Latin America Unrest Forces Biden to Confront Challenges to Democracy Close to Home

Venezuela, once one of South America’s most prosperous countries, is now one of its poorest, gutted by corruption and sanctions that caused its lucrative oil industry to decay. Mr. Maduro remains in power, with the help of Russian and Cuban backing.

An estimated four million refugees have fled Venezuela since then, in one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. Nearly half of them are in neighboring Colombia, which this spring grappled with its own domestic unrest, as protesters angry over national taxes and coronavirus fatigue clashed with security forces.

In an interview in May, President Iván Duque Márquez of Colombia said he did not doubt that the United States would continue to support his country, despite human rights concerns about his government’s tactics.

“We have to be all honest and put her hands on our hearts for a certain moment,” Mr. Duque told reporters for The New York Times. “We’re living in very complicated times around the world. We have seen high levels of political polarization. You’re living it in the United States. And you know that when you combine polarization with social media and opinions that sometimes are not based on thorough understanding, they can also generate violence.”

Other Latin American autocrats have followed Mr. Maduro’s lead.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has imposed a nationwide crackdown against the news media and civil society before elections in November, in which he will seek a fourth term. On the sidelines of a meeting of Central American foreign ministers last month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken discreetly urged Nicaragua’s top diplomat to ensure a free and fair vote.

The next day, Mr. Ortega’s government detained one of his highest-profile political opponents.

U.S. officials later insisted it was important for the Biden administration to put Nicaragua and other Latin American countries on notice of the United States’ growing concern about challenges to democracy. Mr. Ventrell, the State Department official, said the aggression by Mr. Ortega — a former revolutionary and long a thorn in the side of the United States — was proof of how weak his support was among Nicaraguan voters.

But the Biden administration is all too aware of the delicate nature of democracy in the region.

“Let’s be honest: Democracies are fragile things. I fully acknowledge that,” Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said in at a speech last month at Central American University in San Salvador.

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