneered the current wave of constitutional changes to allow reelections and has already been in power for 10 years, said in his June 25 Alo Presidente newscast that his country's independent Globovision network will be ''most likely'' shut down.

Chávez launched an investigation into the television station for allegedly ''inciting panic'' among the population when it reported ahead of government stations about a May 4 earthquake that shook Caracas. Chávez has already closed down the country's independent RCTV television network in 2007.


In the same June 25 speech, Chávez lashed out against Caracas' opposition mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was in New York to publicize his plight. Ledezma was elected in November, 2008, but the Chávez-run congress quickly created a new job of Caracas ''head of government,'' and appointed a pro-Chávez official to the job. Ledezma was stripped of his offices and most of his budget, which were transferred to the unelected official.

That's just a small sample. For reasons of space, we won't get into the power-grabbing moves by the presidents of Bolivia and Nicaragua.


It looks like all these presidents are following the same script.

Act 1: Portray yourself as an anti-system outsider -- sometimes by staging a military coup attempt, like Chávez, or by leading violent riots, like Bolivia's Evo Morales -- and become an instant media celebrity.

Act 2: Once elected, you change the Constitution and introduce a clause that allows you to stay in power beyond your current term.

Act 3: With the new Constitution in place, you call early elections.

Act 4: Once reelected, you claim that Washington, the Church and the oligarchy are trying to kill you and use that pretext to ban opposition leaders and close down critical media, paving the way for ruling with a token opposition and assuming near absolute powers.

Granted, ALBA presidents may not be alone.

Others, including Colombia's Alvaro Uribe, have not categorically ruled out new reelection drives.

But Chávez and his allies would be much more convincing in their claims to be working for the poor if they did just that, and managed -- like Chile has done without power-obsessed presidents -- to cut their countries' poverty rates in half.

Right now, it's hard not to see most of them as a mutual-protection society for presidents who use ideology to cloak their narcissist agendas.

Post scriptum:

Afer this column appeared in the print edition, it was reported that Zelaya had been ousted by the military. If there was a military coup, it should be condemned without reservations.






Latin American Leaders' Main Obsession: Indefinite Rule