Archive for ‘Latin America’ Category
I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.
The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.
After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.
He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.
All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.
Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.
In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.
He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).
He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.
He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.
On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.
The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).
To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.
Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.
For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?
Bashar Assad has likened the civil war in Syria to a surgeon performing messy emergency surgery. Much blood is spilled but it is in the best interest of the patient’s survival that it do so. In this case the patient is purportedly Syria (but in actuality the Alawite regime), and the surgery is required because of the gangrenous actions of foreign-backed “terrorists” and extremists.
That comment brought back some unhappy memories. On March 24, 1976 the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional” (Process of National Reorganization) was installed in Argentina. Over the next seven years it killed over 30,000 people and tortured, imprisoned and exiled at least that many more. It refined the concept of “disappearing” people without a trace (although it was later revealed that many of the disappeared were sedated and dumped from aircraft over the South Atlantic). It was a very bad moment in Argentine history, and the psychological and social scars of that sorry time are still evident to this day.
Assad’s surgical analogy struck an unpleasant chord with me because that is exactly the language used by the “Proceso” to justify its actions. In one of its first proclamations the Junta spoke of the need to rid Argentina of the “malignancies” of subversion, economic instability, social disorder and moral decay, and that in order to do so it would have to “extirpate without anesthesia” the cancers afflicting the Argentine body politic (on this see “Acta fijando el proposito y los objectivos basicos para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional,” Republica Argentina, Boletin Oficial, 29 March 1976 and Republica Argentina, Documentos basicos y bases politicas de las fuerzas armadas para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional. Buenos Aires: Junta Militar de la Nacion, 1980). It seems that when it comes to “organic” parallels between the state and society, Arab and Argentine dictators think alike.
It might behoove Mr. Assad to remember the fate of his Argentine counterparts. Their regime collapsed under the double-barreled weight of popular unrest and foreign conflict (the Falklands/Malvinas War, which was staged by the Junta as a diversion from its internal problems). The generals who commanded that regime were all eventually tried and convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, where several have died. Argentine justice certainly was not swift or completely fair, but in the end the self-professed “surgeons” were found guilty of homicidal malpractice rather than lauded as the triage medics of the country.
Assad has that double-barreled weight now resting upon his regime. His conflict is internal rather than external, but the involvement of external actors is substantial and not limited to UN proclamations, jihadist infiltration or covert military assistance to the Syrian Free Army. He is therefore well on the path to following his Argentine counterparts down the road to collapse and overthrow, and it is now more a question of whether he will die in a prison cell or on the street rather than if he will fall. After all, once the dictator starts talking about emergency surgery on the body politic, it may be the case that he is the worst tumor of them all.
Although the golden age of imperialism is long past, the early 21st century has seen a resurgence or perhaps a new form of imperialism in the guise of US-led expeditionary wars to “bring democracy” to rogue or failed states. Besides the wars of occupation waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the not so covert intervention in Libya and ongoing US military activities in places like Somalia, the Sudan, Colombia, the Philippines and Nigeria suggests that far from being an outmoded concept, the notion of neo-imperialist supremacy is alive and well.
A lesser known aspect of imperialism is the role of servitor imperialists. Servitor imperialist were the colonial troops that deployed and fought for their imperial master. The Scots, Welsh, Australians and New Zealanders all played the servitor role for the British Empire, fighting and dying in places like Gallipoli where none of their core national interests were at risk. Unlike mercenaries, these servitor troops fought out of loyalty to the Crown rather than for money. Today the Gurkhas continue to do the same.
Other former great powers such as the French, Spanish and Portuguese also drew troops from their colonies as they attempted to hold on to their global possessions, albeit with mixed success.
In the 20th century the great wars can be seen as existential threats to the way of life of the servitor former colonies and colonial possessions. The Korean conflict and Vietnam war were less so, but the argument was made the global communism was an existential threat to Western capitalist societies and their allies in the developing world. So the servitor troops stumped up in them as well.
Today, it seems that the role of Imperial hegemon is played by the US, but the twist is that its servitor forces are drawn from allied militaries with UN backing and retain relative command autonomy in the field. Australia and New Zealand again are playing their historic role in fighting in conflicts which, if one removes the idea that the conflicts are about eliminating global terrorism, have little to do with their core national interests (and truth be told, while terrorism is a nasty tactic in an unconventional warfare strategy, it poses no existential threat to any but the most fragile of states, so using the threat of global terrorism as an excuse to join foreign conflicts is a bit of a stretch). Here too, the deployment of servitor imperialist troops is done out of allegiance rather than money: Australia and New Zealand perceive that there is an alliance obligation to help the US in its military adventures, one that may or may not be rewarded not so much in kind (as neither OZ and NZ face physical threats to their territorial integrity) but in other areas of bilateral endeavor such as trade or diplomatic negotiations more central to the servitor’s concerns such as climate change or arms control.
In this era the term “imperialism” is fraught. But just because it has become a dirty word in some circles does not mean that it does not exist, or that the practice of playing servitor imperialists to other great powers is not ongoing. What has changed is the guise in which servitor imperialism occurs, with less Imperial ordering and more multinational cover given to the actions of less powerful countries who send troops to fight in the conflicts instigated by their Great Power allies. It as if there is a cultural disposition in some former colonies to want to serve the Master even if there is no longer a colonial leash tying them together.
Thus, for purposes of definition (there is a good body of scholarly literature on the subject), servitor imperialism is a situation where the natives and descendants of subjugated or colonized nations and sub-national political communities pledge fealty and serve in the wars of their Imperial masters even though no core interest of their homeland is at stake or in jeopardy. In the modern servitor neo-imperialist version, former colonies or subjugated nations send their citizens to fight in wars of the new Imperial hegemon when no core interest is at stake. The difference between this syndrome and a proper military alliance is that in the latter there is a common recognized existential threat that militarily binds countries together, whereas the servitor imperialist approach sees benefit in joining non-essential foreign conflicts instigated and prosecuted by neo-imperialist powers for reasons of their own and without regard to the core interests of the servitors. The syndrome is rooted in a cultural disposition to “serve” the master, whether it be old or new. Leninists might say that is playing the role of useful fool in international security affairs, but whatever the case the syndrome appears alive and well in some parts of the world.
I reflect on this because I have noticed a lot of pro-British chicken hawk rhetoric in rightwing NZ blogs about the current tensions with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falklands islands. For those unaware of the issue, in April we will reach the 30th anniversary of the 6 week war between the UK and Argentina over the islands. Although most Argentines have no interest in renewing hostilities and the Argentine military has made no moves to suggest a desire to retake the islands by force, right-wing Nationalists within Argentina have stepped up their bellicose rhetoric. Even thought the Argentine Right fringe is small, it has influence in some political circles, including with the governing Peronist Party. That has forced the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and some provincial authorities (since Argentina is a federal republic) to attempt to placate that part of the electorate with public and diplomatic complaints about the ongoing UK military presence in the archipelago (since the UK controls the South Georgia islands, also re-taken in the 1982 war). For its part the UK media has jumped on tits own Nationalist bandwagon, seeing such things as the Crown Prince’s search and rescue deployment to the Falklands as a reaffirmation of the glory days of Pax Britannica.
Truth be told, although Argentina was ceded the Malvinas after its independence from Spain in 1810 (as Spain had control of them until then), the British presence extends back to the 1830s when the few Argentine whalers and sealers resident on the islands were forced off and the territory proclaimed British. British settlers have had a continuous presence since then and their descendants (now into their eighth generation) consider themselves British subjects. Since possession is 9/10th of the law and the “kelpers” as they are called consider themselves to be part of the UK, it is extremely unlikely that the islands will ever be returned to Argentina.
Argentines know this and except for the Right fringe, accept the verdict of history. In fact, the reason for Argentina’s continued diplomatic protestations about the Malvinas/Falklands is that there are vast oil and natural gas deposits in the seabed around the islands, as well as the fisheries in adjacent waters. Now that technology allows for the exploitation of these resources, Argentines want part of that action. Extending Argentine territorial claims out to the islands (600 nautical miles off shore) allows the Federal Government to negotiate the commercial aspects of these potentially lucrative resource deposits, and for that to occur Argentina needs diplomatic backing for its claims. Needless to say, the UK has no intention of allowing that to happen.
Thus, while the kelpers are clearly disposed to play the role of servitor imperialists for the UK, it is a bit odd to read all the bluster and anti-Argentine rantings coming out of certain NZ rightwing circles. It is as if they retain their servitor attitudes long after the Empire has faded, something that, with a slight change in orientation, the National government appears to hold as well.
The Fijian military-bureaucratic regime fronted by Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama has promised elections for September 2014, these having been preceded by a constitutional consultation process that is to produce a new Charter in September 2013. The timetabling of the elections will follow ratification of the new Constitution.
The Commodore has already said that he intends to stand for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. This presumably means that he will retire from active service and lead a military-backed party in them while allowing for open party competition. To date there is no sign of either milestone happening. Nor, for that matter, have the terms of the constitutional consultation process been detailed, which is of import because the presumed stakeholders in the re-making of the foundational document would have to include groups that are currently banned, dismantled, in exile or subject to legal and physical restraints on their activities.
On the other hand, the Bainimarama regime has, under the de facto state of emergency it has ruled by since 2006, used executive decrees to reshape the legal context in which these actors will need to operate. That includes the Essential Services Bill, which outlaws strikes and imposes serious restrictions on union activities in violation of International Labour Organisation standards. This exclusionary state corporatist approach to labor relations has been paralleled by similar efforts to control the media (to include provisions that media outlets have to be majority owned by Fijian citizens, which forced out foreign-controlled news agencies). In fact, there has been a militarization of the Fijian state apparatus as a whole under the Commodore’s rule, as active duty, retired, reservists and relatives of military personnel are given privileged access to civil service jobs. This form of patronage is designed to maintain loyalty as well as promote a military perspective on policy-implementation within the public bureaucracy. Given that the regime’s “Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress” proposes a profound transformation of cultural mores, social structures, political institutions and economic practices as part of a project of national rebirth overseen by the Republic of Fijian Military Forces, it seems that military colonization of the state apparatus is being used as a pre-requisite for the pursuit of those goals.
Such ambitious objectives cannot be achieved within the timeframe currently outlined for the constitutional re-draft and elections. That means that either Bainimarama and his colleagues have no intention of relinquishing control in 2014, or at best plan to use the elections as a procedural fig leaf with which to legitimize a military backed “civilian” government led by the Commodore that will continue to pursue the transformational objectives of the Peoples Charter. Since those objectives will be resisted, the elections will have to be rigged and dissent suppressed after they are over. What is envisioned, in other words, is what in Latin America have been called “guarded” or “protected” democracies, or for those who know Spanish, “democraduras” (“hard” democracies).
The Latin connection may in fact be stronger. The Pinochet regime in Chile held a constitutional referendum five years after it came to power in which it re-drew the foundational principles of the nation so that challenges to private control of the means of production and elite domination of the political system were made near impossible. Pinochet also colonized the state apparatus with military personnel (although in his case the appointments were designed to promote ideological uniformity within the public bureaucracy rather than as a form of personal patronage). His timetable for the foundational elections of 1989 was established by the 1978 constitution and included Pinochet as the leader of a civilian party after his retirement. It had provisions for conservative control of the Senate (including the appointment of “Senators for life” by the Pinochet regime before its departure) and for military veto of legislation deemed inimical to national security or the national interest. Popular resistance eventually forced Pinochet to abandon his plans to rule in civilian guise after 1989 (in exchange for other conservative guarantees like those listed above), but the model for an orderly transition to a “guarded” democracy after a major constitutional reform was established by his regime. It will therefore be interesting to see what materializes in the constitutional reform process set to get underway in Fiji next year.
Given Chile’s market-driven economic “success” and the elimination of serious threats to the socio-economic and political status quo resultant from the authoritarian episode and its constitutional revisions, it seems possible that the Bainimarama regime has taken more than passing interest in it. In fact, it appears that mutatis mutandis, the Commodore and his clique have emulated the Pinochet experiment, Fijian style. The objective, as far as can be determined at this point, seems to be to establish the bases by which a “protected” or “guarded” elected civilian regime can be installed that will continue the transformational objectives outlined in the People’s Charter. Or, it could just be the best way for the regime and its supporters to continue to feed at the public trough. Either way, it is likely that the 2014 elections will not be an honestly contested affair, if they are held at all.
The second alternative (military colonization of the state as a source of patronage and rent-seeking) is not a frivolous aside. Corruption is rife in the Fijian public service, and military appointments to it on non-meritorious grounds exacerbates the problem while diminishing the organizational efficiency (such as it is) of public services. Moreover, it has been demonstrated in Latin America and elsewhere that military colonization of the civil service leads to a deterioration of operational readiness and command authority the longer soldiers are seated at desks in civilian Ministries. This is a problem for the Fijian military, which prides itself on its professionalism (mostly related to its long history of UN peace-keeping service), and which sees itself as the guardian of the nation (it should be noted that the Fijian military swears allegiance to the nation, not the constitution–as the suspension of the 1997 constitution clearly shows).
The more the Bainimarama regime colonizes the Fijian state with soldiers (however smart it may be as a tactical move given his objectives), the more likely that divisions will emerge in the ranks over the proper military role and adherence to corporate standards of conduct. It is one thing to be an arbitrator or mediator military in a praetorian civil-military relations context that intervenes in politics when civilian governments prove too inept or corrupt to govern (as has been the case in Fiji since independence in 1970). It is another thing for the military to try to rule as an institution over the long-term, especially when kleptocratic tendencies are encouraged by the use of military sinecures as sources of patronage. The downside of the latter is great on several levels.
Needless to say there is much more to the Fijian transitional picture, if that is in fact what we are observing. The praetorian nature of Fijian society, evident in zero-sum approaches to politics and economics that results in an impossible game of mutual vetos between contending interest groups divided by ethnicity and class, has continually “pulled” the military into intervening (in 1987, 2000 and 2006). The incompetence of civilian elected governments, the nepotistic and opaque ways in which business is conducted, and the general malaise of civilian institutions accentuate the military urge to put things right. Having failed in its arbitrator role, it now seems that Bainimarama and his colleagues want to perpetuate military rule, even if under civilian guise after 2014, so as to continue the process of national transformation in order to eventually “put things right.”
All of this is set against the backdrop of Fiji re-orienting its “Looking North” foreign policy from West to East in response to the sanctions imposed by its traditional allies and partners (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum, seen the suspension of financial aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank and downgraded its diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand as a result of their criticism of the coup and its aftermath). The Commodore has emphasized the need for a “re-balancing” of Fiji’s foreign relations, and to that end has encouraged closer trade, investment and/or military ties with Asian nations (particularly China) and the Middle East. Although these new ties have not brought Fiji out of its economic doldrums as of yet (net growth has been negligible for the last five years even though tourism is at all-time highs in terms of visitors and contribution to GDP), they do allow the Bainimarama regime some room for maneuver as it works to reconcile the constitutional reform and election timetables with its long-term objectives.
All of which is to say, if I were a bettor or a futures forecaster, I would hedge against uncertainty and assume that the 2014 elections will be delayed, manipulated or even canceled. As for the longer-term future–that ultimately will be for the Fijian military to decide.
Today (March 24) is the 35th anniversary of the coup that ushered in the “dirty war” in Argentina that cost 30,000+ lives, more than 10,000 “desparecidos” (“disappeared,” or those who were last seen in custody but whose bodies have never been discovered), with tens of thousands tortured and exiled. Never has the dark side of the Argentine psyche been on worse display than during the so-called “Proceso de Reorganisacion Nacional” (“Process of National Reorganisation”), and hopefully the bitter lessons learned will prevent a repetition of that wretched episode in Argentine history. The hard truth is that although the September 11, 1973 golpe that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile is more well-known (as was the dictator Pinochet), and the Argentine coup followed others in Uruguay (1973), Bolivia (1974), Peru (1968), Brazil (1964) and several previous ones in Argentina itself (1962, 1966, with an internal military coup in 1970), the dictatorship installed in 1976 was the most sadistic, murderous and cruel of them all. In its brutality and efficiency it was the exemplar of South American authoritarianism.
For people like me–raised in Argentina and directly exposed to the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s–the horrors of those days do not go away easily. For a generation of Argentines, to say nothing of their counterparts in Chile and elsewhere such as in Central America, the traumas of those years will linger forever, and it is only now, with the birth of a generation completely unaffected by the dictaduras, that the process of psychological healing can begin in earnest. While people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s continue living, it will be impossible to erase from the collective memory the pervasive climate of fear that characterised life during those times.
The immediate result of the climate of fear was known as “atomizing infantilisation:” the body politic is forcibly stripped of its horizontal solidarity networks by the imposition of state terror, which paralyses resistance and reduces the individual social subject to the level of a child’s nightmare. Just as children fear the monsters under their beds and are powerless to stop their depredations, so too a society subjected to a systematic campaign of state terror is reduced to a sense of utter helplessness and vulnerability. After all, in the case of the dictatorships, the monsters were real and death or torture could occur at any time, for seemingly any reason. Terror appeared arbitrary but was in fact systematic, with the objective being to break the will of anyone who might oppose the dictatorial project.
The result was a condition of survivalist alienation: people just tried to go about their personal business, retreat into their immediate private lives and avoid trouble by relinquishing public commitments. The Argentines had a phrase for this: “de la casa al trabajo y del trabajo a la casa:” From the house to work and from work to home. Under such conditions there is no collective social subject. There is just submission.
It was under these conditions that the beginnings of the neoliberal macroeconomic experiments began in the Southern Cone. It was not just a matter of outlawing unions and political parties. It was about “cleaning the slate” of all those who could thwart the laboratory experiment that was the imposition of monetarist policies in South America. It was about using the climate of fear to reforge collective identities so that the working classes would never challenge the primacy of capital again. It was about elites taking advantage of the window of opportunity provided by dictatorship to restructure the economy in a more favourable image, setting in place structural changes that would fundamentally alter class relations and the relationship of the state and society to capital in a way that the latter would always have the dominant say in social life. It was about, in the language of the time, “forcibly extirpating without anesthesia the malignancies of communism, atheism, feminism and homosexuality from the body politic” (the phrase is attributed to Argentine General Benjamin Menendez, who was one of the dictatorship’s most bloodthirsty leaders). In sum, the project was about using systematic application of state terror to sow the seeds of fear, alienation and despair in which market-driven projects could be imposed. Above that, the use of state terror was focused on social cleansing–in Chile it was about eliminating class challenges to capatilist rule. In Argentina it was about preserving an elite way of life. In either case, the dictators stopped at nothing to make their point.
These are the projects from which Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson, John Key and the Business Roundtable take inspiration. These are the models upon which the NZ economic reforms are based. And if we think of the way in which NZ macroeconomic reform and other aspects of social policy have been “reformed,” we can see that the authoritarian example has been emulated in more than the economic realm. In other words, the NZ market “model” is a softer version of the Southern Cone dictatorial projects, absent the repression but with the same thrust.
We should also remember the climate of fear when we observe the Middle East. Populations that have been victimised, brutalised and traumatised by long-standing dictatorships are unlikely to have forgiveness and conciliation on their minds as the dictators begin to tremble. But the dictators and their allies know this, which stiffens their resolve to not suffer the retributions that they richly deserve. That does not easily make for a democratic “spring.”
All of which is to say, when it comes to contemplating the virtues of dictatorial regimes because they provide economic models or security partnerships, the answer in the first instance should be the rallying cry of the heroic Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “Nunca Mas!!”
NB: The title of this post comes from Argentine author Miguel Bonasso, who wrote a book by that name.
Although the NZ media did not pay much attention to them, Argentina and Mexico celebrated the bicentennials of their independence from Spain this year (Argentina on May 25 and Mexico on September 16). Much fanfare and parading happened in both nation’s capitals, and a wide array of patriotic rhetoric was heard. But the sad truth is that both states are disappointments and long time failures. They certainly are not in the same league as Somalia or Yemen, but for the majority of citizens in each country the hallowed promise of independence has come up short. The failure in both instances rests not with foreign imperialists but with the respective political and economic elites.
Argentina and Mexico are the fourth and fifth largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and blessed with abundant natural resources, a variety of climates and geography, extensive coastlines and close commercial ties to greater Europe dating to 1810. They have well defined borders and are peace with their neighbours (even if those borders are permeable and historic resentments occasionally arise–but none of this compromises trade or good relations with neighbours big and small). The strategic sectors of their economy are under state or domestic capitalist control (or both). They both exhibit considerable foreign policy independence.
Yet, 200 years after independence, neither has fulfilled its promise. Mexico is in the midst of a vicious civil war between a variety of drug cartels and the state that poses the risk of it disintegrating into neo-feudal enclaves and autonomous regions barely under the nominal authority of a failed central state apparatus. Argentina, although not the financial basket case that it was in 2001-02 or the state terrorism experiment that it was from 1976-82, remains a nation in which corruption at all levels of society is an art form and in which patronage and nepotism are the hallmarks of political life.
This really should not be. Both countries have produced, among many other lines of contribution, Nobel laureates, writers, artists, musicians, actors, medical pioneers, legal scholars, diplomats, human rights champions, renown architects and more than a few good political scientists. The number of such luminaries is disproportionate to the total population of each country, so it is clear that the talent pool runs deep in each case. Yet time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, the tides of national fortune ebb and fall so that neither country has come close to fulfilling the promise of its naturally-given and human potential. That is a pity, and a waste.
I grew up in Argentina and have spent a fair amount of time, both personal and professional, in Mexico. In my younger years, when my leftward tilt was more pronounced, I joined those who blamed the US and imperialism in general for the woes of these and all other countries in the region. Dependency theory was my theoretical crutch and, as a prescription, revolution was to me the best answer to the region’s problems.
I was wrong. Mexico had its revolution in 1917 and although the nature of its authoritarianism changed, the fundamental socio-economic and political problems underpinning it did not (the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas was a reminder of that). Although a looming presence, the US is not the primary source of Mexico’s ills (although its drug consumer market is certainly a part of it). Although nominally democratic for a decade, Mexican politics remains infested with cronyism, corruption (now often drug related) and a lack of transparency. Socio-economic actors of all types see the state as a trough from which to feed when in power or in favour rather than as a neutral mediator in redistributive conflicts.
Argentina has not had a revolution but not for lack of trying. I was personal witness to the Montonero/ERP campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the last gasp of the Peronist mythos in person (Peron died in1974 after returning from exile the year before). That only precipitated the state terror experiment and the return to shallow consumerism for which Argentines–or least those living in Buenos Aires–are famous. The attitude towards holding power is similar to that of Mexico, and the “state-as-money bag” approach is also endemic amongst the Argentine elites.
After the neo-liberal experiments in both countries, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was 50 years ago. Working class dissent remains a simmering pool that remains unmitigated in each case. Crime haunts the streets (more in Mexico than in Argentina, but both at much higher rates than before 1960 or even 1990), and uncertainty about the future is rife amongst all but the upper ten percent of society. Even the national soccer teams have failed to live up to popular expectations, which in of itself is symptomatic of the larger malaise each is living through. And yet the politics of elite greed continues unabated in both countries, now under ostensibly democratic aegis.
All of which is to say that as much as it is nice to celebrate longevity, it is human folly that has prevented these two countries from developing into fully mature states that are nourishing and representative of their citizens. My hope is that the younger generation of citizens exposed to the excesses of the past 25 years in both places will work harder than their parents and ancestors at giving them the political leadership that they so rightly deserve and which was sorely missing from the official grandstands during the celebrations.
Posted on 16:43, January 18th, 2010 by Pablo
The election of Sebastian Pinera in Chile is the most dramatic example of the re-emergence of the electoral Right as a political force in Latin America. Although he is the son of one of Agusto Pinochet’s most infamous ministers (Jose “Pepe” Pinera, who crafted the Chilean labor code that became a blueprint for the NZ Employment Contracts Act and who was a personal friend of Roger Douglas and Roger Kerr), and parlayed his father’s ministerial position and influence to create a credit card empire that now sees him as one of Latin America’s richest men, Pinera used voter discontent with the long-running left-centre Concertacion coalition to propel himself as a candidate “for change.” In this he was the Chilean equivalent of John Key, because (besides their private sector wealth), both capitalised more on voter disenchantment with successful long-term Left governments than on offering any real change in policy direction. Instead, Pinera and Key rode a wave of sentiment in favor of change for change’s sake rather than on promises of policy re-direction, appealing to the centrist sentiment that prevails in both constituencies. The vote, in each instance, was more anti-incumbent than pro-alternative, and had little relation to the policy accomplishments of the defeated Left governments.
More importantly, Pinera represents the most recent example of Right party electoral success in Latin America, but his is not the only one. In Panama, a rightist won presidential elections last year. In Brazil and Costa Rica, right-centre candidates lead in the polls for this year’s presidential elections. In Peru, the centrist APRA government looks to be re-elected, and in Colombia and Mexico, rightist governments are in power (with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe looking to capitalise on his success against the FARC guerrillas by constitutionally extending his right to run for a third presidential term). Even in Argentina, the right-centre Union Civica Radical has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence as a result of the policy disasters of the (nominally Left) Peronist government led by the husband and wife team of Cristina Fernandez and Nestor Kirchner. Although it occurred under dubious circumstances due to the ouster of Leftist president Manuel Zelaya in June, the Honduran elections last November also produced a right-centre winner. Guatemala has been ruled by Rightists since open elections were restored in 1990. Thus, whether by hook or by crook, legitimate or not, the Latin American Right appears to be on the political rebound after more than a decade of predominantly Leftist rule.
To be sure, Left candidates won presidential elections in El Salvador and Uruguay last year, and Leftist governments control Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. The electoral balance may have tilted to the Right, but it is by no means a seismic shift. What makes it noteworthy, therefore, is its implications for democratic consolidation.
Students of regime transitions have noted two important yet distinct elections in the move towards regime consolidation in new democracies. The first is the so-called “foundational” election, which marks the formal end of authoritarianism and the ushering in of a new era of transparent electoral politics. In countries emerging from right-wing authoritarianism, foundational elections tend to be won by right-centre coalitions that do not threaten the core interests of the authoritarian support base, which is the price paid for the transition itself (this is part of the so-called “ethical compromise” by which incoming democratic elites reassure the authoritarian elite by among other things not challenging the market-driven economic model and by granting amnesty to security personnel for any atrocities committed, something that is required for the transition to occur but which has been challenged in court in several post-authoritarian countries, including Chile). In countries emerging from left-wing authoritarianism the reverse is often true, with former communists re-branding themselves in order to be more electorally appealing while continuing many of the policies of their predecessors in core areas of public policy (except, most importantly, macroeconomic policy).
That makes for the importance of the second type of election, known as the “consolidation” election. In this election, which can occur four, six, ten or dozens of years after the foundational election, power is electorally rotated to the opposition. That is to say, a democracy is not considered to be politically (or at least electorally) consolidated until the opposition has been given a chance to compete, win and rule. This gives the opposition a chance to prove its democratic credentials, especially in cases like Chile’s where it has previously been associated with authoritarianism. In Brazil, Uruguay and El Salvador, previously Left oppositions have turned out to be exemplary (and moderate) democratic governments. In Ecuador and Bolivia, Left governments of a more militant stripe carried over from days in opposition have nevertheless continued to enjoy considerable popularity and policy success. Nicaragua and Venezuela remain more problematic due to the authoritarian predilections of their respective leaders, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez, but in terms of the totality of Left rule in the region, they are a minority.
It has, until recently, been an open question as to whether the Latin American Right could be truly democratic in the event that it won presidential office. Right wing electoral authoritarians like Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Carlos Menem in Argentina (who ran as a Peronist) demonstrated that, at least in the 1990s, the tug of dictatorship still pulled strongly on those of a “conservative” persuasion. More recently, the behaviour of the Right opposition and Micheletti interim government in fomenting and legitimating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras confirms wide-held trepidations about the Right’s democratic bonafides. Now, with the resurgence of the electoral Right apparently region-wide, the time appears to have arrived for that question to be answered more fully, and in the event that it is in the affirmative, then the chances for the electoral consolidation of democracy in Latin America will have been reaffirmed. Should it be answered in the negative, then it will confirm that the Right is simply incapable of overcoming its authoritarian tendencies regardless of the means by which power is achieved.
For some time I have watched the opposition to Barack Obama and his administration with growing unease. Having some familiarity with Latin American politics, I began to see parallels between the traditional behavior of conservative Latin American oppositions to Left-leaning democratic governments and that now manifesting itself in the US. I have now pulled my thoughts together into this month’s Word from Afar essay over at Scoop. The essay has more of a polemical tone than usual, but that is a reflection of my contempt for, and concern over, such behaviour.
Posted on 17:06, July 15th, 2009 by Pablo
Following on the theme of my posts on the Honduran coup, but from a different angle, this month’s “Word from Afar” column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0907/S00170.htm