WASHINGTON—It is fortunate that the narco-guerrillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have a weakness for the written word. Without it, the Colombian government would not have confiscated almost 40 million pages contained on laptop computers during their attack on a terrorist camp inside Ecuadoran territory, and Latin Americans would not know the extent of the ties between the FARC and the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador.

The FARC documents, which have been authenticated by a team of forensic experts at Interpol, might include a measure of exaggeration. But even in the land of the magic realist novel, the painstaking description of the group’s politics, armaments and finances can’t be all fiction. It was obviously not intended for publication since it has already led to the confiscation of bank accounts in Costa Rica and of non-enriched uranium hidden on the outskirts of Bogota, and exposed the FARC’s cross-border safe havens. There have been recent signs of internecine fighting among FARC guerrillas, and some important leaders have laid down their weapons. That state of affairs, combined with the news that Manuel Marulanda, the historic leader of the group, is dead, does not bode well for the FARC.

The connection between Venezuela and the FARC has been a matter of speculation since Hugo Chavez came to power. The files indicate that there have been frequent meetings between Venezuela’s government and FARC leaders, that Caracas funneled $300 million to them and helped them acquire weapons, and that the Colombians trained Venezuelan guerrillas. As for Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, his umbilical relationship with Chavez had sent the signal for quite some time that Quito could not be counted on to help Latin Americans who stand for the rule of law.

The depth of these governments’ ties with the FARC is such that probably most Latin American governments at least had a hint of what the public now knows: that Chavez and Correa are complicit in the workings of a group that resorts to terrorism and is trying to replace an elected government in Colombia with a totalitarian dictatorship while fomenting armed struggle elsewhere. If this is the case, it raises the question why so many governments sided with Venezuela and Ecuador when the Organization of American States, in debating the March attack against the FARC camp by the Colombian military, avoided any mention of the fact that Caracas and Quito had violated the 2002 Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism.

The answers vary. Some, like the Caribbean countries, are interested in continuing to receive cheap oil from Venezuela. Others, including some Central American governments, think that good relations with Chavez are an antidote against Marxist terrorism at home. There are those, such as Brazil’s president, who use Chavez to keep their leftist supporters content while they follow a domestic policy at odds with what the Venezuelan stands for. And governments such as Argentina’s combine financial interest—they sell sovereign bonds to Caracas—with the search for respectability in the eyes of the revolutionary base.

In the past, the unwillingness of elected governments to confront totalitarian forces politically has led to two unwelcome consequences: the emergence of military establishments as the only counteracting force, and American interventionism. Neither of those possibilities is perceivable in the immediate future. The trauma of human rights violations in Argentina, Chile and other countries is still alive in people’s memories. Meanwhile, Washington is playing it cool, even resisting calls from some hard-liners to include Venezuela on the list of terrorist nations, a move that would require the adoption of sanctions against the United States’ third supplier of foreign oil. But history teaches us that this will not continue to be the situation forever.

Latin America is going through an export-led bonanza that is helping stem the force of Marxist revolution in countries such as Mexico, Peru and Colombia where Chavez is stirring trouble. In the absence of further economic reforms, that bonanza will not last. And once it stops, the appeal of revolutionary populism is bound to grow.

The time for farsighted leadership is now. And that is not just the responsibility of those governments that should stop making deals with Chavez and providing him with cover in multilateral bodies but, more importantly, of citizens willing to use trade associations, nongovernmental organizations, grass-roots networks, media outlets and academics to generate a much stronger awareness of what is really at stake here—the possibility that Latin America might lose the 21st century, much as it lost the 20th.