DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.

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From Ruth

Let’s do the world news. First – Bolivia – now there’s a 2005 popular uprising I can get behind. This stuff makes Kyrgyzstan look like t-ball. From WaPo, this is how we do it:

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s interim president vowed to hold elections as he took office Friday, leading indigenous groups to start lifting roadblocks after weeks of massive protests.

Eduardo Rodriguez, the former Supreme Court chief, was sworn in as interim president late Thursday, taking the place of President Carlos Mesa, who resigned in an effort to halt protests he feared could push Bolivia toward civil war.

Protesters from the indigenous majority have been clamoring for more political power and gas and oil nationalization — in opposition to a European-descended elite.

“One of my capacities will be to call for an electoral process,” Rodriguez said after he was sworn in. “I am offering a short mandate with the help of Congress.”

The crisis has shown the increasing power of Indian groups, which could determine the next presidency. That would herald another shift to the left in Latin America, where there is growing opposition to U.S. diplomatic and economic influence.

Both the political mobilization of the Indians and the peaceful, democratic, pretty much successful resolution of the massive protests are quite heartening for a nation with a lot of democracy problems and a lot of race problems. There’s no telling yet where Rodriguez will end up but elections are the right way to start. A-.
Next up, Canada, where bad things are happening in high places. NYT:

TORONTO, June 9 – The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Quebec law banning private medical insurance in a decision that represents an acute blow to the publicly financed national health care system.

The high court stopped short of striking down the constitutionality of the country’s vaunted health care system nationwide, but specialists across the legal spectrum said they expected the decision to lead to sweeping changes in the Canadian health care system…

The Canadian health care system provides free doctor’s services that are paid for by taxes. The system has generally been strongly supported by the public, and is broadly identified with the Canadian national character. Canada is the only industrialized county that outlaws privately financed purchases of core medical services.

But in recent years patients have been forced to wait longer for diagnostic tests and elective surgery, while the wealthy and well connected either sought care in the United States or used influence to jump medical lines.

The court ruled that the waiting lists had become so long that they violated patients’ “life and personal security, inviolability and freedom” under the Quebec charter of human rights and freedoms, which covers about one-quarter of Canada’s population.

Medicare waiting times are undeniably ridiculous in Canada. (The province of Newfoundland has only one MRI machine.) But that these health crises threaten equally the rights and freedoms of those Canadians who cannot afford private care, either currently abroad or apparently soon in Quebec, should have been the foremost concern for a high court mandating solutions. This is bad news for Quebecers and, by precedent, soon enough for residents of every province. The good news is that the vast majority of Canadians know it stinks and willfight it, and consequently so will the obsessively poll-reading Liberals. The Globe:

Prime Minister Paul Martin vowed Thursday that Canada’s public health-care system would remain intact, despite a Supreme Court of Canada ruling opening the door for private care in Quebec.

“We’re not going to have a two-tier health-care system in this country,” he told reporters following Thursday’s ruling.

Would that Bush were making such utterances. Canadian health care is strong and deeply embedded in the national culture, but in the mean time, things are going to get worse for the middle and lower classes in Quebec – with doctors and money fleeing the public system – before they better. D.

Lastly, something seems to be going down at the G8:

WASHINGTON, June 9 – The United States and Britain have reached an agreement on how the billions of dollars that the world’s poorest nations owe to international lenders can be erased, removing the last impediment to an accord long sought by the richest nations, a senior official involved in the negotiations said Thursday.

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, will present their proposal to a meeting of the finance ministers of seven of the Group of 8 industrial nations on Friday in London, the official said.

Apparently, the richest nation in the history of the world has been convinced by a fast-talking Brit to cancel some debt for some desperately poor countries. From a greater good standpoint, I would like to extend a mazal tov and yasher koach to the President for finally getting on the not-evil train. From a political standpoint, I think Blair should have taken that I-screwed-myself-in-Iraq-for-you thing a whole lot of miles further. And let’s not all get out the party hats and streamers just yet because it doesn’t seem like the debt is going soooo far away, and we still have AIDS and malnutrition and diarrhea and war and stuff. All being stops on the aforementioned train that Bush and the US could do some serious image upgrading and, you know, serious moral good by perhaps visiting at some point. In the meantime, B for this class and a B overall for the week.