Like falling domino pieces, continuously tilting one another, our Latin American neighbors keep falling to the political left. And we don't seem to care, as if their dominoes can't reach us, their problems can't affect us.
While we fight two wars on the other side of the world, our own backyard is sending us to hell, electing leaders who clearly are enemies of the United States. And we're not even paying attention!
You might not think it's serious. After all, with the election of President Barack Obama, we certainly tilted our dominoes to the left last November.
But this is quite different. As liberal and even socialist as Obama still may turn out to be, no one believes he aspires to become a ruthless dictator or a president for life, which is exactly the goal of many Latin American socialist leaders, who see Cuba's Fidel Castro as their role model.
On Sunday, El Salvador became the latest domino to fall. Following the socialist path of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, the Salvadoran people elected Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a former Marxist guerrilla group turned into a political party.
Funes, a former TV newsman, will form the first leftist government in El Salvador's history.
These so-called "socialists of the 21st century" are not being elected by landslides. Funes beat Rodrigo Avila, of the ruling conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance party, by only 2 percentage points. In fact, in many of these countries now ruled by leftist governments, the close election results illustrate just how dangerously polarized Latin America has become. Each of those leftist countries is ripe for a civil war between those who see the United States as the enemy and those who still see us as friends.
Funes claims that he will seek to establish good relations with the United States. But many Salvadorans simply don't believe him. Although Funes was not part of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front's violent history, many of his top people are hard-core Marxists who are likely to seek closer ties with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela than with the United States.
The jury is still out on whether Funes will be a pro-business, moderate leftist (such as Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chile's Michelle Bachelet) or whether his FMLN comrades will sway him to become as antagonistic and anti-American as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.
Seeing as about a quarter of Salvadorans already live in the United States and their homeland's economy is heavily dependent on remittances they send home — the U.S. dollar is El Salvador's currency — you would think that any Salvadoran president would need to maintain good relations with the United States.
But let's not forget that the FMLN fought against U.S.-backed and often-repressive right-wing Salvadoran governments. After El Salvador's civil war, which claimed 75,000 lives from 1980 to 1992, a peace treaty got the FMLN guerrillas to lay down their weapons and seek power through the ballot box. Nevertheless, since 1992, democratically elected pro-American governments have ruled El Salvador. They have been among our strongest allies in the region. They even have sent a small number of troops to support American forces in Iraq.
So how did we get to this point? Why are strong U.S. allies losing Latin American elections? Why are our old enemies gaining so much power?
Frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We Americans have not been very good amigos. While Chavez has been using Venezuela's oil wealth to prop up leftist candidates and governments all over Latin America, our government has done very little to counteract his anti-American propaganda or to show our Latin American neighbors that we actually care about them.
They saw how the U.S. Congress, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, rejected one of our few strong allies in Latin America, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, when Uribe pleaded with us for a free trade agreement. They saw that while Salvadorans were supporting us in Iraq, the Bush administration wasn't doing enough to help the Salvadoran people combat the rampant poverty and crime that have made El Salvador fertile ground for leftist anti-American ideology.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration, preoccupied with the other side of the world, paid very little attention to Latin America, and regrettably, the Obama administration seems to be following the same path.
The man who promised so much change for America has missed a huge opportunity thus far to promote change in Latin America. Obama can make a great difference throughout the Americas. He can make people move away from the "us vs. them" mentality promoted by those who teach Latin Americans how to hate the United States.
In Obama, we have a liberal American president in a unique moment in history and with a unique opportunity to show Latin America that you can be liberal without being totalitarian, that you can rule a country from the left without violating civil rights, resorting to violence, censoring the opposition or instilling fear.
Let's hope that soon, Obama will be up to the task of setting up and straightening out the fallen dominoes in our own backyard.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.