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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is do you Mr. Jones

Hugo Chavez comfortably won a recall referendum last month- that is to say was not recalled - concerning his presidency. Specifically, the issue before the Venezuelan voters was whether to allow the president to complete his term or call for new elections for next year. Chavez would have been allowed to stand in the new elections but obviously a loss in the referendum would have weakened his position. Chavez won 59 to 41% in a referendum caracterized by very high turnout (some estimates are as high as 94% of the electorate). International observers, including the Organization of American States (OAS) and Jimmy Carter, certified there was no hanky panky.

The vote was largely split along class lines with the poor or lower class in favor of Chavez and the middle and upper class against the president. The referendum failed to inspire much of a debate about policies and Chavez's track record and instead consisted of class warfare carried concluded via the ballot box. The anti-Chavez forces railed against Chavez’ "autocratic dictatorship" but were unable to convince enough lower class Venezuelans to vote against Chavez. The opposition sought to make the referendum a vote on Chavez and did not do enough to give Chavez supporters reason to turn on him. The anti-Chavez project was perceived as consisting of undoing Chavez’ reforms and returning to the past. Meanwhile Chavez positioned himself as a symbol of the struggle against the elite, oligarchy, rich, the United States and even the ill effects of unfettered capitalism. In its most simple distillation Chavez represents a paternalistic ruler with ties to Castro’s Cuba. In a country that over past decades has continued to count with a very large percentage of impoverished people, and the democratic process (Venezuela counted with the longest standing democracy in Latin America at the time of Chavez’s election) failed to address the concerns and needs of large sectors of Venezuela, Chavez’s "Bolivarian Revolution" has resonated.

A large segment of Latin America lives in poverty. In most countries over half the population is impoverished. Furthermore, while most live in poverty an increasingly select group live in an alltogether different "world" of increasing relative prosperity. In Argentina, in 2002, I witnessed some of the hundreds of thousands of "cartoneros" (i.e., "carton ones") that “make a living” picking through garbage for carton paper, cans, and any other items appropriate for sale for recycling. "Cartoneros", many with children in tow, open garbage bags, comb through them, and close the bags for the next "cartonero" while fashionable "Portenos" (i.e. residents of Buenos Aires) moved along tree lined "Parisian" streets trying to remain oblivious to the reality all around them. Many "cartoneros" used to be among the middle class (albeit the lower echelons) and were pushed into the lower class during the 1990s (precisely the period of Argentina’s supposed resurgence if you go by the Wall Street Journal/Economist or the axiom that large GNP growth translates to development). This process of widescale impoverishment accelerated with the economic debacle of 2001 but existed prior to the "tipping point."

The impoverished largely do not believe the democratic regimes established throughout Latin America in the 1980s represent them. In their eyes politicians take care of themselves and fail to implement the most basic of reforms to improve their lives. Furthermore, after witnessing a couple of electoral cycles, they are less naive and see government officials speak out of two very different sides of the mouth before and after an election. Governments elected at different periods and with different mandates, adopt similar policies seemingly responding to the interests of the United States, the World Bank or IMF, the Washington Consensus, or Wall Street rather than their own. Often times, and at the urging of the IMF or United States, and following heated political debate, reforms eliminating worker protection, opening up markets to imported goods (dampening local production and jobs), reducing government salaries and pensions, or privatizing (selling) national assets are approved. The citizens are presented on the one hand with the international community's veiled threats and on the other with their government's doom and gloom scenarios if the policies are not taken. At some point after these policies have failed to improve things and in fact exacerbated some of the problems people begin to question their government’s actions and begin to view their Government as not standing up for their best interests. They begin to see their democratically elected politicians as not representing or being a part of themselves.

Meanwhile, the poor quality of democracy observed throughout Latin America undermines the legitimacy of the people’s representatives and institutions. For example, Argentina elects representatives, primarily, through party lists wherein citizens vote for lists; for example, List X of the Peronist Party which involves voting for a big name on top (the person that has been largely representing the Peronist Party on television and posters) and, say, 25 lesser known names in small print. These smaller names are those of largely unknown people on lists that sometimes include unsavory characters, or perhaps politicians that long ago lost the respect of the citizenry but still play large roles in the party machinery, outright criminals, or say someone favored by the current president who "installs" him on the list. These lists are known as “listas sabanas” (“linen lists”) and when you vote for the headliner on top of the list you are voting for everyone on the list.

For example, the province of Buenos Aires hypothetically sends 45 representatives to the House Chamber of the Congress. If there are three main parties, then all names headlining the three lists will be voted in irregardless of the percentage. The elected representatives are apportioned proportionally among the lists. Therefore, a resident of the province of Buenos Aires has 45 representatives all of whom represent the entire province. How are the lists cobbled together? Largely through horse trading among party leaders. This is why in countries like Argentina you find former failed presidents, often times widely unpopular, in Congress. Listas Sabanas, among other factors, have contributed to the prevalence of “sham” democracy in many Latin American countries.

In addition since all residents of a province choose between the same lists residents have many people "representing" them but no one specifically accountable to them. The larger political parties that feel they benefit from this system have little incentive to change though polling demonstrates an overwhelming percentage of Argentines oppose the listas sabanas. In addition, millions of people have signed petitions to eliminate this noxious system to no avail. The parties consistently figure out ways to subvert the will of the people (i.e., subservient courts lacking independence are the primary instrument) and the democratic process becomes increasingly corroded.

Where am I going with this? Basically, Chavez, while autocratic, benefits from a widespread perception throughout Latin America that democracy has failed to address the legitimate concerns of the population and that those elected do not in fact represent but rather prey on the voters. Democracy is largely discredited in Latin America and this, coupled with Chavez’s anti-US stand, enhances Chavez’ stature. Chavez, today, is the most popular “politician” in Latin America and only by recognizing and accepting the reasons accounting for his success and popularity can one hope to understand and begin to address the problems currently affecting Latin America.

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