Hugo Chávez presents the inter-American system with a tough dilemma: What do you do when free people elect a charismatic autocrat intent on dismantling democracy? Lapper, whose articles in the "Financial Times "have repeatedly highlighted Chávez's rhetorical taunts and spreading influence, now counsels the United States to ignore the strongman's theatrics. Instead, the United States should tackle the underlying problems of inequality and poverty that feed Chávez's appeal -- a tall order if we accept Lapper's apparent view (expressed through the journalistic device of "many Latin Americans perceive") that the U.S.-backed market-oriented economic reforms of the 1990s have failed. Lapper also suggests rallying other Latin American countries to establish "red lines" that Chávez should not cross, although he does not specify what sanctions should follow any violation. Finally, Lapper proposes bilateral engagement with Venezuela on specific issues (security, drugs, and energy), an approach now favored by the State Department.
In contrast, Restrepo, who directs the Americas Project at the Center for American Progress, labels attempts to engage the purposefully anti-U.S. Chávez "an exercise in unwarranted futility." Instead, the respected former congressional aide foreshadows possible elements of a future Democratic Party policy toward Latin America: U.S. condemnation of antidemocratic behavior by Chávez, a "results-neutral" multilateral promotion of democracy throughout the region, "smart trade agreements" that feature assistance for displaced workers, beefed-up bilateral aid, and, most innovative, a U.S. energy policy built on renewable fuel sources, creating new opportunities for partnerships with Brazil and the sugar-rich Caribbean basin.
Neither contribution, however stimulating, fully comes to grip with the central Chávez challenge: his emotive appeal to deep-seated Latin American instincts that privilege authoritarian centralism over independent institutions, political polarization over democratic compromise, and state populism over market incentives. As both studies imply, the inter-American system requires new tools to counter these retrograde reflexes.