With the gunshots subsiding and the police force under government censure for its attempted overthrow of Ecuador’s democratic president Rafael Correa, order appears to have been reestablished as quickly as it was placed under seige in Quito. Yet, the attempted coup d’état that left President Correa a hostage in a hospital while the Quito police force revolted reveals some of the less glamorous aspects of life in the lower half of the Western hemisphere. In its September 11th issue, the Economist ran a special titled “Nobody’s Backyard” and documented the rise of Latin America economically, democratically, and socially over the last three decades. And while there is no doubting the importance of the lowering of poverty rates and emergence of Mexico and Brazil as important players on the international arena, the events in Ecuador stand as stark reminders of how much further Latin America has to go.

As the revolt in Quito showed, despite the gains in democracy, Latin America appears to be as volatile as it was thirty years ago. All it took for an attempt to shutdown the democratic regime in Ecuador was an unpopular austerity measure that looked to cut benefits for public servants. Faced with social distress, mobilization into militant revolts still appears to be a viable option for dissidents, just as it was under the authoritarian regimes and corrupt democracies of the previous century. As Honduras demonstrated to the world in the summer of 2009, military overthrows of democracies still happen in the western hemisphere, right on the United States’ doorstep. With vested military allies in neighboring nations Peru and Columbia, the United States revealed its continued interest in the stability of its southern neighbors by voicing its support for the Correa administration (despite the Chavez-leaning tendencies of the aforementioned leftist president). And there is ample reason that the US should care.

President Correa of Ecuador being taken from hospital where he was held hostage by revolting police.

With newly appointed Colombian president and US ally Juan Manuel Santos on the verge of realizing the goal of the Plan Colombia legislation and finally ridding his nation of its FARC menace and making large gains in the war on illegal drug trafficking, there is little room for unrest in the region. Couple that with the United States’ large military presence in Colombia and Peru, and there is genuine reason for the US to take a general interest in the maintenance of stability in the region. With Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador all fronted by heads of state who are decidedly anti-America and marred by large disparities in wealth as well as exorbitant rates of subsistent poverty, the tension for a potential destabilizing event remains a very real fear.

With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq underway, Washington does not want to have to deal with a refugee crisis in one of its southern allies or a failed state in the western hemisphere. The rise of popularly elected figures like Chavez and Correa who ran on anti-American platforms implies a general animosity towards continued American influence in Latin America, and whose to say that this anger could not be channeled into a militant organization a la Al Qaeda or Al-Shabaab. A failed state in the Latin America could spell disastrous for the US in a world as interconnected as our own. Whereas enemies from across the Atlantic are one thing, having terrorism emerge from a neighbor in the West would be both horrifying and a direct slap in the face of America’s movement towards world democracy.

While the chances of a terrorist cell gaining the widespread popularity that Al Qaeda and other extremist Muslim organizations have gained in their respective spheres is unlikely in Latin America, one can never say never. Thus the United States must at least loosely adhere to its antiquated Monroe Doctrine and oversee continued stability in the south. Latin America’s rise in the last decade, especially that of Brazil, has revealed the enormous economic potential of South and Central America. It should now be a priority of the United States to see that this trajectory is the only direction in which the continent moves. As for Ecuador, it is reassuring that the coup was completely unsuccessful and democracy came away unscathed, but still extremely telling that such a revolt could spring up out of nowhere. Latin America still has a long way to go it would seem.

Photo Credit: Dolores Ochoa, AP

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