PRESIDENT Bush likes to remind the foreign policy establishment that his ideas are good for business. He believes, as he argued on behalf of China's inclusion in the World Trade Organization, that "free trade supports and sustains freedom in all its forms."
This simple sloganeering often sells many on the idea that commerce creates democracy. The intertwining of these concepts is an effective way to silence critics of policies that have little to do with democracy but a lot to do with economic power. Consider the legacy of Bush's predecessors - his father and President Ronald Reagan - in Central America. By supporting wars against communists during the 1980s, the United States guaranteed open markets in the region.
But the track record for democracy in Central America is thin. An example is the precarious nature of free speech in the region. Threats aimed at media outlets in El Salvador and Nicaragua this year reveal the truth underneath the label of freedom. For the past decade, much of the politics of Central America has developed below the radar of the American public. We last tuned into this area when the locus of Reagan-era foreign policy was located somewhere between Managua and San Salvador.
In Managua, the communist-inspired Sandinistas were in power, fighting right-wing rebels financed from Washington. In San Salvador, a conservative oligarchy employed death squads and brutal free-fire zones, with the tacit blessing of Washington, as they fought communist guerrillas.
With the end of the Cold War, Central America's civil wars ended too. The leftist forces in El Salvador signed a treaty and became a political party. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas (also known as the FSLN) lost an election and peacefully handed over power. Today, both countries are governed by conservative governments friendly to business. To the casual observer, these governments have almost covered over all the scars of the past. There is almost no inkling of more than a decade of turmoil that preceded the peace. Almost.
Last month in Nicaragua, President Arnoldo Aleman tried discreetly to pressure the country's most popular newspaper by ordering his government to cut all ties with the publication.
Aleman's orders went so far as to ban the mention of the newspaper, El Nuevo Diario from the airwaves of Nicaragua's public television network.
However, the paper began a campaign to notify readers about the government's order and its implications. Aleman's order was significant because the Nicaraguan government is the largest advertiser in the country. By pulling its advertising from El Nuevo Diario, the government was sending a clear economic message about its displeasure.
So much for free markets supporting all forms of freedom.
El Nuevo Diario is similar to supermarket tabloids in the United States, filled with reports of UFOs, vampires and other sensational stories. But notably the newspaper has also crusaded against nepotism, cronyism, ineptitude, and corruption in Aleman's government.
Once Aleman's boycott was exposed, the government backpedaled and said the advertising reduction was because government revenue and taxes were low. However, the government's advertising remains strong in other publications, including La Noticia, a paper endorsed by the president.
Despite the fact that less than 1 percent of Nicaraguans who read newspapers buy La Noticia, at times the Aleman government has placed as much as 25 percent of its national advertising budget with the tiny newspaper.
"Situations like this do nothing to guarantee democracy," said Guillermo Morales, the former president of the Association of Nicaraguan Journalists.
But this is the rule, not the exception, in Nicaragua, where the media have fought various types of censorship for most of the country's history. This isn't even the first time Aleman has attempted to muzzle the media. After he came to office in 1997, Aleman closed the country's public television network until he could fire anyone connected to the Sandinistas. At the beginning of his term, he also used an advertising boycott to pressure media outlets to back his policies. El Nuevo Diario, which often backs the Sandinistas, was one of the targets of the first boycott. The government had only resumed advertising in the paper in November.
Other media outlets were not so lucky. The legendary Sandinista newspaper Barricada closed - killed by Aleman's boycott. The Sandinistas also were forced to sell their television network under the economic pressure.
With elections in November and former President Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas leading in the polls, Aleman's media policies look distinctly like measures to subvert free expression and contain the resurgent popularity of the Sandinistas.
In El Salvador, President Francisco Flores, the leader of the conservative party that has ruled the country for the past 12 years, has also used a boycott to pressure his government's chief critic, television network TV12.