Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Chávez, Democracy, and Power

We've seen this before, over and over. Hugo Chávez, strongman grabbing power for himself, buying off the poor by building clinics and schools and food programs. That bastard! It has become a mantra used in the American press by people who really have little understanding of Venezuela. The linked article says nothing terribly interesting and certainly not original. Its messages, however, are so widespread that we can use it as emblematic of the kind of non-thought going into much of the US media's Venezuela analysis. First, a play by play:

1. IHT: "Chávez's plan is just another step in the march to increase his government's control over Venezuela's politics and economy."
Helmut: True, in a vague and uninformative sort of way.

2. IHT: "Behind the Orwellian rhetorical tactics, his efforts to amass power and cling to it for as long as he can are undermining Venezuela's democracy."
Helmut: Which "Orwellian tactics"?
IHT: "Chávez portrayed planned constitutional amendments that would allow him to be re-elected indefinitely as a step toward 'participatory democracy.'"
Helmut: I'm concerned about the constitutional amendments too. Careful, however, with the rhetoric there, pardner. It is indeed logically possible on the proposed amendment that Chávez could be re-elected indefinitely. But the proposal is for getting rid of term limits, not for indefinite re-election - that's a rhetorical twist used to make one's point without actually making it. The term limits debate is one we've been having in the US as well, at least regarding Congress. Anyway, I'm still not quite convinced one way or the other regarding term limits in the US. More on participatory democracy below.

3. IHT: "Chávez remains, at least technically, a democrat. He has repeatedly beaten Venezuela's dysfunctional opposition in elections deemed fair by international observers. He won a landslide victory last December, extending his mandate until 2012. His proposed constitutional reforms must be submitted to a vote in the National Assembly and to a referendum."
Helmut: True. Spooky.

4. IHT: "Every member of the National Assembly is an ally of Chávez. His allies also run the Supreme Court, all but two state governments and Petróleos de Venezuela the state oil company."
Helmut: Well, this is a fact. No dispute here. But how did this situation happen? Ah, the oil situation is a long story that requires some history lessons about foreign companies in Latin America. It also requires studying more closely the understanding the Chávez government has about the limited global time-frame for reaping wealth from its petroleum (heavy crude) resources - they want to control it before the resource and the market disappear, which is an eventuality. One way to view this - as chavistas usually do - is that the state has about a 50-year window at best for using petroleum funds for building social infrastructure.
As for the make-up of the government, talk to the opposition about that. They boycotted the last elections and this led to total elected chavista control of the government. They are responsible, in large measure, for the current existence of a one-party state. Why? Because the opposition generally takes a Cuban-exile-style approach with Chávez. They will do nothing to legitimize his government, including participating in elections. If the opposition could get its act together (it has been plagued by disunity and infighting), it could present a viable political opposition in a more vibrant democracy. Even in the loss of Manuel Rosales to Chávez in the last presidential election, there were hopeful signs. Rosales had roughly 37% of the vote to Chávez's 63% with a terrific 75% of the population voting. We can call that a landslide, but it was nonetheless a strong showing by Rosales and a relatively united opposition, and cause for optimism. It represented what we might say was the beginning of a true opposition party.

5. IHT: "After the government revoked the license of RCTV, an aggressive opposition television network, the government used it to create another pro-government mouthpiece."
Helmut: Sigh, do we have to deal with this again? They didn't "revoke the license." It expired after twenty years and the government declined to renew it. Why? Because its news programming was for years more slanted and outrageous than even Fox News, it publicly media-managed and supported the coup d'etat against Chávez in 2002, and it openly celebrated the (short-lived) feat on their station (as well as the authoritarian Carmona Decree dissolving the Supreme Court, the National Assembly, elected state and local governments, etc.). That is the political dimension, and not a revocation. The Chávez government did not shut down the station immediately after the 2002 coup failed. It waited five years (of virulently anti-Chávez programming) for its license to expire. RCTV can now broadcast on cable; it is their public license that was not renewed. In the meantime, while the public channel is now government-run, it is, I'm told, pretty incompetent in its programming thus far as a "pro-government mouthpiece." The government apparently had little plan what to do with the newly open public channel. Besides, the move was highly unpopular throughout Venezuela not because of some assault on free speech, as the station director Marcel Granier constantly puts it and the US media parrot; rather, it was unpopular because some of the most popular non-news, non-political programming, such as soap operas, went along with it. This has been a PR disaster for Chávez, and many Venezuelans refuse to watch the new channel. Of course, it also has put the public airwaves largely in chavista hands - that much is true. This is important because the poor usually don't have cable. The whole issue is one of media reach, not an assault on free speech.

6. IHT: "Buoyed by a public spending spree financed by high oil prices, Chávez has used his enormous popularity to extend his government's power over big chunks of the economy, including the telephone and electricity companies... His reform proposals would tighten the grip, nationalizing coal and gas, stripping the central bank of its independence and allowing the government to carry out expropriations of private property without obtaining judicial authority first."
: Perhaps. This is where there's a real and important debate. On one hand, much of the exploitation of Venezuela's natural resources was built upon unfair contracts signed with foreign companies. This is an age-old problem in developing countries - when foreign firms own most of your resources. It may mean wages for domestic labor and thus the provision of basic jobs. But it also often means that the key source of revenue for the state to reinvest in domestic projects is actually flowing out of the country, especially when corruption is rampant (as it was in Venezuela pre-Chávez as well as under Chávez). Combine this with foreign debt inherited from one government to the next, and you've got a recipe for perpetual poverty.
On the other hand, the growing justification for total control over the banking system is the ability to disperse funds - especially revenue from petroleum - in the new Bolivarian economy from the center. While I'm a fan of mixed economies, central planning of this sort is a throwback with plenty of empirical and historical data to suggest that it simply creates greater problems. Furthermore, Chávez has himself sent millions of dollars abroad for development projects for the poor and other causes not simply out of the goodness of his heart, but out of attempts to curry favor with other countries. The opposition has a point here, especially when the original chavista goal was to use the extra revenues coming into government coffers for domestic spending. One could thus see the foreign assistance as political bribery - I say, welcome to the world of international development. The US itself doesn't deliver sacks of grain to starving people (when it does) without large "USA" letters on each bag, to name but a minor case. One is hard-pressed to find the existence of any foreign aid from any country that is packaged without at least partially self-serving motives of some type. At least Chávez isn't arming the planet.

7. IHT: "Chávez's claim that he is increasing "participatory democracy" by giving voice to Venezuela's disenfranchised poor rests on gestures like the proposal to create grass-roots governing councils with executive authority over a range of issues. In fact, they would further erode democratic checks and balances by stripping power from state and local governments, where opposition parties retain some vestigial power, and giving it to entities dependent on the central government."
Helmut: This is a matter of democratic political preference. The IHT editorialist apparently prefers and assumes nested, representative government (like the US?). The chavistas want a more participatory approach. Now, I think it's generally a good thing when people are vested with the power to determine the shape of the institutions that affect their lives at a local and national level. Grassroots movements - when they're not simply fronts for the major political parties - can do and have done good things in the US as well. There are various ways to take a more participatory approach, however, and I have my doubts about "participatory democracy," especially as the chavistas tend to use the expression as a slogan. It leaves open the strong possibility that what one is participating in has already been decided elsewhere, rather than the problems and potential solutions being defined collectively through the contesting give and take of dialogue. Venezuela is fertile ground for developing deliberative democratic projects (for a couple of explanations of DD, see here and here). This, however, requires some basis for dialogue among opposing factions in the country. That dialogue is nearly non-existent. Both sides are at fault, and both sides continue to view this dialogue as a matter of virulent rhetoric. This eats at even the possibility of opening dialogue, or of even sitting at the same table silently fuming. In fact, any overture to the other political side can be political suicide in Venezuela.


All that said, when was the last time you saw a piece in the major media that attempted to explain what the Chávez government is trying to do from their point of view, right or wrong? Maybe... never? But wouldn't it be a very good thing to have in making wise assessments of US (or any) policy towards Venezuela?

And that's the rub. Yes, it's complicated, and yes the US national media tend to avoid hard foreign affairs issues on the assumption that Americans aren't interested (i.e., that they're stupid too). And any visitor to Venezuela who speaks with people from diverse economic and political classes and backgrounds will end up with a collection of different, and often radically antagonistic, worldviews about the state of Venezuela. The story is thus difficult to tell for the mass media because it's not easily packaged. But repeatedly offering up the same Cliffs Notes version does no one any good except a handful of people with their own interests.

I should be clear. I don't care about convincing you to like Hugo Chávez. That's hardly my point at all. I don't care to convince myself. He's a political animal who has old-school socialist intellectual advisors (all from abroad - Spain, Hungary, etc.) and who regularly says and does some dumb things. I don't think the Chávez government is itself clear at all on what it means by "21st-Century Socialism," even to itself. Cronyism, corruption, and incompetence have continued through the Chávez government. We are also at a moment in which the government could take a drastic authoritarian turn - I'm not saying it will, but the conditions are ripe and therefore dangerous from the perspective of genuine democrats. There are plenty of reasons for concern on the part of those who would wish to see a truly democratic state with both a strong investment in public institutions and a diverse and vibrant economy. The latter, however, could be a wonderful thing not only for Venezuela but for all of Latin America and there is, in Venezuela's case, the money to do it. Better living through petroleum. Unfortunately, most oil states, except for Norway, tend to be uninterested in spreading the wealth.

What interests me in this present context, however, are basically three interconnected things that have plenty of offshoots I won't go into:

1. If nothing else, Chávez has convinced the greater population, the one living in poverty and politically disenfranchised for decades, that they have a real voice in government. Whether they actually do or not is another question which has yet to be played out fully. But the reality is that they believe it. Chávez does enough for the poor that many see life improving overall. The opposition sometimes claims that this is only in Chávez-supporting barrios, that those who don't support the president suffer from lack of government funds and so on. This could be figured out empirically (how levels of government funding correspond to how neighborhoods vote), but I haven't seen any data to back this claim (if it exists, and is reputable, send it to me).

2. Let's say Chávez is gone tomorrow or next year, or let's say he's voted out of office in the next round of elections. Let's say the opposition comes to power. What will they do? Many are strong democrats of the social democratic variety. The opposition is not a monolithic right wing. Yet, the situation is such that there is no return to an elite-run economy and government. They would only be able to do so by oppression we haven't come close to seeing by the Chávez government, but have seen with past Venezuelan governments. In other words, their policies and politics will have to appeal to the majority of the population, many of whom feel politically enfranchised for the first time in their lives. In this sense, the genuine, poverty-battling elements of the chavista program have already left a legacy. This will entail the necessity of quite different kinds of policy choices than many in the opposition are used to. While we would probably see moves towards decentralization and privatization at the national level again, such moves won't happen without public debate. Social, educational, and health programs may very well look quite chavista if for no other reason but political expediency. The opposition is going to have to develop more participatory and deliberative approaches of its own for the eventuality of governing the country again.

3. Let's say the constitution is amended to abolish term limits and Chávez is elected over and over. Is this even possible with an opposition growing in strength, unity, and political and economic diversity? If he runs the country into the ground, as many say he is already doing, then it will obviously be increasingly difficult to hold the presidency as long as the country continues to run fair elections. It doesn't matter how well local committees are doing at a grassroots and small-scale level if the economy as a whole tanks and if Chávez has to revert to oppressive measures to hold onto power. An oppressive chavista state would also lose many of its closest allies. One cannot survive on relations with Iran alone.

Where do we stand then? Who knows? But a genuine, deliberative discussion is crucial in avoiding the seductive traps of left-wing and right-wing authoritarianism.

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