Saving Chávez

The political projects of Latin America’s radical leaders have democratic rhetoric at their core. But their dynamics, as in Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, often seem to pull in another direction. The tensions will come to a point of decision in this decade, says Ivan Briscoe.
Ivan Briscoe
13 January 2010

Somewhere in the long Honduran night of diplomatic return-flights and intransigent ranchers, a war seemed about to burst into life. The frontier between Colombia and Venezuela, infamously rich in pickings for smugglers, oil thieves, paramilitary protectors and all sorts of narcotic raw materials, had been troubled by a modest uptick in violence in early November 2009, helping to make the call to arms an attractive option for the president of Venezuela by the middle of his regular Sunday television broadcast.

What exactly would be fought over; who was to be killed, and for what gain? None of this was explained. In an echo of the battalion deployments on the same frontier in 2008, the whole demented exercise appeared to ripple out from the core of Hugo Chávez’s bristling ego, occupying a peculiar space between searing gesture and prosaic reality.

The abrasive rhetoric of impending confrontation flowed that Sunday, as it does every week. It is easy to dismiss its significance, and a sympathiser of the left in Latin America would be well advised to do so. Once in a while, however, the empire-baiting and the military vainglory leave in their wake a deed so terrible that it can no longer be excused by general progressive sentiments. Such was the case on 1 December 2009, when Russia’s ambassador to Caracas announced that - as part of a bond of global solidarity between Venezuela and the sovereign democrats of Eurasia - a factory for producing Kalashnikovs would start up in the state of Aragua.

Caracas is now second to Ciudad Juárez in Mexico as the world’s most murderous city; dozens are killed every weekend. There especially, it takes some nerve to regard house-to-house combat against invading marines as a strategic priority. When memories are fresh of how Swedish rocket-launders found their way from the Venezuelan army of the 1980s to Colombia’s FARC militia, or of the similar transfusions of military weaponry into criminals hands in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala and almost every country in Latin America, this gesture of “solidarity” appears shaped by a high indifference to the undercurrents of Venezuelan society – an ideological overflight by the supreme leader, on a mission to eternity.

The rocky clauses

It is the sum of such actions, and of the bombastic rhetoric that justifies them, that the Latin American liberal establishment would like everyone to believe is the hard core of chavismo. The “Leninist narcissist”, as the über-syndicated columnist Andres Oppenheimer puts it, has used some $50 billion in international aid over the course of a decade to swamp impressionable minds with promises of sops to the poor. The more recent figures from the Latinobarómetro polling firm suggest that there is diminishing continental enthusiasm for the Bolivarian project and its leaders. “Patronage and paternalist, slightly demeaning leadership, of giving money and then boasting about it, doesn’t go down well”, explains Marta Lagos, head of the firm.

But in certain places - often where the weight of historical injustice is particularly oppressive (or where the constitution is loaded, as it is in Honduras, with infamous pétreo [rocky] clauses stipulating that come what may, nothing shall change) – this heroic leadership still works. It is one of many twists in the region’s political life that three countries entertaining a renascent right - Peru, Chile and Argentina - border a regime, that of Evo Morales in Bolivia, which has used huge cash-transfers to settle its way into a half-century of social reconstruction.

To jaded or cynical commentators, and there are many, the fizz of the region’s revolutions is a prelude to the standard outcome: a long period of transmutation into vast politicised bureaucracies, run by the usual strongmen and ending in national bankruptcy. Mexico’s own experience over seven decades has shielded it from any great surge of belief in democracy in recent years; any single paralytic political colossus would presumably be replaced by an identical other. Argentina’s dalliance with the Kirchners likewise appears to be ending in a curious display of autocratic grandstanding by an ever-weaker president. By now, the Argentina intelligentsia has lost interest anyway; a popular and curious tract published in 2008, the Palermo Manifesto, documented the falling out of a post-dictatorship activist with public political life, and a retreat to family, friends and drinking-holes). “Every time we wanted to contribute something, to give our point of view, to help and improve matters so that Argentina could be more like Canada, those who controlled the budgets pushed us to one side and made us choose between the cloud of traitors that prowled around them”, writes the author, Esteban Schmidt.

A space to breathe

This strongly grounded fear of the inevitable caudillo, a kind of Peronist hangover, runs through the region’s feelings towards Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Yet at the same time, and knowing all the many defects and abuses that are present in these governments, an undeniable truth glimmers out of the last decade of Latin American politics: without these leaders stretching at the bounds of the sensible, the centre of politics would not have shifted so very far.

In other words, the principal defence of these governments lies in the way they have opened a vast space for experimentation and novelty, just as Simon Bolivar’s educational guru Simon Rodríguez willed for a future Gran Colombia. On a practical level, some of the region’s main institutional innovations – the Unasur bloc, the Banco del Sur, Brazil’s brazen use of natural resources for social welfare – derive largely from Venezuelan initiative. But it is much more than that: a space to breathe, even when it has been cushioned through cash-filled suitcases and tantrums at the United Nations, has been given to countries locked firmly into their liberal constitutional rockfaces.

A lot has been written about the Honduran crisis since the June 2009 coup, and much has been nonsense. Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign minister, is not alone in arguing that the outcome has been a rousing defeat for the Bolivarians (“one ally less”), a failure for the United States, and a rupture across the continent. Outside the carpeted chancelleries, however, there is a legacy far greater than a few diplomatic embarrassments.

A national melee in what is surely Latin America’s most oligarchic nation, run by a crop of landowning families, was stirred, squashed and is still being processed. The United States sporadically intervened on behalf of the cause of the deposed president Manuel Zelaya, thereby contesting – before eventually caving into – the deep cultural lineage of national-security dogma in US policy towards Latin America. As for Zelaya, it is instructive to read what the coup’s supporters sometimes say, and the fears that stalk their vocabulary. Honduras, argues the leading congressman Carlos Kattan, needed to “head for a new destination without tensions”, “restore normality”, and prevent “the exclusion of the traditional institutions and political parties and their representatives.”

Whatever the outcome has been, these have not been seven months of immobility and inflexibility in Honduras. Nothing could be further than the casual spread of free-market ideals in the 1990s, when the social content of reforms seemed utterly absent from the thoughts of democratic presidents assembled in their glorious new regional blocs. Indeed the best comparison is that of the earlier years of the 1960s, in the wake of the Cuban revolution - halcyon days before the expansionist instincts of Che Guevara promised 1,000 Vietnams and ended up with ten or so Algerias.

To defend the radical left, then, involves a degree of risk: daring to look outside its home bases, laying aside their enormous flaws, and computing the gains to social welfare and democracy across the region. It is the same calculation that can be played with post-1945 history in western Europe, where the rise of welfare states is tracked against the power of the Soviet bloc. As one central American ambassador informed me with a grimace, Chávez is a “missile” directed across the isthmus and its elites. The Bismarckian project of Brazilian nation-building, complete with global sports tournament, military expansion, recovery of the poor and elevation of a new hegemonic social class (that is, the aspirational lower-middle-class) is certainly the work of the benign Lula; but his soldier-in-the-shadows is in Venezuela.

It’s the elections, stupid

None of this means that the road ahead for Latin America is peaceable and glorious. The tacit tryst between radical populists and soaring social democrats can fluctuate, and may be interrupted by a return to mainframe geopolitics in Washington or a spate of successful coups, with central America undoubtedly the most vulnerable spot.

But there is one possibility that hovers in the near future in Latin America, and seems destined to occur over the next decade. Its effects are sure to be immense, and will determine whether the continuous caudillos or the experimental socialists raise their standard over the region. It will decide US policy, force the European Union’s hand, and shape the fate of various regional blocs. For until now, with the exception of the Nicaraguan local elections in 2008, no one has seriously impugned an election result; the multinational democratic charters have remained sacred (albeit, in the case of Honduras, ineffectual); and no firmly installed radical (and “refoundational”) leader been defeated in a presidential election.

Iran, having brokered stronger ties and mysterious airlinks across the region, is now – after its own experience since June 2009 - equipped to disseminate its lessons of post-electoral management. The language of imperialist coups and conspiracies is certainly on tap to justify an aborted poll. At the same time, the democratic pedigree of the radical leaders is essential to their self-definition. No one can honestly foresee the outcome of a defeat. There is piquancy, however, in the fact that the one man whose example could guide the left towards acquiescence with a negative result has become the hemisphere’s least desirable radical. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega back in 1990 showed how the lash of the militarised poor might be temporarily withdrawn after the polls have spoken: with grace and cunning. Will history repeat itself? Prepare for another decade’s bumpy ride in Latin America.

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